Lopsided Leadership: When Strengths Fail

In the last decade, leadership-development experts have enthusiastically pushed to improve their clients’ strengths instead of addressing their weaknesses. This approach may have some success in growing individuals’ effectiveness, but it’s fundamentally flawed.

Strengths training and coaching have somewhat of a cult-like following among HR and coaching professionals. Leaders are encouraged to develop their unique strengths and focus on fortifying areas in which they’re naturally talented.

Amazon sells almost 8,000 books on the subject, including several bestsellers published by Gallup, whose StrengthsFinder assessment tool is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies.

In some companies, even the word “weakness” has become politically incorrect. Staff is instead described as having strengths and “opportunities for growth” or “challenges.”

It’s easy to see why concentrating on leadership strengths is popular. It’s more enjoyable to hone in on innate strengths and avoid discussing weaknesses. But when strengths-oriented programs emphasize a single leadership area, they bypass others—usually to a manager’s detriment.

When strengths are overemphasized, they’re often overused.

“We’ve seen virtually every strength taken too far: confidence to the point of hubris, and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We’ve seen vision drift into aimless dreaming, and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength and we’ll give you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.”
—Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan, “Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses,” Harvard Business Review, April 04, 2013

Too Much of a Good Thing

Doing too much of something is as much of a problem as doing too little of it. Most managers can point to a leader who takes things too far: the supportive boss who cuts people a little too much slack or the gifted operational director whose relentless focus on results leads to micromanaging. It can be extremely difficult to recognize these behaviors in yourself.

Other leaders underestimate their assets, downplaying their efforts or deflecting positive feedback. They fail to understand and own the extent of their impact on others.

Successful leaders recognize and accept their talents. They learn how to fine-tune their strengths, becoming self-aware and attuned to appropriate context.

Management assessment tools are usually ill-equipped to pick up on overplayed strengths. Feedback and performance reviews are commonly structured on scales that range from “never” to “sometimes” to “always” (or “doesn’t meet expectations,” “meets them” or “exceeds them”). Assessment scales rarely indicate that a leader exercises too little, the right amount or too much of a quality.

Career Derailment

Overplayed strengths are often at the root of career failures. Analyses of derailed leaders show they often rely excessively on qualities linked to past successes but less relevant to current roles.

“What got you here won’t get you there,” Marshall Goldsmith famously stated in his book by the same name (Hachette Books, 2007).

Many leaders fear they’ll lose their edge if they stop overplaying a strength. They must instead learn to use this strength more selectively.

This may be the hardest developmental work you take on. Behavioral changes are a demanding goal, and it’s even harder to change or modulate what you’ve always done well. You must trace your leadership behavior back to the faulty thinking that led you to form false assumptions at some point in your career. This doesn’t mean you have to go into therapy. You can work with an executive coach to realign your leadership strengths.

Lopsided Leadership

All managers, regardless of level, are likely to overuse strengths. Doing so not only corrupts these strengths, but creates specific weaknesses. If you believe your strengths are the only way to manage people, you’ll ignore equal, but opposing, strengths. This leads to lopsided leadership, Kaiser and Kaplan explain in Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).

Most leaders are familiar with the concept of skill sets coming in pairs. Multiple assessment tools classify people’s preferences as either “task-oriented” vs. “people-oriented,” “big picture” vs. “detail-oriented” or “analytic” vs. “intuitive.”

Our preferences are usually unconscious, reflecting our experiences and innate qualities. We’ve learned to define ourselves as one thing and not the other. Over the course of our careers, one strength grows while the other decays.

Let’s look at the positive and negative characteristics of four personality traits, as explored by Drs. Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner in Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (McGraw-Hill Education, 2002):

Leadership Dualities

While there are many different models of leadership competencies, the one proposed by Kaiser and Kaplan illustrates the tension of dualities that arise in the execution of leadership responsibilities.

“…there are two core dualities that confront all leaders: the need to be forceful combined with the need to be enabling, and the need to have a strategic focus combined with the need to have an operational focus. Together these dualities constitute the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of leading.”

The authors have used their Leadership Versatility Index (LVI), a 360-degree assessment tool, with more than 7,000 managers who have been rated by 60,000 coworkers. Their results show that the more forceful leaders are, the less enabling they’re likely to be. Strategic and operational leadership are also inversely related.

