Leadership Effectiveness: The Power of Humility

I’ve been reflecting on my 25 years of corporate sales, consulting and leadership experience lately.  In particular I’ve been thinking about a few of the wonderful leaders I’ve enjoyed working with and how much I learned, felt highly engaged, was inspired and very productive while working with them.  I’ve also had several experiences that were not quite enjoyable. In one particular case, I began to actually believe I was incompetent. I became disengaged, and dismal.  Not my typical self at all. The contrast between the two experiences was quite remarkable.

What did those leaders do that helped to create a more positive experience for me?  They did what might be obvious and simple: They showed up fully present. They listened with an open mind. They said thanks. They created community. They pushed decision making down. They set clear goals and provided useful feedback. They had an inspiring vision and a solid supporting strategy. Turnover was minimal. Word of mouth throughout the organization was positive. Trust amongst team leaders was robust. Team members cared about each other. Ideas flowed freely. Decisions were made quickly and effectively.

What did the other leaders do that was less effective? They drew too much attention to themselves.  They didn’t listen to opposing points of view with real curiosity. They kept decision making in the hands of a very few at the top. They blamed others when faced with defeat. They created an atmosphere where speaking the truth was stifled with fear of retaliation.  They displayed behaviors of arrogance and “it’s all about me.”  At it’s very worst I have seen poor leadership manifest as arrogance and narcissism and those behaviors create particular insidious problems: cultures of fear, higher turnover, less productivity, declining revenues, in-authenticity, hypocrisy, gossip and isolation.

Arrogant and narcissistic behaviors are known to create chaos around them.  These attitudes are rooted in fear and that fear begins to manifest throughout the organization. People begin to feel unsafe. They’re not sure what will happen next or who will be on the chopping block tomorrow. They watch what happens to those that disagree with the prevailing belief system of the CEO or senior leader and they quickly learn that not speaking up is the safer way to go.  Good ideas go unspoken. Innovation and creativity get stifled. What once was an exciting and promising place to work becomes drudgery and just putting in the time. People start looking for other jobs, doing the minimum amount of work in order to survive. There’s gossip and misery sharing behind closed doors. Superficially things might look good, but they are truly not.

Note: For anyone wishing to know more about how to deal with narcissistic leaders there are several links to articles at the end of this piece.

The Power of Humility

While there are many differences between effective and ineffective leadership behavior the mindset underneath those behaviors is really the driver. In my experience there is one specific mindset that helps create strong leadership: a curious mindset, a spirit of humility. Jim Collins wrote about this years ago in his classic book, “Good to Great.” According to him, great leaders display humility coupled with ego drive. Amy Cuddy in her book “Presence” writes about the importance of warmth and competence. Both are necessary she argues to be successful but without warmth no one cares how competent someone is. And warmth is not generated from a mindset of arrogance or narcissism. Warmth comes from the heart, from humility. Arrogance, fear and narcissism go together. Humility, curiosity, warmth and love all go together.  Arrogance and humility can’t exist in the same space. They’re like dark and light, fear and love.

Humility comes from the Latin word “humilitas” and means low or from the earth. Humility enables a leader to live with a sense of curiosity and openness that fuels a deep commitment to learning and a thirst to be present and aware. Humility embraces the attitude “The way that I see the world is simply the way that I see it.” It respects that others may see the world very differently. Humility is not synonymous with weakness but is rooted in intrinsic self-worth and strength. The mindset of humility has opinions and expresses them fully. However, instead of presenting them as facts, or the only way reality can be seen, the humility mindset fully owns its opinions and expresses them. “My perspective on the situation is this…What do you think?” This approach is confident and direct and invites dialogue and learning.

Making the Shift

We are conditioned by many factors such as: our family of origin, our life experiences, the country we grew up in, our friends, religious upbringing, ethnicity and our education. We develop filters, biases, habits, thought patterns, values, standards and ways of being. We are driven much of the time by that which we are not fully aware of. Our habits and unconscious patterns often rule the roost. It takes rigorous daily work to keep the muscle of humility strong. We have to work at self-awareness.  We don’t get it by just reading a book, taking a personality assessment or just going to a weekly yoga class.

Here are 7 things I have learned that have helped me cultivate a stronger mindset of humility:

  1. Clearly communicate the difference between my opinions and the observable facts, by using phrases such as: “In my view” or “The way that I see this…”
  2. Exposing my views (even if incomplete) and being open to challenges from others: “I am thinking out loud here…” or “I haven’t figured this out completely yet…”
  3. Listening to others’ thoughts and opinions truly trying to understand why they think, act or feel like they do. “I am curious to understand why…” or “Why do you say this?”
  4. Practice using the principle that there are three goals for every conversation:
    •  Inquire into the other person’s story
    • Speak my own truth
    • Mutually resolve any differences
  5. Remember that every story is incomplete from my perspective alone. Ask: “What don’t I know?” or “What might I be missing?
  6. Develop a consistent meditation practice. Among the many positive benefits this in particular helped me observe and see more clearly the fabrications, judgements, assumptions and projections of the ego/racing mind and choose a more equanimous response to a challenging situation.
  7. And last, Don’t get furious, get Curious!

Summing it Up

At the end of each day don’t we want to be proud about how we have behaved? If so, then it’s entirely up to us to make smart choices regarding our behavior. Walking around thinking we know how everything ought to be and that our world view is the only possible way to see things will not serve us well. Being curious and willing to see a different point of view will indeed serve us well.

Imagine for a moment if the arrogant/narcissistic leader had the awareness to ask themselves what they don’t know about a situation, and/or what they could they learn by really listening to those around them. Things would be quite different.

What we need in this world, in our politics and in our corporate leadership is more love, kindness and humility. That will create more humane workplaces that are healthier for people to work in, where they can really learn, contribute, grow and succeed. It is entirely possible.








