Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

What’s all this pushback about?

I was talking with a friend recently who explained that everything was going just fine. In fact, he felt that he was positioned for great things. But he was struggling.

“I push through the day,” he said. “I’m confident I’m doing the right things, the big ones and the small ones. But it’s all stretch. It’s work. And I don’t feel much certainty about it at the end of the day. It leaves me feeling tired and disoriented and as though I hadn’t done much.”

One thing he has going for him is clarity of purpose. He doesn’t doubt his direction, though he sometimes doubts himself. “But I’m all in,” he added. Given what he can know now, he’s sure he’s on the right course.

So what’s wrong?

I encouraged him and said: “You’re on the verge.” He’d taken big, if planned, risks with his work. He’d begun to lead his own projects, and not everyone welcomed it. “I’ve stepped out front,” he said. He felt somewhat alone there, but confident that his experience and expertise had laid a good foundation. He can see capacity for leadership taking shape. “You know what’s wrong?” he said. “Nothing.”


Here’s what we decided might serve him best:

Dig in

First, the facts: Acknowledge that the hard work of sticking to his plan and its goals will continue to be hard work, and that that will change over time.

Recognize that the challenge will tax him in ways that make him feel like something is wrong with him. He’ll feel like he’s not himself. But he may be becoming more like himself.

And he should be prepared to step back and take a break from time to time. Then dig in again.

Watch and listen

When is it difficult to face the work toward those goals? When is it almost unbearable?

Notice the thoughts and feelings in those moments at the verge. The resistance we feel when developing new abilities feels like we’re going in the wrong direction. We may look around for someone to blame or take responsibility off our shoulders. But resistance is crucial feedback that reveals our learning edge: where current capability ends and learning opportunity spreads out like the night.

My friend’s edge is full of information about what it will mean to step out. Watch for the little lights winking on in the darkness. Listen to what you tell yourself at the verge and be prepared to doubt that it has always been true or that it will always be true.


Resistance follows from challenging ourselves. If we’re pointed in the right direction, not fooling ourselves, it may take more than bliss to lead us to a deep and satisfying destination. So keep one eye on yourself and test where you may be telling yourself only what you want to hear. Then turn back to the resistance. That’s the frontier.

So, nothing is wrong. My friend’s purpose and goals led him to this verge. And they are changing him. He didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t suspect it would call on resources that he’s still developing. But even in the face of uncertainty and resistance he says, “I’m in. I am so in.”

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 3

Reflection may not seem like a powerful problem solver, but as we said, it expands our view of the present and can reveal the wide angle mirrorunderlying story propelling hard-to-change behavior.

Third, reflection answers the question, “Who am I now?” You may not be asking that question, but the challenges of living in the 21st century seem to conspire to make life difficult. Circumstance presses in and asks the question for us.

Daily frustrations, constant demands, and occasional real tragedy test what we’re made of. It can be a puzzle to understand what it is adding up to. All that trouble isn’t a roadblock. It’s our ally. Sure, it’s unwelcome, but it calls on us to grow up. Here at BIG IDEA we focus on “grow.” It’s depth we need, not simple persistence.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 2

In part one, we said that reflection isn’t an idle look back. It’s a way of expanding our view of the present.wide angle mirror

Reflection can also focus on what happened to understand what it means. If you work with people who believe in learning from experience, you’ve autopsied the past to identify what went well and what we would do differently. It’s a good endeavor. But if you’re like me, you also know that it’s very difficult to do things differently next time. We have to remember, then recognize that it’s happening, and then do it.

So, we recommend looking back to uncover the story that helped produce the results we intended and those we didn’t. We can reflect in this way on past or present action. There’s always a story propelling it. And if two people are involved, there are at least three stories.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 1

Reflection often sounds like armchair philosophizing in the coulda, woulda, shoulda vein. wide angle mirror And if reflection were compared with other ways of getting results at work, it probably will not show up on the list. But speed has become a primary measure of how to solve problems. It’s important, but it can make action wrong, or just plain dumb.

First, reflection is real-time review. It’s looking at what’s happening now to see a bigger picture.

In the bias-for-action world in which we live, we often move to solutions before we have given them the consideration they deserve. They may prove to be the seeds of much bigger problems. The practice of reflection can help us anticipate unintended consequences, unexpected complexity, and the limits of our own perspective.