Big-picture/visionary leaders tend to struggle with implementation, while masters of implementation tend to ignore or underplay strategy. The same holds true for the forceful/enabling dynamic, Kaiser and Kaplan note.

The LVI data reveal a strong association between strategic leadership and high scores on curiosity and open-mindedness, coupled with low scores on rule-abiding/detail-orientation. The opposite associations were found for operational leadership.

Forceful and enabling leadership were related to a different set of traits. Forceful leadership was associated with high scores on ambition and low scores on interpersonal sensitivity. Enabling leadership was associated with the opposite scores.

  • Strategically oriented leaders are often lauded for their aggressiveness and vision, but criticized for not being sufficiently grounded in reality.
  • Operationally oriented leaders are often admired for their focus and ability to systematically drive an organization toward its goals, but they are also faulted for having tunnel vision and a lack of strategic boldness.

LVI research also reveals 97% of managers who overdo forceful leadership in some respect also underdo enabling leadership, according to their coworkers.

Additionally, 94% who overdo operational leadership in some way also underdo strategic leadership. Yet, only 55% of the managers rated by coworkers as using too much of a leadership attribute rated themselves as overdoing that attribute.

Goldilocks Leadership

How can you manage people “just right” and take full advantage of your natural talents, without going too far?

The first step is to acknowledge where you overuse your strengths. Start with a review of the ratings on your most recent 360-degree report. Ask coworkers:

  • What should I do more?
  • What should I do less?
  • What should I continue doing?

Ask yourself whether you privately pride yourself on being superior to other leaders in any way. This is precisely the attribute you’re at risk of overdoing. Take a look at its polar opposite. Explore with your coach how you can experiment with new behaviors that have been underused.

Fine-tuning your strengths is an art that requires a blend of self-awareness and situational awareness.

  • Self-awareness allows you to handle challenges by responding appropriately rather than reactively. When you know what your default tendencies are, you can pause and mindfully choose a response instead of acting out of habit.
  • Situational awareness helps you regulate the “volume controls” of your strengths with regard to audience and context.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone can become fully balanced. LVI research finds only 5% of executives get it right on forceful vs. enabling leadership, as well as strategic vs. operational leadership.

Most managers lean one way or another. This lopsidedness hurts your personal and team effectiveness. Sound leadership depends on learning how to stop overdoing a given attribute and underdoing its polar opposite.

Shifting your preferred mindset is no doubt challenging, but you can successfully conquer this goal with your coach’s help.

A Coaching Conversation Checklist for Smart Managers

In spite of wide-spread coach training, most of the time managers aren’t using coaching skills to grow and develop their people. Instead, many managers still believe in their role as a problem solver, cutting short conversations with employees by providing solutions, advice, and answers.

Yet managers with a coaching style usually find that their employees are more committed, willing to put in greater effort, and are less likely to leave.

“Clearly, the benefits of building a coaching culture and increasing the effectiveness of coaching are great. There are both tangible benefits (increased employee engagement and productivity) and intangible benefits (improved culture and finding meaning and purpose in work).”
~ John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, McGraw-Hill, 2010

In spite of learning coaching skills, many managers struggle to have effective coaching conversations that lead to insights and change. A checklist for coaching conversations can help.

Zenger and Stinnett suggest using the FUEL model in The Extraordinary Coach:

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process, and desired outcome.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Help the coachee to articulate a vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

Step 1: Frame the Coaching Conversation

It’s not always that managers don’t know how to coach; it’s that conversations with employees often turn into project task updates instead of furthering their growth and development.

In spite of good intentions, managers don’t use a checklist to remind them how to set up a coaching dialogue. From the book by Zenger and Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach, there are three steps that work well for initiating a developmental dialogue.

  1. Identify the behavior or issue to discuss. “I’d like to talk about [the issue]…”
  2. Determine the purpose or outcomes of the conversation. “By the end of this conversation, I would like to accomplish…” “What else would you like to make sure that we address?”
  3. Agree on the process for the conversation. “Here’s how I thought we could proceed…” “How does that sound?”