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Building a Successful Corporate Culture: Three Strategies for Developing and Retaining High Performers

Employee engagement levels are plummeting according to the recent Gallup poll. And that includes high performers too. The best talent is working with low morale; limited loyalty; and declining patience. They are overworked, underappreciated, unmanaged.  Their resumes are up to date and as you read this, they are entertaining conversations to leave.

The implications of losing high performers are many and not pleasant:

  • If they are client facing, those relationships can be taken with them
  • Ramp up time to replace them is significant
  • Existing goals usually become unmet liabilities on the P&L
  • Morale goes down amongst those that remain
  • Tasks will have to get assigned to people unprepared to accept them and unable to perform at an optimal level

The problem of losing high performers is nothing new. But in the not so distant past an organization’s workforce was spread relatively evenly across a normal bell curve, mitigating the reliance on the high performer. However, today, the left one third of the curve is gone. It has been our-sourced, right-sized and off-shored. The job functions that remain have been piled onto others. Other tasks and the people that manned them simply aren’t coming back.  Reliance on high performers to carry the bulk of the organizational load has never been greater.

So how can an organization retain high performers?

Our Recommendations:

1.      Build an institutional foundation of personal awareness

Research shows that improved self-awareness is at the heart of employee engagement. As we become more aware of our own personality attributes; our own personal style; our strengths/limitations; and our own potential blind spots, we can recognize the same thing in others. We aren’t simply recognizing similar personality attributes in others; rather, we’re much more conscious of their individual attributes.

Awareness, as noted by Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence work, has two dimensions: inner and outer.  Inner awareness is our ability to understand and manage our self and outer awareness is our ability to pay attention to our social environment and managing it appropriately.

Therefore, whether as manager or high performer or account manager or executive, that common language of ‘awareness’ can enable clarity of message; agility in approach; improved transparency; greater trust and respect and improved relationships. We are adapting and connecting to others more effectively because we have learned how to appreciate differences and not appreciating differences is often the reason people do not put the effort into developing meaningful relationships with others.

Ironically, this approach has also been shown to improve the ROI on legacy training programs in which companies have invested so heavily. For example, in one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, this approach nearly tripled their core leading sales metric. It wasn’t a matter of unplugging and redesigning their sales process. It was a matter of developing each individual’s ability to flex and adapt in every single one on one interaction they had.  The reason is that people are able to adapt the ‘skills they have learned in the legacy training programs to the communication needs of the individual. The ‘one size fits all’ approach gets some real tailoring.

2.      Increase  managers’ ability to flex to the communication, management, motivational needs and preferences of their team

If, the cliché is true (people join companies and leave managers), then consistently improve manager’s ability to possess and demonstrate the agility necessary to adapt to the communication needs and preferences of their team. Offer them the tools and training that increases their ability to pay closer attention to the uniqueness of each team member.

For example:

  • Because they have so much influence over their team, invest in your key managers strategically because investing a dollar in them will result in multiple dollars returned through their team.
  • Help them understand that your performance review model is just that: it’s a model. It has to be adapted to the point of view of the employee on the other side of the table. Show them that they can make that transition by connecting to needs, attributes and experiences of the employee.
  • Help them understand that the sales process you’ve adopted is effective only to the degree that it truly connects with how the customer prefers to buy. The sales manager needs to model and show her team the importance of adapting the sales model to the various buying styles of each customer. For example, if the sales person is able to notice that their client thinks in a linear fashion and asks questions that require answers backed up by data, then a proposal to be submitted ought to be well organized, provide significant detail and be well proofed for errors, omissions etc.

3.      Create a climate of success

There is a difference between winning and success. Winning requires variables outside of our control to reach the goal, such as the customer needs to say yes to a proposal that we make.  Success is different.  Success is the expression of doing our best and being able to be proud about how we behaved, whether we win or lose. Both dimensions are necessary in business, but emphasizing winning at any cost or just doing your best without a focus on achievement will not produce high performance.  Research has shown that high performance whether in sports or business requires the integration of both.

Managers’ ability to tap into the intrinsic motivations that exist in their team members is crucial to create this climate of success.  Daniel Pink’s argues in his bestselling book, Drive, that we are looking for three elements in our work environment:

  • Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.
  • Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.
  • Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.

These elements all relate to individual engagement and all tap into the psychological needs we have as human beings. The more managers can bring these elements to life for their team and their high performers, the more a climate of success will exist.

Final Thoughts:

Leaders create the work environment through the messages they send.  And most of the messages are sent through what they actually do.  So, when they take the time to pay attention to their high performers, supporting and engaging them, the leverage is huge. Not paying attention can create the situation like the answer given by a character from the Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises. When asked “How did you go bankrupt?” the character answers, “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Disengagement doesn’t happen overnight either.  Skilled leaders pay attention. They spend time on the dance floor and they also maintain a view from above. They stay focused on business results and superb execution, team and organizational health and individual engagement.  Great leaders realize that developing and retaining high performers (and high standards of performance from all employees) is absolutely critical for long term success.

About the authors:

Rick Kneuven and Don Johnson are Directors of Business Development for Insights Learning & Development, a global people development organization. Insights works with clients by helping them improve the effectiveness of their people and the performance of the organization.  Their unique programs are simple, yet deeply insightful, providing immediate impact and offering endless possibilities for positive, lasting change.

Reach Rick or Don at: rkneuven@insights.com and djohnson@insights.com

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Five Strategies to Lead Your Organization through Change: There are No Monsters in the Basement!

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

 – Will Rogers

Leaders don’t protect the status quo; they challenge the status quo in the pursuit of excellence.  They change compensations plans, realign the organizational structure, purchase another firm, create a new go-to-market strategy, develop a new product, or raise performance expectations. This can create disturbance in the organizational and the need for change, both personal and organizational is inevitable.

What makes change so challenging?