We believe that a bigger view is a better view. Reflection ensures we take that bigger view now, before we have to undo seemingly good solutions that we landed on today.

Two ways to find inspiration to get stuff done

The challenge for you and me, knowledge workers with unlimited information (and distraction), is knowing how to tap inspiration when it’s lacking.

Maybe “inspiration” should be “motivation.” You choose.  I mean “the intrinsic energy and meaning that keeps you going.” After all, there is no shortage of work and most of us want to be known for getting stuff done.


We can lose sight of the reasons our contribution matters. When no one else is noticing that we’re advancing a project, our mostly digital work seems invisible. What people tend to notice is errors and problems.

Your source of inspiration lies in doing the work and tracking your own progress. Measure against standards that are meaningful to you. If you’re like me, you’ll want to find someone to bounce the work off of. I ask, “This clarifies, or advances, the work in this way. Does it do that for you?”

When I’m asking for a reality check, I’m not asking for feedback. I’m looking for a “yes” or “no” answer. With that answer, and a sense of progress to bolster me, I may ask for feedback. My feedback rule: Ask for the feedback you want and if you get more than that, don’t worry about it. It will wait. Say thank you.under a rock


Most of aim for a job, a role, or a project because we believe in it.  We believe it will give us something we want, whether a short term win or a noble objective. In the challenges of getting stuff done, we can lose track of what we believe in or what we set out after.

  • What do I care about?
  • What animates me?
  • What do I believe in?

Even if you didn’t choose the project, if you have doubts about the work, you can choose to mine it for meaning. Sometimes, it’s all uphill. But within the experience, it’s within our power to change our minds. We can seek some meaningful purpose in our action the playing field. There will come a time to evaluate whether you’re always running uphill. You may want to change that pattern.

But now, while you’re in the middle of the run, watch your stride, keep the gain foremost in mind (rather than the pain), notice your progress, and encourage other runners. You’re not alone in digging deeper for purpose in what you’re doing right now.

What do you do to measure your progress and confirm accomplishments?
How do you uncover purpose in the face of day-to-day challenges?

Uncertainty: The real story of leading

Let us now praise those who search, who do not spin a story of imagined success, or a story of Phoenix-like recovery from failure. Let us praise not knowing for sure, because that is the sure thing – in business, in startups. In life. Let me now praise Path. This aptly named startup is getting interesting – that is, if you’re interested in leadership.

“…We’ve made a lot of mistakes,” said Dave Morin, CEO of Path, a San Francisco startup that saw a lot of attention in the business press and from celebrities with real cool cred in tech. (Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Spears. You be the judge.) And, according to the NYTimes update, Morin also played the flashy role of first and best believer in the inevitability of his vision. For a leader like him to confess to mistakes after playing the tech celebrity so well, let us praise that reflection and humility.

dark path

Most of us know two narratives about about leaders and startups. The first is the story of a leader with a brilliant idea. With some adjustments along the way and nod to the hard work behind the curtains, the story is one of seemingly inevitable success. The leader is responsible for it, with appropriate nods to the team that made it possible. It’s the revered American story of individual effort and independence.

The other story is “what I learned from failure.” We love this story because it is in fact mythic. Think Moses in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert, Dante’s hero in the dark wood. If hubris is the hero’s flaw, the desert teaches her humility, also known as self-awareness. I don’t know Dave Morin, but it sounds like he’s in the desert. I’m grateful that his story isn’t a simple version of success or failure. Morin is more like you and me, not knowing for sure. Until “it” happens, we don’t know for certain what “it” is

Uncertainty is almost unbearable for prolonged periods. There’s a good argument for experimenting with action, even any action. It’s the empirical way we cut a path through the dark wood. Those experiments may seem to how we pulled ourselves out of quicksand. But they’re still only techniques. And they don’t always work. Better than a lesson from inevitable success and instructive failure is the lesson that we have to face uncertainty alone and look within. What sort of person makes it out of the desert?

In my experience, leaders – maybe everyone – want something from work. Beyond a living, we are always seeking something else, too. Purpose, power, acknowledgement, respect, community, competition, meaning, and many other things.

The leader who makes it through the desert is the one who finds her purpose under the company, the product, the team. What makes us want to do this, our chosen work? What do we want to get out of it? That is the theme of story we are in.