This sounds almost too simple to bother with, but without it, employees aren’t clear about what the issues are and how they can use them to grow and develop. Whether the manager or the coachee initiates the conversation and brings up the topic isn’t as important as setting up the conversation and clarifying what’s going to be discussed, what outcomes are intended, and how the conversation will proceed. These three steps will save the manager from needing to have the same conversation twice.

Step 2: Understanding Leads to Insights

The next step in a coaching conversation is to address the “meat” of the issue. Managers need to understand what’s going on. This part can be tricky because of our natural tendency to assume we understand what the issues are. We fill in the blanks and automatically judge–usually prematurely.

Instead, a manager needs to listen well and encourage the coachee to talk. Explore what the real challenge is for her. Be curious about what is said or merely implied. Follow emotional cues.

Here are some great pointers from the Zenger and Stinnett book.


  • Ask open-ended, non-leading questions
  • Act as a mirror, observe, and say what you hear and see
  • Follow up on emotionally charged words or expressions
  • Explore what the real issue or challenge is
  • Discuss consequences in the event things don’t change


  • Assume anything
  • Judge, criticize, or categorize
  • Ask for too many details or focus on other people
  • Let the person obsess or ruminate; rather let her explore possibilities
  • Offer your perspective or advice until the person has explored options
  • Find an answer for the person; let him discover insight and awareness

People won’t change until they experience a need to change, and if a manager is too helpful, the coachee won’t feel enough tension to be motivated to change. Keep the focus on them and what they need—and are willing–to do differently.

Step 3: Explore Desired Outcomes

Typically in most companies, managers are excellent problem-fixers and advice-givers. They want to jump in at Step 3. Many tend to skip over Steps 1 and 2, because managers have a bias for action. They may be more comfortable when they solve a problem quickly and influence action from others.

But that is a big trap. Instead of pouncing on the first viable solution, it’s worthwhile to explore alternatives. Managers can show their people how to think things through so that the right target becomes the objective. It’s important to let the coachee do most of the talking to find what matters most to her. If the employee’s vision is too small, the manager can help her explore broader objectives.

Here are some tips on this part of the coaching conversation:

  • Don’t rush into problem solving; create the ideal vision and generate more alternatives for achieving that vision.
  • Resist the tendency to go with the first option.
  • As the manager, you can negotiate and influence what the measures of success must include.
  • If the coachee comes up with at least three alternatives to consider, the coachee will end up with a more robust and effective solution.
  • If the coachee gets stuck, offer to become a brainstorming partner.
  • Explore possible barriers and look for alternatives.

Step 4: Lay Out a Success Plan

This is the home stretch in a coaching conversation and, like the previous steps, should not be rushed or skimmed over. Presumably, by now you have outlined the desired vision of success as well as several alternatives for getting there. You’ve prioritized the options that will work best. Now you are ready to dive into the specific detailed action steps with a follow-up plan.

The role of the manager is critical here, as a guide. You help the coachee identify the specific actions to be taken. You help the coachee enlist the support of others. You need to hear the coachee articulate exactly how he or she will proceed to increase the likelihood that it will happen. Also, you help the coachee commit to timelines for important milestones.

By assigning accountability, you will help your coachee change faster than without it. Even if 85 percent of coachees complete their assignments on the day or morning before their next coaching meeting, it is still effective.

Here are the three sub steps of this final coaching conversation:

  • Develop and agree on an action plan with timelines.
  • Enlist support from others.
  • Set milestones for follow-up and accountability.

The key role of the manager is to ask for details, clarity, and commitment. This is how managers add value to the coaching conversation. Accountability works, and it works better when there is consistent follow-up.

Managers Also Ask for Feedback

Research suggests that when the coachee can provide feedback to the manager on the value of the session, the quality and relevance of the session is significantly increased. But few managers remember to ask for feedback. One possible way to conclude a coaching conversation would be like this:

“On a scale of one to five, how valuable was this conversation with regard to providing relevant help for you?”  

Why Bother with Coaching Conversations?

Without going in to all the statistical ROI studies on the benefits of coaching, let’s look at the benefits of coaching as a managerial style. Why bother with coaching conversations?