Change has an external dimension and an internal dimension.  Externally, there are aspects of change that are quite concrete: moving from one city to another, getting a new job, the loss of a loved one.  Internally, there is the adaptation to the change, which deals with the thoughts, feelings, experiences, and emotional response triggered by the external change.  External change can happen quickly and yet adaptation to the change can take much longer.

If you are an initiator of change, you have had the opportunity to think about, plan for and be part of the deployment process for any given change your organization may have implemented.  But your employees may be just the recipients of the change, and for them, embracing will likely be more difficult because it is imposed and they haven’t had the time to make the internal adjustments that change requires.

Expectations and reality clash.  As human beings it is quite natural for us to search for meaning in our lives.  We do this in many ways: finding work that is fulfilling, developing interests or even second careers outside of work, building and nurturing relationships and much more. But work specifically stands out as a crucial part of who we are. We identify with our work, and in many cases we define who we are by what we do.  “I am a doctor.”  “I am a senior vice president.”  Some may say this is just a manner of speech, but the fact remains that we each derive significant portions of our identity and our self-esteem from the work that we do.

We naturally build expectations about what this identity will lead to and what we have to do to enable that to happen.  For anyone who has experienced losing a job, that sense of identity can be deeply shaken when you find yourself at a outplacement firm, or a job fair, or explaining to your children that you will be at home for the next three to six months looking for work.  So, change can create havoc on what we expect to have happen.  The result can be responses that range from “Okay, this is not great, but I will find way my through this” to “They have no idea about what a big mistake they are making in this reorganization.”

Change triggers survival instincts.  The unknown can create fear.  Why?  Because there is a belief that something bad could happen.  For example, a child may come to his parent and say, “I heard some noises in the basement! There are monsters down there!”   The child has formed a belief based upon what they think might be happening, and it creates an emotional response – fear. The same principle can be applied when someone says, “I’m getting a new boss, and I’m very nervous that he is going to make my life miserable.”  The boss hasn’t even arrived yet and this person’s belief system about what may happen is already working overtime!  So the fear of the unknown in the future, what change creates, is now driving behavior in the present.  Does this mindset lend it self to adapting, being flexible, learning and growing – all very important qualities when embracing change?  No it doesn’t. So, negative or fearful mindsets represent real challenges when moving through a change process.

These are just a few of the underlying issues that we face as champions of change. So what can we do to successfully embrace change and help others? 

Develop the mindset of response-ability.   We can choose how we respond in any given situation. We may not choose the change that we have to deal with or the emotions that we experience when an unexpected event occurs. But we can choose our behavior. We can blame events, other people, the weather, and the stock market.  We can sit on the sideline and pay lip service like the character in the Dilbert cartoon who wears a T-shirt that says “Change is good; let it happen to someone else.” Or we get all worked up, get stressed out, make ourselves miserable and create an emotional, boiling stew.

In order to positively influence anyone else you have to embody that message yourself.  As Socrates said, “Let him who would move the world, first move himself.”  This is becoming response-able, not being responsible for something.  When we take ownership of our emotions and of our ability to choose, we can inspire others to do the same. It takes awareness to pause before instinctive impulses take over and we do something that we later regret. When we are aware and conscious, we can remember that short-term impulses need to be aligned with long-term interests; and long-term interests are most often directly related to our values.

 Put your values into action.  The culture of any group, organization, or team is created by the leadership behaviors, the symbols of what is important, and the systems that the organization has put into place. Values, what people say is important to them, are demonstrated through behaviors.  If you want to make change in an organization, all three dimensions require significant work.  However, of the three, what has the biggest impact on the culture of an organization is the behavior of the leaders.  Change that and you change a lot. And in times of change (stress), the way leaders behave is even more important because espoused values and values-in-action become even clearer.  When decisions are made under pressure, there is typically more at stake and values–in-action are highly visible and can send a strong message about what is important and what is valued.

For example: How an organization handles a down-sizing is a significant opportunity to reinforce the values of the organization, or not.  If the overall mission of the organization is front and center and decisions are made to further that mission and keep the organization vibrant, how people are laid off is critical not only for those leaving, but for those staying.  This is prime time for leaders to understand that their values will be tested.  So skillful truth-telling and being direct, honest and respectful will be critical.

Demonstrate discipline.  During periods of significant change, the people around you may be experiencing the process of transition from what they thought would be happening to what is now happening and what that might mean in the future. In a sense they have lost their balance and are looking for stability. An effective leader will take action, communicate transparently the reasons and rationale for the action, make precise requests, honor his or her commitments and be visible, present and available to those needing assistance.  A recent survey in USA Today asked employees if their leaders have communicated about how the current economy might affect the organization.  Seventy percent of the respondents said they have not. So, visible, wise action is important and serves not only to engage and inform others, but also engenders confidence in the leaders of the organization.

Champion learning and growth. Significant change highlights the reality of life that can be forgotten in the routine of daily living: Life really is a journey, not a destination, and to live fully, requires constant learning. We all have our daily routines that can easily disguise the fact that change is actually always occurring.  On a daily basis, it is not something we focus on. We sometimes hear someone respond when we ask how they are: “Same old, same old.”  There is something missing when that attitude permeates your entire life.  What is it?  The mindset of curiosity, of learning, of enthusiastically embracing what is. Change offers distinct opportunities for us to make choices and to grow.  It allows us the chance to expand, stretch and discover just a little bit more about who we really are.

We admire character and greatness in the heroes of our culture, and every single one of those heroes, when faced with a crisis or a challenge, chose to respond in a manner that pushed them out of their comfort zones and enabled them to learn and grow in ways that perhaps they never imagined were possible.  Think about Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Lance Armstrong, or Abraham Lincoln.  They were each faced with significant challenges, went through deep periods of personal crisis, and each found ways to successfully adapt, learn and grow in their ability to overcome obstacles in their paths.