My hero is a success and a quitter

Karen Olivo is one of my heroes. Last year, she quit.

She felt under-used, narrowed, and constantly angling for her next gig. The work she’d loved had to come to rob her of day-to-day satisfaction and genuine connection with colleagues and friends. She was, by many measures, a success.

Olivo won a Tony (2009) for her performance in “West Side Story” and has been singled out for performances in other notable shows.  “It took a good look at what I was capable of to see that what I was giving away for the price of a ticket was a fraction of me.” That blog post sent ripples through the theater community because it is an honest description of what many people feel. And it is what many people feel about other challenging, high stakes jobs, and many that are less so.

If Olivo felt that she wasn’t using all of herself, she also felt that she was playing a role that wasn’t authentic. “I was operating like an actor in my life,” she added, “which is scary – constantly wanting people to like me and thinking that I had to promote myself and the truth is, in life, you don’t have to do that.”

What’s important?

Today, she teaches musical performance at the University of Madison, writes for Theater Lila, and is working on a CD. She recently returned to the New York stage to play a role in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and reviewers loved her.  She doesn’t seem tempted to ride those reviews to another round of anxious stardom.  “…Every show ends and the only things that really stay current or are substantial are the bonds that we have with people.”

Olivo’s my hero because she saw that using her considerable skills cost her a great deal of her soul. By “soul,” I don’t mean her immortal, pre-existing, Platonic self. I mean “soul” in the sense of “genuinely human.” Think soul music, full of guts or heart or feeling. I mean the self that’s aware and mostly at ease. A self that’s very different from the watchful, wary, what-must-I-do-to-get-advantage self that Olivo felt she’d become. Sure, we can blame her for thinking about her predicament in ways that were bent by forces we don’t know about. But if she took steps to sustain her soul, she had to exercise a kind of courage.

As she wrote in her blog post upon leaving: “I leave behind the actor and start learning how to be me.” If that sounds too much like the way actors speak, and not enough like people with regular jobs, ask these Karen Olivo questions:

  • Am I using just a fraction of myself on the job?
  • Am I playing a role at work that doesn’t feel real?
  • Am I constantly reshaping myself to fit it, get people to like me, position myself for what’s next?

What’s that important to you?

Read the story here.  Quotes above, The New York Times.

Photo: Playbill

Executive coaching is about situational awareness

Where are you now and what does it mean? That’s the simplest way to describe situational awareness. What’s going on around me that might be relevant: what’s changing, who’s in and out, are things getting better or worse, what was the impact of the last change? You’ve got it.

What about your situation? Yes, the objective parts, but also you, in your mind and thoughts, and among your most important goals?

  • Are the unproductive meetings I have with the team a problem, or a symptom of a problem?
  • Is it possible that my assumptions about what’s right and best are holding me back?
  • Does my sense of accomplishment make me confident or complacent?
  • Am I using problem-solving approaches that aren’t sophisticated enough for our complex problems?

In the world of people, places, and things, situational awareness can be difficult to achieve. But it can be learned. How much more challenging is it to assess your situation in terms of assumptions, beliefs, biases, hopes, and dynamics with other people? Many people struggle through on their own. And many make real progress.

What is now ≠ What is possible

But some make the mistake of thinking that their limits are insurmountable obstacles. They’ve tried to get better or do things differently, only to learn the same lessons again. This can be especially hard for leaders and managers. Performing – getting better – is important to their careers. It’s also important to satisfaction that we all take from work.Climbing obstacle

If leaders can be honest, they’ll also admit that leading or managing well is important to the way they think of themselves. Obstacles that they can’t vault raise obvious questions: How can I fix this? But the hard question is, “If I can’t meet this leadership challenge, who am I now?”

Develop situational awareness faster

Leadership situational awareness can also be learned. If change – planned or otherwise – has made performance in a new situation critical, choosing an executive coach can help you see a wider perspective, interpret it’s meaning (and threats and opportunities), and experiment with targeted, meaningful action.

You may already have wise support among colleagues. But if not, the process can save the time of trial and error. You’ll learn a few things you might not have thought of. It can also help you make more of the lessons to be learned from new behavior. The coach you choose should be equipped with methods to raise your awareness and help you plan to take action using those new approaches.

The first question is still “Where am I now?” Armed with new insight, leaders can investigate “What does it mean?” which is the first step deeper into awareness of their situation.