  1. Coaching gives new meaning to work. When people feel that they are engaged in a useful cause and not merely performing menial tasks, they have more energy and motivation and will go beyond minimal requirements. Coaching provides managers opportunities to link each person’s job to the overall mission of the business.
  2. Coaching leads to more engaged and committed employees. Managerial coaching shows strong evidence of boosting engagement.
  3. Higher productivity outcomes. Coaching refocuses people on the most important objectives and lets them know that their manager is paying attention to them. Peter Drucker hypothesized that if an organization could increase productivity by only ten percent, profits would double. The bottom-line impact of coaching is hard to ignore.
  4. Coaching leads to a stronger culture. An organization’s culture has a big impact on performance and productivity. Leaders influence culture by the example they set and the behavior they reward or curb in their daily conversations with people.
  5. Coaching strengthens relationships between supervisor and employee. When managers coach, they are expressing their personal commitment to the development of an employee.
  6. Coaching promotes healthier individuals. When leaders take the time to coach someone, they contribute to that person’s self-esteem and confidence.
  7. Resilience. Coaching encourages resilience for when problems arise and mistakes are made. Managers can help people learn to think for themselves, create their own energy, and meet challenges without the need for micromanaging.
  8. Heightened creativity and innovative thinking. Coaching is a mutual exploration of better ways to approach challenging situations, thus encouraging people to have their own ideas.
  9. Increased risk taking and exploring.  Coaching encourages people to pursue projects and provides a safety net and support.
  10. Mindset of an owner instead of a hired hand. Coaching helps people take responsibility and ownership of problems and solutions.

The Coaching Conversation Checklist

There is a strong case for using a checklist to ensure success in many professions. Airline pilots have used them for years. Surgeons are now using them to lower rates of infection and death, thus saving millions in hospital expenses.

Having a guide to follow reduces stress and uncertainty. It also increases a manager’s confidence that nothing important will be forgotten. Smart managers use a coaching conversation checklist to see breakthrough results.

Face the Coaching FACTS

I’ve been writing about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to guide and develop their people. When managers don’t have clear framework for initiating coaching conversations, they revert to managing in more traditional ways, without coaching. Here is another framework and some powerful questions that work for coaching.

People enjoy receiving their managers’ support, yet they also want to be challenged, note John Blakey and Ian Day in Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012).

Blakey and Day developed the FACTS coaching model from frontline observations:

  • F = Feedback: How can coaches provide challenging feedback that informs and inspires? How can we ensure that praise and recognition for a job well done are balanced with honest feedback on mistakes, learning and failures?
  • A = Accountability: How does a coach hold people accountable for commitments without blame or shame? How can accountability be extended from personal commitments to alignment with the values, strategy and ethos of the wider organization?
  • C = Courageous Goals: How does a coach move beyond incremental goal-setting models to those that engage the right-brain attributes of courage, excitement, inspiration and transformation? Which models and concepts help structure coaching conversations and provide a practical road map?
  • T = Tension: When is tension constructive? How can coaches practice creating and holding tension without risking burnout in key performers? How can the tension in a conversation be calibrated and dynamically adjusted to ensure peak performance? When does tension go too far and damage the underlying relationships?
  • S = Systems Thinking: How can a coach stay sensitive to “big-picture” issues like ethics, diversity and the environment without losing focus on bottom-line results? What can be learned from the world of systems thinking that enables the coach to be a positive agent of change for the wider organization? What is the role of intuition in guiding interventions that reach beyond the immediate coachee and touch on deeper organizational change?

The FACTS approach requires you to master core coaching skills (intent listening, asking vital questions). You must also achieve a firm foundation of trust and respect with your employees. The FACTS approach is a launch pad for high performance and change.

Powerful Questions

Managers who avoid coaching often struggle with initiating coaching conversations. In the absence of deep, hour-long coaching sessions, you can use key questions to realize change and growth.

Michael Bungay Stanier shares seven core questions to open coaching conversations in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Box of Crayons Press, 2016):

  • What’s on your mind?
  • What else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you want?
  • How can I help?
  • If you’re saying “yes” to this, to what are you saying “no”?
  • What was most useful for you?

Managers who effectively use their coaching skills will boost team performance and foster employee growth and development. You can achieve stellar results if you lose your fear of initiating coaching conversations. With a simple coaching framework and powerful questions, you’ll enjoy coaching conversations that are short, simple and provocative.