Be a compassionate warrior. Most of the time people don’t choose significant change.  It just happens. The emotional roller coaster ride begins and people respond according to their own awareness and abilities.  Increasing awareness increases the choices available, which can lead to more productive behavior.

If a leader of change gains self-awareness and understands his or her response to change and is open to learning and growth, then that leader can be an effective resource to others.  Why is this?  Because real change begins with an internal shift, an acceptance. And if someone is stuck “sitting on the tracks,” they need two things from you: understanding and inner strength: the compassionate warrior.

This is where the skills of effective communication come into play: the ability to deeply listen to and empathize with someone else’s story; the ability to help them own their part in the story; the ability to compassionately challenge them to stretch, to grow, to accept.  The successful leader can accept the human struggle and accompanying emotions and help their colleagues make choices that will move them forward on the learning journey.

So, change happens. Life happens. Sometimes it is very unsettling… But there really are no monsters in the basement.

 “Man is not fully conditioned and determined; he determines himself whether to give in to conditions or to stand up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self determining. Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

Victor Frankl

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Here is a simple math problem: “A bat and a ball costs $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball.  How much does the ball cost?” (Answer at the end of this article.)  Getting the correct answer depends on whether you use System 1 thinking or System 2 thinking, described by Daniel Kahneman, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and author of the recently released bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

System 1 thinking operates quickly, without effort, or concentrated effort. For example, it is used when driving a car on an empty road, or reading words on a large billboard. System 2 on the other hand involves effort and attention. We use it when doing complicated calculations, consciously adjusting our behavior in a social situation, or when we look for a person wearing a red sweater in a crowd.

Kahneman’s message points to the fact that as human beings we are as irrational as we are rational, as emotional as we are grounded. When faced with uncertain situations people often don’t carefully evaluate the problem or consider the actual details.  They invent mental short cuts and in the case of the math problem above, many, skip the math altogether.  Being smart doesn’t seem to help either: more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and MIT routinely give the incorrect answer to this simple math problem.

I tested this out on my own college age children. I presented the problem to my daughter, a psychology major and now an MBA student, who never really excelled at math.  She thought about it briefly and answered correctly.  Then I called my son, an honors student and engineering major at Penn State, and gave him the problem.  He considered it for a moment and gave me the wrong answer!

So why does this happen? Why do supposedly smart people struggle with simple math problems? Kahneman points out that we generally rely on System 1 thinking, until things get difficult. The math problem seems easy so many people don’t switch to System 2 and as a result they get the answer wrong. In the case of my daughter, I believe she knew she struggles with math, so mentally she switched right away to System 2 thinking, and did the calculations correctly. My son on the other hand knows he excels at math, relied on System 1, did not use System 2 at all, and got the wrong answer!

Research has shown that depending just on System 1 can lead to serious business issues like investor over confidence and entrepreneurial recklessness. And it’s also easy to develop biases toward every day ideas and issues that appear to be easy or familiar.

For example, a research study done at Harvard Medical School some years ago found that young doctors were consistently and improperly prescribing treatment to patients because instead of concentrating and listening to the entire symptom description by the patient, they were tuning out after a few moments, missing valuable information and then misprescribing treatment.

Overusing System 2 can create problems too! The popular “gorilla video”, created by Daniel Simon, is a good example of what can happen when we focus too much on a task.  In the twenty second video the viewer is asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed between members of a team wearing white shirts.  About half way through the video a person dressed in a black gorilla suit steps into the activity and briefly looks at the camera and pounds his chest.  Typically, about half the viewers miss the gorilla but count the number of passes correctly. The message is clear: concentrated focus is useful but at what cost?

Perhaps you are thinking right now, isn’t it possible to strike a balance between both systems? Yes to some degree, but the fact remains that we are fundamentally unique combinations of rational and irrational thinking. And even if we know these two systems of thinking exist we may not be able to avoid making mistakes because as Kahneman points out in his book System 1 thinking, our irrational and more emotional way of thinking, rules the roost.  Just another reason why humility is a more effective approach to life than arrogance!

Oh yeah, and the answer to the math problem: 5 cents.

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Concerned About Rising Employee Disengagement? Then Walk the Middle Path

Leaders today are more overworked than I have ever seen in the past twenty years and are expected to perform at increasingly high levels, day in and day out. They are faced with crises and difficult situations on a regular basis including an alarming trend noted by the recent Gallup poll: rising employee disengagement.

The poll said, “Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive”.

For each of us every day can be what Joseph Campbell described as the Hero’s Journey: apparent stability, crisis, self-reflection and learning (See side bar at end of this article). In his interview with Bill Moyer some years ago Campbell talks about the ultimate aim of the Hero’s quest “must be neither the release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others.”

For those in leadership positions this quote reflects one of the most important issues that face them today: How do they effectively respond to the onslaught of issues and challenges and not lose sight of the core purpose of leadership: Being of service to the organization, to customers, key stakeholders, and the members of their team.

Will they build a positive reputation and behave in such a way that brings out their highest values and encourages the same in others? Or do they find themselves using unproductive patterns of behavior that leave people feeling beat up, micro managed, unsupported and disengaged?

My experience coaching many leaders over the past few years is that under pressure most tend to lean on what comes naturally to them: If they have a preference for being aggressive they tend to be brutally honest, wearing their heart on their sleeve as they like to say.  If they tend to be more passive they often hold back an essential part of their deeper truth and deliver cosmetically acceptable feedback that skirts the real issue but keeps things pleasant.  Neither extreme is effective in creating employee engagement and an organization that can have long term sustainable success.

The key is to respond in a balanced, “middle path” (a Zen principle) manner that honors the positive aspects being aggressive or passive and integrates them into effective leadership behaviors.

For example, a balanced approach when delivering tough feedback to an employee integrates a positive aspect of being aggressive (directness), with a positive aspect of being passive (respect).

