Children on Leadership

Remember those long summer days when you were a child? They seemed endless. They were so wondrous. We could not to wait to get out of bed and get going. So many amazing things to experience.  Look at that caterpillar about to blossom into a beautiful butterfly. Wow, so many stars above. I wonder, who lives up there? Can they see me? Look at those ants all pitching in to carry that morsel to their winter hideaway. Look how hard they are working. Back then, you were present to every moment. Your brain was like a sponge and just could not get enough. You were a curious explorer. You took nothing for granted.  Everything had its own nuance, even if you had experienced it before. Before was before. Now is now…  That, my friends, is the reason why those days seemed endless. Why you experienced your life fully. So what happened? You lost your presence. Your life became a series of habits and rituals. Days, weeks, and years just became one big blob. Melting into each other. You wake up, put on your clothes, and the routine starts. You hardly notice what you are putting in your mouth when you eat. You have become a slave to your smart phone which dictates to you what you should experience, think, and feel.  You wind yourself up and go about your day robot-like until your battery runs down and you fall into bed exhausted, hardly noticing who is next to you.

Lesson #1 – Children and great leaders are completely present.  Leaders need to call on their child-like curiosity. Never mind the start of the year strategic plan. What is the present telling us? Am I checking with the people in this room to see if there is new information? Do they feel comfortable telling me what they think?  How am I coming across right now? Is this the presence I want right now?  What should it be? What am learning and feeling?

In my experience, leaders who are in their own bubble and are driven by routine, history, controlling the future, and have lost their child-like wonder and thirst for learning will, in the longer term, underperform.  On the other hand, those that are present exhibit superior listening skills, are self-aware, and can detect current opportunities and how to leverage them. They understand the foundational principle of great leadership – “the only things I can lead are those that that I am present to”

Be present – the way you used to be when you witnessed that caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

Lesson #2 – Children and great leaders start with trust, positivity, and love. Remember the laughter.  The one that came from the bottom of your heart. The one the lasted for ever. When you and your friends used to sit and talk about you and them.  And you liked hanging out with each other because you were really close. You knew each other. You were a team. You brought joy, laughter, fun, possibilities, and sometimes pain, but always love to one another. You trusted your friends. You told them things, and they told you stuff. And through that camaraderie you helped each other grow and know what it is to trust and connect and do some amazing things that you could not do by yourself. You saw the glass as half full. You started each day with positivity which gave you unbounded energy to run and play all day long. When you went to bed you were tired, but it was that good kind of tired. You know the one that has you fall into a deep sleep with a smile on the face. You now have to bring some of that back into how you lead your teams and organization. You are spending about 75% of your waking life at work and you know almost nothing about the people next to you. We have now worked with over 1,000 teams and when we ask them what percentage of work time they talk and interact like this, they say about 5 to 10%.  You are going into battle everyday against your competitors. You are in a superfast and complex world, and are being bombarded with new information and circumstances that make your playbook obsolete in a heartbeat. You need to know the person next to you and anticipate their reactions, emotions, and how they would react. You need to be able to trust them and be on the same page with them. You need to be more like a jazz band, starting with a plan but being able to quickly improvise and build on each other’s cues. Can you do that the way you used to be able to do with your friends when you were making that kite together, or figuring out how to arrange that play date? According to all of the research in the field of positive psychology, leaders who foster a spirit of positivity and fun create teams that outperform others.  In her book “Positivity”, Barbara Fredrickson shares research that shows that unless the ratio of positive to negative thoughts are at minimum 3 to 1, motivation and performance are adversely effected.1

You need to get your laughter, optimism, and positive energy back and display it often and shamelessly.

Lesson # 3 – Children and great leaders don’t assume, they experience.

The reason children learn technology, languages, sports, and many other subjects faster and more comprehensively than adults is that the child carries a beginner’s mindset that is unattached to assumptions and past routines.  In his book “The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhuigg presents a powerful case for how habits and routines play such a vital role in how leaders and organizations think and behave, and how difficult it is to unlearn and break habits.2 However, leaders, like children, must become learning agile. You must be able to sense the current situation and assess whether it requires creativity. Children approach each situation as a learning opportunity. Leaders get comfortable with what they know, can do, and took them to where they are.