What do you think about using coaching conversations for managing? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Even More on Why Managers Don’t Use Coaching Skills

Even though most managers get trained in coaching skills, the majority aren’t having coaching conversations that expand awareness, thinking and capability in the people they lead. Why don’t more managers coach?

According to John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), three common barriers stand in the way:

  1. Misconceptions of what coaching is
  2. A desire to avoid difficult conversations
  3. No clear game plan for initiating and framing coaching conversations

I discussed the first reason, misconceptions of coaching in my previous post here. Let’s discuss the next barriers.

A Desire to Avoid Difficult Conversations

Coaching conversations require time and energy, but they’re the only way to gain trust, honesty and transparency. If you’re unwilling to invest the required time and effort, coaching will inevitably fail. Both parties must be committed to creating a positive relationship.

Managers must be fully present during coaching conversations, which means turning off phones and email alerts during sessions. Keep any promises you make, and be sure to emphasize that you’ll maintain confidentiality.

No Game Plan for Coaching Conversations

Even after training, many managers have trouble initiating coaching conversations, let alone developing a process that expedites desired results.

Many models exist, but the best are short, simple and easy to employ whenever coaching opportunities arise. Coaching needn’t be scheduled as 50-minute sessions. With a solid framework, you can achieve results in as little as 10 minutes.

There are many models to follow, most with easy-to-remember frameworks such as the GROW model, the FUEL model, and the FACTS system. There is no shortage of books and experts who claim their system works best. The key is to learn a process and stick to it so that coaching conversations become natural and productive.

All coaching models proceed from setting the stage, defining desired outcomes, exploring alternatives and barriers, deciding an action plan and setting milestones for feedback and accountability.

Coaching works best when the relationship is grounded in trust and respect, and it can’t work without that foundation. It proceeds with the coach asking the powerful questions and requires deep listening. No matter which coach training model is used, attention to the relationship is foundational.

In the next post I’ll provide some effective frameworks for having coaching conversations that work. Until then, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Why Managers Don’t use Coaching Skills

In spite of a lot of coach skills training for managers, not many are actually initiating coaching conversations with people. There are some misconceptions and barriers that stop them, from what I’ve observed in my work.

According to John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett in The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), managers usually cite lack of time as the main excuse for failing to coach employees, but the real reasons may be different.

Misconceptions of What Coaching Is

Some managers are not clear what they’re supposed to do when they coach. Skilled managers initiate coaching conversations so their people can explore what they do and how they do it. Coaching expands employee awareness, uncovers better solutions, and allows employees to make and implement sound decisions.

Coaching provides a safe platform for growth. Successful managers consciously choose growth as a priority outcome. They understand that developing people is as important as getting things done.

Coaching isn’t instructing, mentoring, counseling, cheerleading, therapy or directing, although there are some similarities. Coaching skills include:

  • Clarifying an interaction’s outcome and agreeing to a conversation’s goal
  • Listening to what is—and isn’t—said
  • Asking non-leading questions to expand awareness
  • Exploring possibilities, consequences, actions and decisions
  • Eliciting a desired future state
  • Establishing goals and expectations, including stretch goals
  • Providing support
  • Following up on progress
  • Setting accountability agreements

Managers must be non-directive, listen intently and ask the right questions. Coach training emphasizes supporting people, with an eye toward challenging them.

As a manager, you’re tasked with bringing out the best in people, including high performance and bottom-line results. When you take up the coaching baton, performance goals must share the stage with employee growth and development.

Many managers struggle to balance direction and support. They’re usually afraid of making mistakes, so they revert to telling employees what to do instead of coaching them.

Does that happen where you work? I’d love to hear your experiences. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

How to Up Your Inner Game of Leadership

Wise leaders who want to adapt to rapidly shifting demands of business for the future, continually work with an executive coach to grow their inner game. The inner game of leadership is as important as mastering outer competencies, if not more.

The “inner game” concept became popular 15 to 20 years ago. Sports coach and consultant Tim Gallwey coined the term in The Inner Game of Golf, The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Work, and his ideas have proved to be timeless.