Here are some other examples of leadership attitudes and behaviors that are balanced and those that are not:

Aggressive                          Balanced                                         Passive

 Arrogance                           Humility                                              Deferent

Blame Others                      Mutual Accountability                     Blame Self

Goals only                          Goals and Values Aligned                  Values No Goals

Brutally Honest                  Honest and Respectful                     Respectful

Advocate Only                    Dialogue                                             Inquire Only

Unilateral Expectations     Mutual Accountability                      Saying Yes Unconditionally

Business First                     Socio-Technical System                   People First

The concept of balance is also a key principle deeply imbedded in Insights four color energies shown in the example below:

Take Fiery Red Energy for example:

The aspects of being competitive, demanding, and purposeful when displayed in their most positive form are very effective in creating results.  When they are overused or underused they can become liabilities as shown below.


Being overly directive and dismissive of others opinions


Determining direction and initiating key actions


Trying to please everyone and not taking a stand

Each of us is a “hero” in our own journey.  When we maintain our balance and lead from the “middle path” we can push for hard for results, build strong trusting relationships, encourage employee engagement and feel proud about our behavior at the end of the day.  That is what leadership and being of true service is all about.

The Hero’s Journey is a common pattern that can be found in myths and stories, from various cultures and time periods.  From ancient Greece to modern Hollywood, the hero’s journey is an important archetype from which many stories have been derived.  The pattern can be found in the stories of Moses, Buddha, Odysseus and movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lion King.

Joseph Campbell, a renowned mythologist studied and wrote about this pattern in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949.

 There are four phases to the pattern: The hero is presented with a crisis or challenge (The Call), goes through a period of suffering and/or reflection, (The Descent), enters a phase of learning/redemption (The Transformation), and then returns to his/her home with a richer/deeper sense of self/purpose (The Return).  So essentially it is a pattern of learning growth and maturation.


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Rock the boat without getting thrown off!

Leaders make things happen. They challenge the status quo, they push the envelope, they find ways to accomplish things others might think impossible. And the very best leaders do all of this and still bring people with them. In fact they motivate, inspire and build strong connections with the team around them. In other words, they rock the boat but they don’t get thrown off.

When I ask participants in the leadership development workshops that I conduct to identify a great leader in their life and what that person did to create that impact, the responses I get generally fall into three categories:

  • Attitude
  • Knowledge
  • Skills

What emotional impact does your leadership style have?

Of those three, most responses are related to attitude such as: “she was patient, really listened”, “he was open to my ideas”, and “he treated me with respect”.

Rarely does anyone mention that someone was technically brilliant or incredibly intelligent (which I’m sure is often true). What is more impactful and insightful it seems is the emotional impact that a leader has on the people around him/her.

This means not only what we do is important, but how we do it.  It takes plenty of hard work, intellect and technical knowledge in business to do what we each have been trained to do. And it really takes plenty of emotional intelligence (EI) to get the “how” part right too.

Leadership failures are often related to the lack of critical emotional competencies and a wide range of EI competencies distinguished top performers from average ones.” 

Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence

And that is what great leaders do: they find ways to blend the technical and human dimensions of their job. They have the IQ and they have the EI. They have, as Jim Collins says in his business masterpiece, “Good to Great“, the combination of professional will and humility – a key factor in “level five”, or leadership excellence. They are able to integrate seemingly opposite concepts into highly effective leader behaviours. So, one of the keys to rocking the boat and not getting thrown off is to pay attention to the importance of emotional intelligence and the role it plays in leadership success.

Inner and outer worlds and adjusting our behaviours

Most people say that we are born with our IQ so we can’t do much to change that but we can do something about our EI!

Emotional Intelligence is comprised of four dimensions:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Social management

Self-awareness and self-management relate to the concept of paying attention to our inner world of thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and emotions and then developing the skill to self-regulate. Social awareness and management are related to our outer world and our ability to observe, diagnose and appropriately adjust our behavior to achieve positive and effective results.

Self-awareness and the business environment

Let’s look more closely at self-awareness and the role that it plays in being successful in today’s business environment. The more we pay attention to our inner world the more we will notice our thought processes, our habits and our tendencies. For example, I am aware that one of my weaknesses is making decisions too quickly. I have learned that I can do various things to address this: I can make sure I discuss my proposed decision with someone who is more skilled at data analysis, or I can remind myself to consciously slow down and more carefully evaluate the data and the facts first.  Before I understood this, I was certainly guilty of making some poor decisions.

When we are more self-aware we can make better choices about how to behave. And better choices are the variables that can help us not only stay at the helm of the boat, but inspire loyalty, trust and results from our crew. Why? Because our behavior is a function of two components: our preferences and the choices we make.
Behavior = Preferences + Choices

Another way to understand the impact self-awareness has on our behavior is shown in the example below:

                                                        “The way to do is to be”

                                                                                                          Lao Tzu

Simply put, our being influences what we do, and what we do creates what we have. Our values, attitudes, beliefs and preferences drive our behavior. What is visible to those around us are the results we produce because of our behaviour.

What is not visible under the waterline, but influences our behavior is our being, our inner world.  And that is the key.

Leverage is below the waterline

Leadership begins below the water line, at the being level. When we understand “what’s below the waterline” we open up the door to increased self-awareness, and we generate the possibility of making better choices.

Once we have achieved this deeper level of self-understanding we can face the challenge of leading others. One powerful way for leaders to move from boat-rocking  activities that are ‘disruptive’ to boat-rocking activities that lead to breakthroughs within organisations, is by using the Insights (www.insights.com) color energies as a framework to increase self-awareness.

Fiery Red energy is associated with persistence, drive and tough-mindedness. A leader with dominant Fiery Red energy might have a tendency to push through changes without consulting critical stakeholders. By taking time to understand their values and preferences the same leader might use their Fiery Red energy with grace – taking time to understand issues and concerns and modifying their approach so that people are ready for any disruption that might take place.