 Get back the beginners mindset – when you listen, reflect and ask questions.

Lesson #4 – Children and great leaders are not afraid to show vulnerability.

Children don’t assume they know everything. They are not afraid to show their emotions. They seek help and advice. They are used to taking advice, feedback, and sometimes tough love. Leaders have a hard time showing vulnerability. Many have been shaped in cultures that discourage a leader asking for help, admitting their weaknesses, and showing emotions. By so doing, these cultures have destroyed the gift of whole heartedness that leaders were born with and carried as children. Instead, they have been taught to present themselves as robot-like managers whose mission is to push for pre-determined results at any cost, including that of not being able to change course with new information lest they be labeled as flip floppers or weak.

Remember how you connected with other children – you need to do more of that now.

Lesson #5 – Children and great leaders take the learning from mistakes and move on.

When you were a child, you used to take the learning from an experience and move on. There was simply too many fantastic and amazing experiences awaiting you every day to keep on regurgitating what had happened. You were able to adjust your strategy quickly to make sense and play in the world.  You tapped on anything and everyone that could teach you something. Pride of authorship, misplaced ego, and having to be right were not so important. Instead, you cherished getting better at something, knowing more, or making others happy through your learning and you always had the next class or next year to look forward to. You had stretch goals and milestones for development and growth. So what happened? Why are you so stuck on being right? On resting on past successes? On taking feedback personally?

You need to tap into your child-like ability to see experiences as the natural path to growth and steps to actualize your potential.  

As parents, we all get these principles and foster them in our children. But as leaders in our organizations, we have a difficult time following them ourselves. Why? I submit it is because we have allowed our environments, cultures, and others to take us away from our natural selves. We have stopped exercising the muscles we were born with to the point that they have atrophied. The good news is that we can get them back. It is a choice and it takes work. But we can do it. And I have witnessed the rebirth of these essential leadership skills in some of the leaders I have worked with.

 Spend some time this week thinking about the child in you and how he or she would advise you to lead.  

  1. Fredrickson, B. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
  2. Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.


Questions for online conversation

  1. Did you recall your childhood as you read this posting? How did it resonate with your experiences?
  2. If it resonated with you, how can you leverage the child in you?
  3. What will your advice be to your children on how they should lead others?

Is Your Leadership Scalable?

In previous postings I have shared many of the attributes that, in my experience, define great leaders. What if you already are a great leader? What if you possess many of these qualities, but they are not scalable? An important aspect of leadership is the ability to cascade your leadership skills through others who can in turn inspire and motivate people to perform at the highest levels. Scalable leadership means that the leader has the ability to translate his or her behaviors into teachable moments. It means creating a language to transfer knowledge and skills. To be able to assess who to develop and grow. Yet, there are so few leaders that can scale their leadership. Why is that? Why is it so rare?  These are some reasons that I have come across:

  1. Addicted to the applause. Leaders that enjoy the high that accompanies praise and admiration have difficulty sharing the stage with others.  There are countless examples. Maurice Greenberg, the former chairman of AIG, is well-known for his endless thirst for admiration and his boundless hate for any negative assessment of his leadership or his organization.  He built an organization led by hand-picked allies who deferred to him and to his wishes. In their quest to please the boss, they vacated the opportunity to learn and grow.
  1. Lack of faith. It is difficult for leaders to believe that someone else can perform as well as and perhaps even better than them. Or, that they could learn fast enough to risk work not completed on time and with quality.  They eventually face situations where they simply cannot be everywhere and cover all of the bases. They find themselves lonely and under resourced. Typically they redouble their effort only to experience burn out and loss of productivity.
  2. Inability to let go. Some leaders have built their reputation and are proud of aspects of their work or visibility. Rather than looking forward to the opportunities that are ahead, they seem to rest on past accomplishments, recognition, and notoriety. In her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck distinguishes this behavior as the “fixed mindset” versus the “growth mindset” – which is always seeking to learn and stretch into new horizons.  Leaders with the growth mindset have an easier time teaching, mentoring, and developing other leaders.1

