The Coaching Leader cultivates resilience

We all have tough weeks. The weekend comes and we’re tired. For many leaders every day is tough. The pace, complexity, and responsibility is relentless. (It’s not just leaders. Family, work, interests, community commitments. It’s you, too, I bet.) But you signed up for it, and you keep at it. However, it takes a toll on our ability to perform. And if you want to have impact as a leader (or a mom or a manager, or [you]), you need to be able to perform. We need to bounce back, as quickly as possible.

Where does bounce-back come from?

Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating a set of abilities that make up resilience. They make it possible for people to “adapt to stress and adversity.” And when it’s in play, it not only helps people make it through, but come out the other side “strengthened and more resourceful.”

I have a friend that I admire who faces difficulty head on. She can become wrought up in the midst of adversity. It takes a toll on her. Still, she comes back to an optimistic point of view afterward. Every time. She seems to be naturally resilient.

Some research suggests that aspects of resilience are inherited. But it is not a fixed trait available to extraordinary people. It’s normal and can be developed. When we feel “stressed” what we want most is a break. But the resilience I’m talking about can be cultivated so that we feel a little less stressed tomorrow and in following days. And it’s effect is cumulative.

The result of developing resilience is not an unconditional positive attitude. Pollyannas are just ignoring the facts. But cultivating resilience – the process – does help us recognize our response to adversity, offer alternatives, and help ensure that we are strengthened and more resourceful afterward.

The Coaching Leader mindset steadies you for adversity

Leaders who think they control things are asking for a lot of adversity. The Coaching Leader is learning that most of the time she can’t control circumstances or people. Instead, we’re sizing things up, finding opportunity, making smart moves, shaping the conditions to our advantage. The time to use the hammer of power is when nothing else works. And watch carefully for the indirect and unintended consequences. The Coaching Leader is working with markets, opportunity, change, and people to channel them where they can do the most good. This mindset also changes the way they look at obstacles and adversity.

The Coaching Leader Mindset

There’s a very old saying that comes from the earliest Christian ascetics who lived alone in the desert: “If you always bend the bow, it will break.” Even they knew how to take a breather.

Reflect on the beliefs and assumptions you hold about resilience and the resources that help you bounce back from challenges.

  • To have resources for the work and for those who depend on me, I regularly refresh and restore myself.
  • I know what activities, people, and ways of spending time energize me. I’m not looking for a just break or relief. I’m recharging.
  • I regularly remind myself that “now” and “yesterday” are not the only way to answer the question When should I do this? (or When do you want this done?)
  • I know that I’m not just the outcomes I produce. I’m in a process, part of a process, and I help others see the value of the process we’re part of.
  • I recognize others’ need to refresh themselves.

Three Leadership Lessons from the Spotlight Team

You already know parts of the story of the movie Spotlight. It’s also a story how the reporters got the story with important observations about leadership, teams, and the limits of what we can know. In the telling, perspective, attention, and reflection move center stage as the failures of the team stare back at them on the threshold of their greatest success.

Fresh perspective can change everything

The scene that transformed Spotlight from a newspaper muckraking story into a leadership story takes place just before the Boston Globe publishes the extend of priest sexual abuse and its cover-up that continues to reverberate in Boston.

The team sits in the office of editor Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) and the Spotlight Editor Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton) wonders why they didn’t pick up on the story earlier. Now, they know the extent of the abuse. They’ve talked to dozens of victimes. They’ve uncovered overlooked clues that are five years old. And Robinson realizes that he hadn’t followed up on stories that could have uncovered much more when he was the Metro section editor. If they’d found the story then, they’d have prevented dozens or even hundreds of cases of abuse.

Attention changes data into meaningful information

It would be easy to blame the reporters for this failure. The remorse they felt is real and justified. But they faced a moment when, through no malice or intent, they did not see what they could see in that moment.

Maybe it was a failure of attention. Maybe they were focused too narrowly on daily deadlines, or on their own careers. That happens to the best of us. Maybe it was the strength of the prevailing Boston Catholic culture that made it difficult to consider priest sexual abuse as anything but exceptional. No single cause made it impossible for editors to recognize the story. It may be fairer to say that together they could see what none of them could see by themselves.