Character strengths are key to any leader who wants to lead well. As such, to thrive, leaders should set both performance and learning goals, as I wrote about here.

Every learning goal contributes to future performance. In a performance-driven culture, achievement is overestimated at the expense of learning.

In my experience working with many executives, it’s not easy for leaders to set learning goals, as a bit of humility is necessary. Leaders must acknowledge the need to learn and grow, and clarify which goals have the most leverage.

It can be potentially difficult to identify where and how learning will take place. Obviously, work itself provides the best laboratory. Cooperation from others is also needed.

Here are some tips for setting learning goals as a leader. Ask yourself these questions to refine your goals:

  1. What do I need to learn to enhance my performance?
  2. Where and with whom can I ask questions and practice these skills?
  3. Who can help me?
  4. Which resources are available to me?
  5. How do I like to learn and grow?

Follow these steps to expand your inner game:

  • Set learning goals with a coach to achieve clarity and develop an action plan.
  • After implementing your action plan, debrief the learning experience with your coach to maximize change.

Inner Leadership

To develop your inner game, keep these points in mind:

  • Professional coaching provides a platform for learning the inner game of leadership.
  • Self 1’s ego interferes with Self 2’s inherent wisdom.
  • Nonjudgmental awareness is curative.
  • Learning and performance goals will prepare you for the future’s increasing demands.

What do you think? Have you set learning goals for yourself, or worked with a coach on your inner game? I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

The Inner Mindset of an Effective Leader

What distinguishes great leaders from their mediocre colleagues?  Leaders with a growth mindset use every challenge as a learning goal. Effective leaders set an inner mindset to learn from every challenge.

Some leaders focus almost exclusively on performance. Others emphasize growth and learning, as well as results. In a horse race, put your money on the leader who defines both learning and performance goals.

Many managers and leaders are performance-driven. They have lists of SMART goals that highlight what they intend to achieve each quarter, often involving numbers:

  • Exceed sales results by 5%.
  • Increase bonuses by 10% by year’s end.
  • Improve team productivity by 25%.
  • Increase shareholder value.
  • Decrease customer complaints.

In my coaching work with clients, such performance-driven leaders focus exclusively on the outer game. They judge their worth by whether they’ve achieved these goals, and they hold their people to the same standards.

Unfortunately, these leaders are likely missing key factors that restrict their potential: a growth mindset and the ability to set and pursue learning goals for themselves and others.

“The desire to learn is as fundamental to our being as the desire to survive and to enjoy.”
~ Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Work

Learning goals include:

  • Diminish feelings of stress.
  • Enhance listening skills.
  • Develop empathy skills.
  • Improve coaching skills.
  • Facilitate more cohesive team-building.

Performance goals are, of course, necessary for achieving bottom-line results. But keep in mind that the bar is constantly being raised. How do you keep increasing your capacity to perform? If you cannot improve your capabilities, you’re unable to keep up. Learning goals represent the inner game you must work on to prevent stagnation.

What do you think? Have you set learning goals for yourself, or worked with a coach on your inner game? I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

The Inner Game of Leaders: Battle of the Two Selves

In his books on the Inner Game, author Tim Gallwey introduces the idea of Self 1 and Self 2.

These "selves" exist in everyone, whether we’re giving or receiving a message. Self 1 is the “big ego”: the know-it-all. Self 1 is judgmental, concerned with winning, being right and showing off.

Self 2 is the wise one—the real human being with inherent potential, including the ability to learn, grow and enjoy life.

When we act from Self 2, we are receptive and neutral. We observe and listen without any preconceived ideas. We are relaxed, focused, and able to take in and use information. We trust ourselves to make appropriate decisions. We extend trust to others because we act from a place of security and safety.

Self 1 doesn’t trust. It acts from a place of insecurity and fear because it’s always judging itself and others, while focusing on being right and winning. Self 1 uses pressure and high standards to get the most out of itself and others. Because Self 1 doesn’t trust natural abilities, it’s critical and stressed.

When coaching executives, I hear these two selves in evidence when clients share inner thoughts. 