This inability to scale leadership is most acute in organizations that experience rapid growth.  The strong leadership presence of the original leaders is not scaled in a timely manner.  Success requires numerous others to step into positions of leadership in order to keep up with market and shareholder/analyst demands.  The organization experiences scattered leadership, and in the absence of strong leaders who can cascade the vision and know how to make timely decisions, work is carried out in a chaotic and unaligned manner. The organization is quickly overwhelmed with numerous operational problems that ultimately effect the products, customers, and reputation of the firm.  A good example is the manufacturing safety issues in the pharmaceutical sector.  Many of these issues arose as a result of leadership being too distant from the work and not being always aware of pending problems and issues.  Not enough attention was paid to empowering local leaders to communicate upwards, and to make decisions in a timely manner. A leader I was coaching at one of these organizations told me “I knew what was going on and what was about to happen, but senior management made it abundantly clear that in view of the financial issues that the organization was facing, there was little tolerance for bad news.  I felt betrayed and powerless.”

  1. Dweck C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.


Questions for on line conversations.

  1. Where have you witnessed scalable leadership?
  2. How was it done?

The Followers Responsibilities

Often leadership is equated with the leader. Of course it is not possible to lead without a leader.  However, leaders lead followers and followers have special responsibilities if the leader is to achieve his or her potential. Great leaders usually are blessed with followers who have the courage and wisdom to advise them truthfully and courageously about opportunities and also pitfalls. Courageous followers hold the mirror up to the leader and will not say “you are the fairest of them all” when there are areas for improvement. They share their advice without fanfare and unconditionally. Their generosity is fueled by their passion to contribute to the mission and the people it serves.

Trusted followers are excellent listeners.  They are interested in the hopes, aspirations, and perspectives of others.  They are not only able to internalize the words but importantly the spirit and emotions that fuel the words.  One of the leaders that I am currently working with, David, shared a powerful story with me.  Evidently, he has a tendency to unconsciously look towards Pat, his strategy lead who typically sits at the same side of the room occupying the same chair during the leadership team meetings.  David is not certain why he exhibits this behavior. It is, as he put it, a habit. He seems to habitually fixate his gaze at the same location in the room. The unintentional effect of this behavior is that others on the leadership team have taken notice of this behavior and have concluded that Pat’s perspectives carry greater weight than those of the rest of the team. I asked David how he found out about this unintentional outcome. He said, “Sue told me”. It turns out that Sue, his marketing lead, has a keen sense for the social and human landscape of the organization. She noted the leader behavior in meetings and observed the non-verbal reaction of others to it. She took it on herself to check in with a few of the other team members to validate her assumptions. Other team members told her that indeed they felt slighted and not validated since it appeared that David continuously checked in with Pat after he spoke. Since Pat also happens to occupy the head of strategy position, they concluded that decisions were predetermined prior to the meeting and that the leadership meetings were no more than a formality to simply inform them.

I asked David if I could speak to Sue and he agreed. Sue told me that she believed that her success and that of the organization depended on David’s performance. She took it for granted that being on the lookout for landmines and challenges that could negatively impact David was part and parcel of her role as a leader of the organization. She further shared with me that she likes and admires David and finds him to be a genuine and committed leader in the service of the organization – the ultimate servant leader as she put it. She acknowledged that no leader can be perfect, and that David needs help from time to time from people he trusts to see his blind spots. I asked if she has been rewarded or formally recognized for her dedication and attention to David’s success. She said she had not nor did she expect or accept any form or formal reward or recognition for being a trusted advisor. As she put it, “We are all in the same boat, and a leak at one end of the boat means we will all drown”

Leaders are human and the good ones admit to their frailties and vulnerabilities. David’s strength as a leader is that he is open and welcomes the help that Sue provides. He has made it a new habit to make certain that he distributes his gaze equally amongst the leadership team and that he invites diversity of thought into all conversation while he listens at a high level to the person speaking. Leaders who distance themselves from their trusted followers or do not create an environment that encourages the followers to reach out to them and share perspectives and suggestions risk making important decisions in a vacuum and exposing their blind spots. Great leadership is about carrying a learning mindset informed through deep curiosity and deep listening.