Sunshine Yellow energy is associated with passion and enthusiasm. A leader with dominant  Sunshine Yellow energy can assume that everyone shares their appetite for a new initiative and neglect to dot the I’s and cross the t’s. With greater self-awareness this leader will use their Sunshine Yellow energy with focus – creating a detailed plan so that their people have all of the information they need to be successful.

Earth Green Energy is associated with harmony and democracy, so it may be less likely that leaders with dominant earth green energy will rock the boat. With increased understanding of their preferences, these leaders can use their Earth Green energy with power – having the courage to be bold and take decisive action even though it may cause short-term discomfort.

Cool Blue energy is associated with logical analysis. A leader with dominant Cool Blue energy will not readily break the rules. With greater self-understanding this leader will use their Cool Blue energy with passion – creating a powerful vision and being prepared to win the hearts as well as the minds of their people.

So, self-awareness and an understanding of our preferences that are hidden below the waterline can help us develop a mature and balanced leadership style. We can be bold, innovative and challenge convention, but still bring our people with us. We can rock the boat just enough to make waves, but not so much that anyone (including the leader) gets thrown overboard.

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Sincerity, Authenticity and the Hero’s Journey

I’ve been thinking about sincerity and authenticity lately, particularly after watching the recent Tiger Woods monologue.   Before he came on I wondered how I would feel as he offered his mea culpa. When he spoke, I watched him closely, listening and hoping to be moved.  (I see Tiger on what Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and author, calls the Hero’s Journey.  The Hero’s Journey is the archetypal story of what happens after someone falls into crisis and begins the process of recovery, learning and redemption.) I wanted to be moved because I felt if Tiger leads with his heart then healing is possible, for all parties involved.

I heard what he had to say and I wasn’t moved at all.  It felt staged, scripted, and controlled.  He had the right words, with little behind them. Maybe his emotion was buried beneath the embarrassment of having to stand before his friends and the world and admit he had a problem. (The only visible emotion that I did see was anger he directed at the media.) It really left me questioning his sincerity and authenticity.

What is authenticity?  I spent some time researching it. In psychology, authenticity refers to the attempt to live one’s life in alignment with the needs of one’s inner being, rather than the expectations of others and society.  In light of his comment about a return to Buddhism, perhaps Tiger is discovering what his inner needs really are right now and is more focused on discovering his own personal truth than being able to fully express it.

The dictionary defines authenticity as the “quality of being genuine or trustworthy”.  Genuine means sincerely felt or expressed.  Sincerity means being open and truthful.

Who judges sincerity, authenticity or genuineness?  If I am looking for a leather jacket for example, I can feel the leather and perhaps look for the label that says “Genuine Leather”.  I judge for myself if I believe it’s real.  If it is, then I think I have found the “real McCoy”, the real thing.

So, was Tiger the “real McCoy” for me?  No.  Was Tiger the “real McCoy” in his own mind?  Only he knows.  I believe he is on his own Hero’s Journey where he has to come to terms with his own inner demons before he can really face the world with full authenticity.  I’m hoping he digs really deep and is able to understand what he needs to do to emerge a truly authentic man.

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How to Give Feedback that is Honest and Respectful

Giving tough feedback to someone in the workplace or at home can be a real challenge.  There is a lot at stake. If it goes badly, relationships may be damaged, jeopardizing the ability to work well together in the future.  Emotions may run high and be difficult to manage.  You may worry about the person’s reaction and your ability to handle it.  As a result, many people shy away from giving honest feedback and opt to “sugar coat” or minimize it.  Others simply don’t give it at all and just put up with behavior that is less than desirable.

On the other hand, some people pride themselves on “telling it like it is” and being “brutally honest.”  The problem here is that the bravado has the impact of being hurtful and tends to do more harm than good.

The solution is to learn how to integrate being both honest and respectful. Sound impossible?  No, it’s not.  Here are 7 steps that can help you deliver effective, honest, and respectful feedback that will build stronger relationships, get work done more effectively, and leave you feeling proud of what you have done.

1. Get yourself in the right mindset.

Our mindset—our beliefs, attitudes and values— influence everything we do in life.  Getting yourself in the right mindset means thoroughly clarifying your intention and desired outcome for the conversation.   To do that, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would I like to have happen, for me and for them, as a result of this conversation?  What impact do I want this to have on our relationship?
  • What is my overall intention in delivering this feedback?  Is it to help them go forward?  Is it something else?  If so, what?
  • What facts do I know about the situation?  What has the person done or said? What don’t I know?
  • Am I satisfied overall with their performance?  Or, is what I am seeing an indication of deeper concerns that I have?

In this way, you can get a mental picture of what you want to communicate before you even enter into the conversation. Getting this clarity can be difficult when your emotions are flaring and you find yourself in a situation where you believe the feedback must be given immediately.  For example, if you approach a feedback conversation feeling anger and frustration, it is very likely that what you do or say, driven by those fiery emotions, will not be constructive, even though it will honestly reflect how you feel.   And chances are, it may harm the relationship.   On the other hand, suppose you are feeling positive and really want to help the other person improve?  Your approach will be quite different and likely be much more effective.

So, if you are feeling agitated, you will need to pull yourself together and find a way to get calm first and foremost.  The best way to do this is to simply take a break to get your mind in gear.  You can do this by taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk, or simply letting the other person know that you want to give feedback but are feeling upset, and agree to meet in a short while.  Awareness of difficult emotions is the first step to managing them in a way that enables you to engage productively with others.