This is the terrible truth of living in a complex and sometimes corrupt world. As leaders, we cannot do what is needed sooner than now. If we could have, we would have. Consistently doing the right thing at the right time is a nice  idea, but an unrealistic goal. Instead, we can aim to act without hurry and without delay. To do that well, we need to pay attention where attention is needed.

Reflection can produce resolution to improve, but…

But aiming to prevent past missteps creates a new bias. It holds us hostage. By narrowing our sense of the present to be sure we prevent that from happening again, the past becomes a new blind spot.

In the same scene, the team argues, accuses, and absolves themselves until the editor steps in. He turns their attention to the future. “If you need to, take a moment for yourselves. You’ve earned it,” he says. “But on Monday, I need you here fresh and ready to work.” The past isn’t irrelevant, but it is past.

You can use their story

If you want to take a leadership page from the incredible impact of a team like the one in the story, and from its blindspots, you might reflect on these questions:

 What signals have I been screening out because I’m so damn busy?

What else is going on around here – in my company, community, industry, global market?

 How am I framing my view of the situation I’m in and we’re in?

Where is my view narrow and does that serve a larger purpose now?

 Where have I been listening to the distress in my organization?

Where have I noticed weak signals but treated them as noise?

Three ways to lead with thought and action today

Inside out, outside in

One of the great frustrations of people with vision, energy, and insight – the way we like to see ourselves – is why others don’t see the world as we do. Once we notice this, and all of its obvious obstacles, we take a step.

The easiest step to take is to infer that others are against us for some very poor reasons. They’re not very smart or have no imagination. They’re afraid of change. They just don’t get it. They’re invested in the status quo. It’s personal.

Even if there’s some truth in those conclusions, rehearsing the ways others are opposed to us builds a wall. It gets stronger as we hang onto the notion that “the old guard are protecting their bonuses,” for example. That wall will be there when we look for it. We can count on it. That’s not real, not a fact, not “reality.” But it becomes more real to us the more we rehearse it. It becomes a part of us.

We can take the wall apart by by what we do and what we think. But if we do not take it apart, we will experience work as a maze of walls and alleys.

Instead of drawing taking the very human step that reinforce]s us vs, them, we can take a step into the Learning Leader Lab. Here are three ideas to help you move from certain to curious.

Open up “data collection”

Whatever you infer about others, you’re selecting a small set of data. It’s probably skewed toward what you believe. That’s a human habit; no harm, no foul.

Pay attention to other inputs, information, contributions people are making to the issue you think they oppose. If this feels a bit like being a Pollyanna when you suspect other intentions, keep it up. You’re on the right track. That suspiciousness is also a common human habit.

Try thought experiments

What other legitimate interests might this person be attempting to serve? What’s the good thing, principle, or value they’re trying to bring about?

Stretch yourself. You may find it hard to see the good interests of others if you’ve already decided they’re set against yours.


Ask for more information about others’ perspectives and conclusions. Like you, they’re synthesizing a collection of values, assumptions, experience, and popping out with “what we should do.” You may find common ground in the things that haven’t been said yet.

Watch your questioning, though. With practice, we learn to tell when closed-end questions are set as traps, when leading questions are really statements, and when even open-ended questions are designed to make us look smart rather than to learn something new.

How did you learn to let in other points of view this week?

Have a great day in the Learning Leader Lab!

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup that almost launches. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

Three ways to get learning into your bones

Forty eight percent of employees say they receive no formal training. You’re thinking, “That’s not good. But taking in the big picture, it’s conceivable.” So what?

First, get pragmatic. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting formal training at work. Ask for it. Seek it out. Find programs outside the company and ask for funding. But don’t blame the company (or any “them”) if it’s not going to happen. And don’t hold a grudge.

You can build your own curriculum. Dorie Clark has offered some great ideas for DIY professional development. Shout out to her for pointing me to the Accenture study in which the opening data point is found.

Some learning is more challenging, though. You could call it the adaptive challenge of learning. We need to change our minds, but also ourselves. Some learning has to be chewed slowly and patiently if we’re going to really digest it and use all its nutrients.