Questions for on-line conversation:

  1. Have you had trusted followers? How did they contribute to your leadership effectiveness?
  2. Have you been a trusted follower? How did perform in this role? What did you do to help the leader?

Leadership Under Stress—New Year Reflections

I have become increasingly interested in the manner in which people react to stress and pressure. It is under stress that people show their courage, values, and ability to make decisions in the best interest of those they serve. Perhaps there is no better example of this than Nelson Mandela stripping Winnie, his wife of 38 years, shortly after being released from prison. Mandela discovered that while in prison, Winnie had misused her power and acted unethically in setting the direction of the African National Congress (ANC). Winnie had stood by her husband and carried his banner for 27 years while he was in prison. He reached deep inside himself and made one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Eventually, the two were divorced.

It takes a special type of leader who can balance his or her personal feelings and emotions with the difficult and gut-wrenching decisions that must be made in the interest of teams, organizations, communities, and families. These types of individuals seem to carry an internal compass or “north star” that signals to them the authentic, ethical, and responsible course of action.

The opposite is also true. I have witnessed the actions of many who simply cannot rise above their own feelings of hurt, failure, resentment, insecurity, and frustration and act in ways that are destructive to the welfare of others. They seem to carry a mindset of “if I can’t have what I need then I will drag others down behind me if I have to…”   It is indeed a regrettable and damaging brand of leadership and the reason behind the demise of many organizations.

It is under pressure that the true colors show up. The indicators may include the following:

  • Willing to allocate reward and recognition fairly outside own areas of interest and passion
  • Readily admitting to poor decision making, taking accountability, and making transparent the assumptions, process, and thinking behind past actions
  • Not reverting to finger pointing and blame. Mindful of the effect on the team/organization
  • Carrying a learning mindset that signals humility and passion for “getting it right” rather than reflexive decisions and actions to cover up or create short-term fixes

I was working recently with a Senior Executive. During one of the meetings he was asked questions that he could not answer. Rather than noting these questions and meeting privately with his team, he chose to voice his displeasure publically and to distance himself from his team. He blamed them for not keeping him informed and threatened punitive actions.

The measure of a great leader is not what people say about him or her in pre-rehearsed, manicured, and scripted public appearances. It is what those closest to her say when experiencing their leadership under stress. Anybody with adequate intelligence and resources can lead during good times. However, leaders that can keep their balance, equanimity, ethics, and values during stressful times are rare indeed and command a great premium. Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 after a 12-year absence from the company he had founded and was dismissed from. Apple was close to bankruptcy at the time. Over the next decade Jobs not only revitalized the company, but turned it into one of the most important brands of our time. In those first months when the media was writing off the company as irrelevant and Apple employees/investors were not sure of the future,  Jobs held an informal staff meeting. Here is part of what he told them

“This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world. We’re not going to get a chance for people to remember a lot about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what they want them to know about us. Our customers want to know what we stand for. What we’re about is not making boxes for people to get their jobs done. Although we do that very well. Apple is about more than that. We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.”

With those words Jobs started a journey that has literally changed the world and the way we live our lives. Apple is now one of the most successful organizations in the history of mankind. There are many who are not fond of Jobs and his unrelenting drive and singular focus. However, no one doubts or disputes Jobs’ ability to use his and the Apple values as the guiding principles to guide the company from the brinks of bankruptcy to one of the most important global brands.

Questions For On Line Conversation:

  1. What are some examples of leadership under stress that you have observed?
  2. What stuck with you?
  3. How would you lead under stress? What will guide you??

