How Would It Feel?

Many of us have a tendency to develop “seniority amnesia”. When we gain positions of power at work or at home, and we seem to forget how our decisions and actions would feel if we were on the receiving end of them. You hear something or experience events and decide to drop a relationship or judge someone as not capable. You make an assessment of someone’s talent, potential, and performance based on the way you process and add meaning to the data. You deliver the final dagger to someone’s career and motivation by not taking the time to have a direct conversation with them, and instead, go on to share your assessment with other important stakeholders. You are not curious, don’t ask questions, and do not allow the time to find out directly.

Imagine how it feels when others treat you in the same manner. You would probably be frustrated, angry, demotivated, and would in some cases, look for other opportunities.

Is this how you would want your leadership legacy to be remembered? As someone who uses their position power to damage others or cut relations with little curiosity to gather collective intelligence, reflect, weigh, teach, and make a balanced decision?

Anyone who has studied behavioral and social psychology understands the aphrodisiac that power and prestige deposits into our neural pathways. I have been there and tasted it. It is addictive. On an individual level we start to see ourselves as superior, smarter, having better judgment, and ultimately better decision makers than others.  On the group level, we seek others who are closer to our perceived social and power standing. We start to talk differently, behave differently, think that others will not understand our situation and do not have the experience, intelligence, and background. These self-limiting assumptions will cripple organizations that are keen to succeed in the 21st century.

Leadership in the 21st century will require the following:

  • Honesty and Transparency – Failure to address issues with honesty leaves others guessing and creates a risk-averse mentality where the message is “unless and until you drive between the white lines as I define it you will sit in the penalty box indefinitely.” Clearly this is not a recipe for the innovation, agility, adaptability, and growth mindset required for the 21st century
  • Courage and Empathy – Great leaders will be defined by their backbone and heart. Not one or the other. When we lose our ability to feel how our decisions and actions land on the receivers, don’t really care, and don’t have the courage to have a direct conversation, we are not serving our own leadership legacy and not acting in the best interest of the organizations we serve (and yes, your family and friends are organizations too…)
  • Teachable Moments – The speed, complexity, volatility, and uncertainty of the 21st century means that every time there is a teachable moment, we engage and learn. As Carol Dweck so ably describes it, we leave behind our fixed mindset and engage in the growth mindset.1 If we were honest we would admit that all of us have made decisions and taken actions that, if viewed in isolation, have limited our growth and development. However, others have taken the time and care to make these occasions teachable moments. Kolb’s adult learning theory shows unmistakably that direct conversation and feedback, close to the decision/action taken, is one of the most effective ways for adults to learn.2
  • Taking Accountability and Apologizing – Great leaders will not allow the ego-self to dominate. They take accountability and apologize when they notice that their ego has made them hide behind the trappings of their positions and avoid difficult conversations directly and with an open mind. Your colleagues will never be able to convey your message in the same manner and with the same level of specificity as you, and frankly, it is unfair to put them in that position. Your priority is your talent, your relationships, and the human fabric that, if motivated, will take you to the next level of success. This is not an elective it is part of your job more so than the endless meetings you attend.

As an example of the power and status mentality, the following example is prevalent. I have coached leaders at every level in global Fortune 500, entrepreneurial, and non-profit organizations. I have the references, experience, and track record in every facet of coaching. However, I am surprised by those with a fixed mindset that believe only a CEO can coach another CEO or that only those with experience in a given industry can effectively coach their leaders. Surely every professional serving a client needs to study and learn the essential facts and context of the organizations he or she works with. However, coaching is essentially a way to enable leaders to get in touch with their true selves, understand their emotional and habitual triggers/tendencies, the early warning systems that their physical selves are providing, and to create a reflective space for coach and coachee to examine decisions and actions from a more informed and detached stance.

There is now massive data that illustrates the fact that most of our decisions are actually made in our ancestral brain where subconscious emotions reside. This point is poignantly illustrated by Leonard Mlodinow.3 Ask yourselves:

  • Why do I connect with some people and not others?
  • Why do I hire some people and not others given similar experiences and performance?
  • Why do I trust some people and not others with no direct evidence in hand?
  • Why am I attracted to some things and people and not others?
  • Why do I keep pushing for my pet projects and have a hard time changing my stance with new information?
  • Why do I change my point of view and how I feel about people that leave my organization?
  • Why couldn’t Kodak roll out digital technology they already had in a more timely fashion?
  • Why am I having a hard time getting closer to my neighbor with a different political orientation from me?
  • When am I in flow and when do I act from my lower self?

We convince ourselves that our decisions are brilliant and completely logical as do each side of the aisle in Washington D.C.

Therefore, the emphasis in selecting a coach should be on his or her ability to create credibility and safety so that the coachee will share their most intimate thoughts and feelings, that unchecked, will result in decisions and actions that affect large groups of people and the success of the organization. These executives already have an army of strategic advisors who provide them technical advice. They require someone with expertise at the intersection of behavioral science and business.

Take the time today to make a list of some of the decisions where you hid behind your power or when you just were “too busy” to bother with the people who you perceive as lower than you in status or power. Or if you generally shy away from direct conversations. Ask yourself how would you feel if you were on the other side of the interaction? If there is one principle that you have time to focus on in the 21st century it should be the golden rule.

  • One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form)
  • One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form)
  • What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form)

We live in the era of choice. Technology and internet have been the great dis-intermediators and liberators of the more traditional brute force hierarchy. Many more people from more collectivist and feminine cultures are now in the work force. Age is no longer seen as being equivalent to apprenticeship, and knowing only what one needs to know has gone the way of the typewriter. Prior to making a decision ask yourself “How would this decision land on me if I were on the other side of it?“

  1. Dweck, C, PH.D. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine, 2006.
  2. Kolb, DA. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  3. Mlodinow, L. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Questions for Online Conversations

  • When was the last time you reached back and acknowledged those who helped you get where you are?
  • Would your relationships say that you treat them as you would like to be treated? If not, what is the ego saying? Do you agree with it?
  • On your last day when they are giving the goodbye speeches, how do you want to be remembered? A teacher/coach? Looked up to with awe? Liked, missed with genuine tears? Polite applause?

Pleased align your resources and time behind your strategy.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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