The Critical Voice

Guess which "Self" interferes with high performance? In everything from sports and music to work and relationships, Self 1’s stress and anxiety prevent high-performance results. With worry and lost confidence, we think about too many things at once, we tighten up, and we hit the ball into the net. That which we fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a vicious cycle—one that the inner game urges us to circumvent. Doing so involves nothing more than observing nonjudgmentally. Don’t change anything for a while. Just observe yourself talking, listening and doing. Become acutely aware of feelings and responses. Nothing more. Just watch and learn.

You’ll soon see how Self 1 is active all the time, injecting opinions and criticisms. Self 1 distorts reality because it has an agenda: maintaining control and appearing successful.

Once you quiet Self 1’s voice, Self 2 becomes more authentic. It will know what to say in ways that are much more effective and influential to others. It doesn’t have an agenda.

Nonjudgmental Awareness

Author Tim Gallwey’s inner game is based on three principles:

  1. Awareness
  2. Trust
  3. Choice

First, nonjudgmental awareness is curative, allowing you to trust yourself and others. Awareness sets up the conditions for primary learning choices.

The next time you need people to act, communicate your message nonjudgmentally. Show trust in others. Let people choose what needs to be done to accomplish desired results.

I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

Leadership Decisions and Organizational Thinking

What can smart leaders do to avoid making decision errors that lead to business and career bloopers? You can start by reading Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath – as well as Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Working with an executive coach can raise your level of awareness about your own thinking. It can be helpful to dissect some previous decisions and look at how they could have been improved.
Organizations can avoid decision errors by requiring leaders and managers to use checklists, while fostering a culture where people watch out for one another. Team members should be taught to guard against biases and develop a sophisticated awareness of decision-making obstacles.
Every organization is essentially a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions. It must therefore work to ensure the quality of its ‘products’ at every developmental stage, to include:

  • Framing of the problem to be solved
  • Collection of relevant information
  • Consideration of alternative points of view
  • Reflection, forecasting and pre-mortem reviews

Setting up decision processes and ensuring quality control are alternatives to conducting a postmortem review in the wake of a disaster. We truly need a better vocabulary for decision-making processes. As Kahneman writes:

Ultimately, a richer language is essential to the skill of constructive criticism. Much like medicine, the identification of judgment errors is a diagnostic task, which requires a precise vocabulary. Similarly [to diagnostic labels for diseases], labels such as ‘anchoring effects,’ ‘narrow framing’, or ‘excessive coherence’ bring together in memory everything we know about a bias, its causes, its effects, and what can be done about it.

Leaders will make better choices when they trust the decision-making process and their critics to be informed and fair, and when their decision is judged by how it was made – not only by how it turned out.
What about you in your company? How do you approach important decisions? Do you have a trusted mentor or coach who can help you broaden your perspective? Maybe we should talk?

Leadership Decisions: Fast and Slow Thinking

If you haven’t read this great book on decision making, I suggest you do: Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011):

“My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely.”

Kahneman simplifies the mind’s decision-making process by dividing it into Systems 1 and 2.
System 1 is fast, routinely guiding our thoughts and action – and it’s generally on the mark. Our associative memory maintains a richly detailed model of our world, as well as a vast repertoire of skills acquired over a lifetime of practice. This allows us to produce remarkable solutions to everyday challenges.
System 2 is slow. It represents our rational self (who we think we are). It articulates judgments and makes choices, but it often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings generated by System 1.
But System 2 isn’t merely an apologist for System 1; it also prevents many foolish thoughts and inappropriate impulses from becoming overt expressions. System 2 is not always rational, and we don’t always think straight. We often make mistakes because we don’t know any better.
System 1 simultaneously generates answers to related questions, and may substitute a response that more easily comes to mind for the one that was requested. By using heuristics, it quickly provides probable answers that are often correct – but sometimes they are quite wrong.
There is no way for System 2 to know if a System 1 answer is a skilled or heuristic response without slowing down and attempting to construct an answer on its own. But this is a slow and arduous thinking process, which the brain resists.
And so, we are prone to thinking errors. System 1 is not readily educable. The only recourse is to recognize you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for System 2 reinforcement.
No warning bell rings. “The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision,” according to Kahneman. “More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble.”
It’s usually easier to spot a minefield when you see others wander into it. This is why smart leaders work with senior leadership teams and executive coaches. Observers are less cognitively mired and more open to information than those who are intensely involved.