2. Choose the right time and place.

The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation.  Make sure that you have chosen a setting that is appropriate for the conversation.  A few years ago when I was the head of a sales team, I bumped into one of my sales people in the office hallway and we started a conversation. Before I knew it, I was giving him feedback about a joint sales presentation we had just done and how he could have done better.  Later, I found out he was quite upset that I had delivered this feedback in a public place where other people could overhear our conversation.  I was pretty embarrassed.  A comfortable, quiet place at a time you know will maximize the other person’s ability to hear your message is always best.  Also, if you know someone is under stress, distracted, or tired, it is best to check with them first regarding their ability to even have a conversation.  Or if it is obvious that they aren’t ready, just wait until you believe they are.

3. Provide the context for the feedback.

Assuming you are satisfied with the person’s overall performance and this isn’t a       disciplinary or termination discussion (another subject), the first step in the face-to-face meeting is to create the context for the discussion.

“John, I want to have a serious conversation with you today about your performance.  Overall, I want you to know that I am very satisfied with how you are carrying out your responsibilities, particularly in areas A, B, and C.  I have one concern that I want to talk with you about today.”

Context is the compass heading for the conversation rather than the details of the feedback.  It could be your overarching perspective regarding the individual’s performance in the example or any other reason or feeling that is prompting you to provide the feedback.

4.  Express your concern.

If you are delivering feedback with the intent of helping the other person, it is important that you focus on the issue, the situation, the facts, and/or the behavior of the person in question.  It’s easy and natural to make judgments or assumptions first, and this is not yet the time for those.  This is the time to really be clear on what you have observed and what the known facts are.

Judgments – Assumptions                Factual

You are lazy                                         You delivered the report 2 days late
You are troublesome                          You used  language that I find to be offensive

“The concern I have is that you have turned in the month-end report 2 days late.  Correct me if am wrong.  I recall your promising several weeks ago to have it in this past Monday, and you delivered it to me after hours on Wednesday.”

When you focus on the facts, both parties can start the conversation from the same place of understanding.  This enables shared learning.  When you make value judgments or assumptions, people usually experience these as an attack upon their value or dignity, which triggers defensiveness.  That defensiveness usually blocks the ability to have a productive conversation.

5. Share the impact on you and/or others.

Doing this grounds your concern in tangible terms and helps the other person see that their behavior has a real emotional impact on you or others, how relationships are affected, and how poor performance impacts the business.

“The impact on me is that I am disappointed personally, I am losing trust in what you tell me, and in order for me to roll up all the reports, I will need to ask support staff to work overtime, and they are already stretched.”

6. Ask the other person to respond, and listen, seeking to understand.

At this point, it is very important to pause and ask the other person to respond. In our example, this conversation is driven by the fact that one person believes a commitment was made to deliver the report on Monday. If that fact is disputed, then a different conversation needs to occur.  Let’s continue with the assumption that the commitment was made. The primary reason to involve the other person is to hear his story and what his thinking is. There may be information that you don’t know, and if you simply keep talking, believing that your perception of the situation is the only possible reality, you open yourself to an arrogant mindset that typically refuses to see other points of view.

“So, what is going on, John?”

The key to effective listening is to suspend judgment and listen with real curiosity and openness.  Just going through the motions and pretending to listen isn’t going to contribute to a positive outcome.  Body language, voice tone, and appropriate questions that draw out the full story are all critical ingredients that contribute to a mutual understanding regarding what occurred.

7. Mutually address the concern and agree on the next steps.

There are several things that can happen here:

  • Respond to any concerns or questions the other person has brought up.
  • Ask what the person can do to address the performance gap.
  • Make your own suggestion, ask the person what he/she thinks, and seek a commitment to your request.

The underlying principle in this step is to develop a commitment from the other person regarding what they can do to improve the situation.  A commitment is not something imposed on another.  A commitment is something they willingly agree to do. It is specific and includes action steps and time frames.  If you make a suggestion and they disagree, then the conversation continues until you reach a mutual agreement. If they make a suggestion, you can help them make it specific and actionable if they haven’t.   The conversation concludes when you and the other party are in agreement regarding who does what by when!

The Key is Integration!

When it comes to giving feedback, there is a way to be honest and respectful. If you follow these steps, you can deliver feedback that not only improves the overall situation but enhances your rapport with others and leaves you feeling proud as well.  Most people want to improve their performance and giving them honest feedback is an art we can all master.

Don Johnson is a corporate coach and leadership consultant and founder of The Integria Group. He has coached executives at Google, Yahoo! Microsoft, Crowe Horwath, PKF North America, AXA Equitable and other Fortune 1000 organizations. Earlier in his career, he was the President of Élan Vital, a Raj Yoga Master Instructor, and Vice President of AchieveGlobal and the American Management Association. Contact him at: http://www.integriagroup.com

© Copyright 2010 by Don Johnson

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How to Resolve Disagreements Skillfully

Have you ever had a day that’s been going really well and then suddenly it takes a left turn into an argument that leaves you stunned, frustrated and upset? It can happen to the best of us. Here are some practical steps you can take that will get the relationship back on track, address the issue on the table and leave you feeling proud about how you conducted yourself.

1. Regain emotional balance

What tends to happen during a disagreement is that emotion takes over and logic and reason take a back seat.  Stress is produced and blood flows from our rational brain to our reptilian brain, triggering the fight or flight response.

Take a break.  Tell the other person you would like to gather your thoughts and take a short break.

If you can’t do that then take two or three deep breaths.  This will give you a few moments to gather yourself mentally. It will also bring more     oxygen into your body, will help alleviate the stress response and get you back in touch with the “real” you.

When you feel your emotions are under control consider these questions: What was happening to you and other person prior to the disagreement?  What events or facts might be affecting them?

2. Recognize and take full ownership of your contribution to the situation

It is essential that you recognize what you did that contributed to the problem. There are always factors from both sides, no matter how small they may be, that in some way have contributed to the problem.

Taking responsibility for what you contributed in a conversation that became contentious is critical if you want to improve it.  Failure to understand the role that you played will undermine your ability to get the situation back on track.