Put hindsight to work and test it with foresight

Start holding your own regular after-action review. I call it reflection-in-action. Schedule it least once a week. Look back over the week, pick its high point and low point, and take a wider view of events.

The after-action review (AAR) comes out of military training. It’s designed to provide a well-rounded picture of what happened. The first step: review without blame or prejudice. Start with you.carrying a leg

Notice that the AAR focuses on what happened in the concrete world of objects and actions. You can go one better by adding what you thought, intended, felt, experienced. Mindset drives the choices we have and the choices we make. What can you see now, or imagine might be true, that you could not see then?

You can’t know what others thought or felt. But you can develop a hypothesis about what they were trying to achieve and why. Here’s where foresight helps. Set up a test of your hypothesis. Ask questions. Or plan to try a different approach in a similar situation. This is a test, so stay open to new data.

Bundle the learning with peers

You are not alone. Whatever you find challenging, others are struggling over it now. Others need to know what you want to learn.

Find some friends or people you trust. Decide on a a method for a small group peer coaching. (Here’s one good example from Marshall Goldsmith.) Start meeting regularly. For a small investment, you could even hire a coach to teach you a peer coaching method. In a couple of hours you will know the process and have seen how it works.

The kind of learning that gets into our bones will make us (very) uncomfortable from time to time. You want to work with peers who will both support you and keep you honest. If you don’t find a dream team immediately, don’t give up.

Get expert help but share the cost

I know that people get great value out of working with a coach individually, but you might say I have a bias. If you can enlist a few people with similar challenges and intentions, hire a coach for the group. It’s more economical and you’ll still get some individual attention. The big benefit in group coaching is that you don’t need to run the meeting. You can focus on the slow and steady digesting of learning and change. The coach will be responsible for focus, facilitation, and creating a productive discussion for learning.

What have you done to digest deep learning or big change and get it into your bones?

Fixing a fixed mindset: Failure is an option

“Failure is not an option.” For some people, this is how they say they’ve got grit and persistence. But others live it without recognizing that they’re working as hard as possible to avoid failure in many ways, big and small. “If I don’t do well, what’s become of my skills, talents, abilities? Doesn’t it call them into question?” If this is one of your worries, you may be operating in the fixed mindset.

If we can’t allow ourselves to consider the possibility of failure, we have locked ourselves into a cell with only one way out. And we’ve foreclosed the chance to learn. We make it difficult to course-correct. We make it more difficult to accept help, new ideas, and the inevitable developments that don’t go as planned. Worst, we make it almost impossible to notice what’s developing while we drive for our fore-ordained goal.

Circumstances sometimes go against us. Opponents may best us. Or, apparent opponents may prove to be allies as new developments take shape. Even if we do succeed on our own terms, we will not have learned how to respond to circumstance and change. We will only have found a way to manhandle events the way we have done in the past.

How to start fixing the fixed mindset

First, notice when success is the only option. Take responsibility for your part in feeding that mindset. Did you sign up for the assignment because it would confirm your string of successes? Did you sell yourself short and take on a sure thing? Are you blaming others for things that neither you nor they can control?

Second, use self reflection: What will I lose if I fail? Job? Maybe, but not likely. Not many of us will lose our jobs over a one-time fail. Respect, yes, for a while. Will you lose the fond idea of yourself as a success, and brilliant, and next in line for [whatever you think you want next]? If you think you can’t handle losing those, you may be noticing the fixed mindset.

What we believe about ourselves is pretty important to us. Think about it: it’s pretty important to you to be seen as a success, or as kind, or collaborative, or creative, even visionary. But you will not die without it. You may have to take my word on this. But from here on, watch and see if not getting everything right the first time inflicts a mortal wound. Oh, it will hurt. But you’ll come back from it stronger.

Third, keep an eye on yourself. Pay attention to when you insist that success is the only option. Learn to recognize the urge to take on the sure thing, the thing that proves you are who you think you are. See if you can name what you are really trying to get out of it. We’re usually reinforcing something that makes us feel very good; nothing is more natural. So don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s going to take some practice to learn to recognize this habit.

Last, try something like this. “I’m not positive how to [decide, select, present, evaluate, your verb here]. Here’s what I’ve learned about our situation so far, and that makes me think [this]. What do you make of the situation? What are we learning from this situation right now?”

It can be really challenging to do this. How old are you? That’s how many years you’ve been reinforcing the mindset you have. You can change it. It will take some time. It may take some help.

Step back when you are able. See yourself as the project. Ask, “What am I learning from this project so far?”

How to Use Fixed Mindset to Discover What Matters Most

If you’ve ever had a 4:00 a.m. thought about something you’ve done and you cringe, you may be experiencing the “fixed mindset.” Maybe it comes back to you as, “I screwed up.” It’s personal. Recalling it brings to life good old-fashioned shame.

For a more than two years, I’ve been recommending Mindset Pencil drawing as illustraion of risks and challenges inbusinessto friends and colleagues. Carol Dweck’s research defines what many people experience: failure calls into question one’s talent, intelligence, and track record. So instead of relishing new encounters, and what we could learn from them, we treat them as pass-fail tests. (I’ll talk more about the fixed-mindset habits and their effect in another post.) I like to think I’m pretty capable, but I saw myself in the symptoms. Understanding the fixed and growth mindsets proved useful.

But I’ve also struggled to help people use the concept. I still recommend the book. The more you pay attention to signs of these mindsets, the more you notice the extent of your habit of proving your talent to yourself and others, or avoiding situations where you may fail.

Still, how do you fix the fixed mindset? What’s become clear to me is that our commitments are where we don’t want to fail. We want to be good parents, ready and able for advancement at work, engaged and active citizens, a good shortstop on the softball team. If we have a fixed mindset, that’s where we will see it at work. And that’s where it will constrict us most, dogging our steps as we try to advance.

Before we fix the fixed mindset, we need to see it. And where we see it, it reveals some commitment that’s important to us. Start from either end. If you are hell-bent to succeed and determined not to fail, that’s the fixed mindset. It’s keeping you boxed in more than you think.

Or, think about what’s important to you. Where do you strive hardest to succeed? In what areas do you protect yourself from even small failures? Underneath the good intention and the effort, there’s a commitment that represents an important element of your identity. Notice these and you’ll start to see them show up in new settings. Don’t worry. The fixed mindset is more typical than you might think.

Take time to get used to your mindsets and where they appear. They’re clues to the most important things you believe. And if you’re noticing them, you’re also feeling an impulse to move beyond their limits.

Parting: Lessons from Leaving

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a group that I’ve belonged to for about eighteen months. It was not easy make the decision. I was nervous as I made the announcement. The group includes coaches and consultants striving to learn and serve our clients better. I did learn a great deal, but I did more than acquire knowledge. I learned to appreciate other’s points of view. And my own.adieu

With this group, I came to see more clearly that my point of view was limited. And while that’s obvious, working with and being challenged by others who see the world differently gave me pause. I stopped and listened. It was uncomfortable. It took real effort. I believe I’ve learned that a wider view is the best place to start most things. That openness is also the mindset to adopt when facing ambiguity and confusion.

But I also came to recognize that my own point of view is a solid home base. I don’t mean that my view is simply where I’m most comfortable. I didn’t conclude that I had been right all along. I found that I could trust my self as a learner, a coach, a teacher, and a consultant. As I write this now, I wonder how you’ll hear that.

Think of times when you felt at ease and could listen without busily working out what to say next. Think of the times when you felt your feet solidly underneath you and felt ready to move at any moment. That’s something of what it feels like to know your home base. If a memory of home base experience comes to mind, hold it there, notice how it feels in your body. That’s a footing to step onto when you’re feeling blown around.

I recognize that I owe those colleagues a great thank-you for their generosity. They challenged me to listen, most often by their example. And in turn they listened to me. When people really hear us, we recognize the sound of our own voice.

These are all lessons learned in parting. Not leaving exactly. I’ll be hanging with these folks in other ways for years, I hope. But the lessons of membership are different from the lessons of parting. It is a sweet sorrow because it is leaving and also pressing on, a future vision clearer every day. Marking these parting lessons is one way to bow in respect to the time and attention of those who were members with us. Imagine me bowing low and long.

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.