3. Mentally prepare to resolve the problem

There is more at stake than just resolving the mechanical details of the disagreement.  There are three dimensions that need to be considered:  The health of the relationship, the way you conduct yourself, and the goal, or what you were trying to accomplish when the disagreement occurred.

The goals for the conversation are:

To improve the health of the relationship.

To behave in a way that leaves you feeling proud.  The key is to be very honest and very respectful.

To mutually solve the problem. Approach it with a spirit of working together, listen keenly and express your viewpoint, keeping in mind the       principles of honesty and respect.

Consider these questions before you have the conversation:

What is really important to you?

What are you concerns?

What do you really care about?

What would you like to have happen?

These help move the discussion from arguing about opposing positions on a topic to the deeper, more causal drivers beneath the surface.

4. State the constructive purpose of the conversation

Behind every action or statement we make there is a purpose or intention.  For example, a conversation that begins with a statement like, “You didn’t call me when you said you would”, is very different from one that begins with “I would like to talk about how we can keep our commitments to each other.”  The first is blameful, the second reflects shared responsibility.

The second statement is more much likely to get the discussion off on the right foot. The first is likely to create a defensive response because it is accusatory and one sided.

Having a clear, respectful purpose for a resolution conversation is essential. It not only helps get the meeting started on the right foot, it also serves as your “North Star” and can help keep the discussion on track if it starts to veer off.

5. Inquire with sincerity and express your point of view honestly and respectfully

Research indicates that in most conversations, people talk more than they listen.

So, if you tend to talk a lot, this is your chance to focus on asking questions and listening.  The key to asking questions is to be really curious. How do you become curious?  Realize that the other person has an experience that is likely quite different from yours.  The only way for you to understand their experience is for them to explain it to you.  And if you don’t ask, they may not tell you!

Ask one question at a time, then be quiet and don’t interrupt. Questions beginning “what” or “how” generally create a more useful response than questions beginning with “why.”

Here are some very specific steps that will help draw out someone’s thinking, intentions, assumptions and conclusions, if they are not doing so on their own.

  • Invite the other person to explain how they see the facts in concrete terms.
  • Ask what inferences they make, given what they know, and what they are led to believe.
  • Ask how the situation impacts them: What does it makes them think? How does it make them feel?
  • Ask what they would like to see happen or what do they propose?
  • Let them know if you agree or not.

Equally important is expressing yourself fully, honestly and respectfully.  The overall objective is to share your intentions and your thinking. Remember, others can only see your behavior or hear what you say.  They cannot see your intentions or why you think the way that you do.  It is your responsibility to help them understand that.  If they don’t understand your thinking they can only make assumptions, which may or may not be correct.

These are the steps for expressing yourself effectively:

  • State the facts as you see them.
  • Explain your reasoning.
  • State your opinion as your opinion, not a fact.
  • Explain the impact of the situation on you and your concerns.
  • Explain what you would like to see happen, make a proposal.
  • Check for understanding and agreement.

6. Mutually resolve any problems or issues

When both people are part of generating the solution there is more energy created to making it actually work.  Collaborative involvement generates commitment and the belief that something can and will be different in the future.

Mutual resolution doesn’t mean one person caving in to the demands of the other.  It means each person clearly acknowledging and understanding what is important to the other and then creating solutions that satisfy the mutual interests.

Opportunity to Learn

No matter how skilled any of us are, disagreements with others can occur. You can look at them as huge mistakes and personal failures or you can see them as opportunities to learn and grow. If you approach them using the principles I have outlined your chances of turning what seems to be a disaster into a positive experience will greatly improve.

© Copyright 2010 by Don Johnson

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Why Success Trumps Winning

You may have heard about the blown call by Major League Baseball umpire Jim Joyce recently that resulted in Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga losing what would have been the 21st perfect game in the history of baseball.  Both men, many fans, teammates and managers of both teams did something significant that turned, what could have been an ugly incident, into a wonderful example of what happens when compassion and forgiveness take center stage.

The situation began when a Cleveland Indian player crossed first base just after Galarraga, running from the pitcher’s mound, caught a throw from the first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.  Up until this point Galarraga had retired 26 batters, no hits, no walks, no errors-an almost perfect game.   Jim Joyce, the first base umpire, signaled safe-making it a base hit and ending Galaraga’s bid for a perfect game.  Galarraga stood near first base and smiled and then went back to the mound and then got the final out for a 3-0 victory for the Detroit Tigers.

Replay showed that the base runner was clearly out and that Joyce had blown the call.  Later that evening, after Joyce seeing the replay, apologized to Galarraga by phone. The following day the two men met at home plate for another game and shook hands.  Joyce looked down, his eyes welling up with tears.   “I cost that kid a perfect game,” he said. “I would’ve been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me.”

Galarraga maintained a smile through it all.  “I give him a lot of credit for coming in and saying I need to…say I’m sorry,” Galarraga said. “I know nobody’s perfect.”

This is a great example of the difference between what I calling winning and success.  Winning would have been Galarraga throwing a perfect game.  Instead, he achieved success-behaving with such dignity and honor that he will be forever remembered for doing so.  Joyce will also be remembered, not just for blowing the call, but for taking ownership of his mistake, apologizing and for conducting himself in a manner that sets an example for others.

A person can win and not have success.  There are plenty examples throughout recent history where people’s accomplishments come at the expense of others.  We certainly don’t have any respect for them.  We are deeply drawn to the qualities of success because it reflects our true nature. We love the feeling we get when we act with compassion and forgiveness and we are touched when we see others display those qualities.

So Galarraga and Jim Joyce achieved success. Neither one really “won” but they achieved much more than a throwing a perfect game or making every call without an error.  They showed in real time, under immense pressure, their strength, their heart and their humanness.   I’m proud of both men and they will forever be remembered for their character, not just their achievements on the field.

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