The Connected Leader

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
― Herman Melville

To connect is a basic human need. Unfortunately, far too many of our leaders are trained and have been influenced by mentors to not show emotions and vulnerability, or to conduct real conversations. I recently witnessed a gut-wrenching example. A leader broke into tears while she was being coached. Tears in coaching are like pearls. They signify a moment of vulnerability which will open the client to reach higher levels of awareness and insights. However, she felt embarrassed and ashamed. Upon further discussion, it became evident that her corporate culture and leadership did not approve of tears, in particular for women. It seems that in her organization, tears are equated to weakness, indecision, lack of balance, and not carrying an “executive presence”. However, anger and direct/blunt conversations that damage peoples’ dignity and sense of self worth are acceptable, in particular if exhibited by male leaders. In some cases, this behavior is seen as a hallmark of confidence and leadership, as in “Bill does not mince words”, or “The thing I like about Joe is that you always know where you stand with him” and “Richard is a no nonsense type of guy. You always know where you stand with him”.

In their quest to hide their real feelings and emotions, many leaders have become automatons who are wound up and put on display to mimic and voice pre-scripted, unemotional, and unauthentic messages. When I ask them what percentage of their time they spend really getting to know their people, to better understand their hopes, fears, and aspirations, and to share their own values, on average they cite a range of 5 to 10%. Given the fact that employees spend a minimum of 75% of their waking hours at work, this is a worrisome statistic indeed. By not being connected, leaders lose the opportunity to make a true contribution to their organization and the lives of the people they lead.

Elite segments of the U.S. military spend significant time with their comrades getting to know them and to build understanding and a feel for one another. Beyond forming long-lasting relationships, these relationships are designed to ensure that the soldiers have an intuitive feel for one another’s movements and reactions to keep them safe. The military understands that under the intense stress of incoming enemy fire, it is critical for soldiers to anticipate the reactions of one another and to feel good about taking risks with their own safety in the service of their comrades in arms.

The same principles apply to organizations. There are intense pressures to deliver innovative products, manage cost, and win the hearts and minds of customers. Therefore, it is critical that leaders create deep connections with their followers and to be able to “read their mind”.


Questions For On Line Conversation:

  1. Have you been led by connected leaders?
  2. What were they like?
  3. What was their effect on others?

The Gifts of Suffering

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”   Khalil Gibran

We live in the “happy pill” culture. Are you suffering? Simply take a few pills. Want to numb your pain? Better yet, take some uppers that artificially create euphoric states. When we see people cry, we associate those tears with a person in need of help and immediately do what we can to stop them from crying. However, crying is a natural physical and emotional release that acts as the gateway to self awareness, coping, and insights.

We are reluctant to share our pain and suffering with others (with the exception of a few people we really “let in”). Our assumption is that we will bring others down and that they are either too busy with their own lives or not interested in our troubles. However, the truth is that nothing can block our growth and development more than to hide our pain and suffering. It is through the totality of our human experiences and connections with others that we make our most significant “shifts”.

These shifts only occur through passages that are often laden with adversity, and how leaders traverse these painful passages is what separates the great from the ordinary.

Nelson Mandela frequently spoke of the wisdom and knowledge he gained in prison about his own self, and his captors, the Afrikaans, as invaluable assets to his leadership and the reinvention of the new South Africa. Through the indignities, physical pain, hard labor, and psychological torture of isolation emerged one of the greatest leaders of all time. There is no question that the incredible difference that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has made in changing drunk driving legislation in the U.S. has been fueled by the personal tragedies of two housewives (Cindi Lamb and Candy Lightner) who lost loved ones at the hands of drunk drivers.

Pain and suffering is processed differently by people. There are those that gravitate towards resentment, close their hearts, and lose trust in others. These individuals seem to carry an entitlement mindset that is based on the expectation of lifelong happiness and fulfillment. When these expectations are not met, they seem to lose their resonance and fall into a downward spiral of negativity and accusations, and seem to require a target for blame. Needless to say, this cycle leads to further isolation and “being stuck”.

Others, such as Viktor Frankel, crafted his life vision in the Nazi concentration camp. Mandela and Martin Luther King opened themselves up to pain and suffering in order to go through “passages of learning and growth”. Cindi Lamb and Candy Lightner could have allowed their family tragedies at the hands of drunk drivers lead them to a state of permanent depression. These individuals, and others like them, pose a mantra that sees life in its totality. They understand the growth opportunity that pain afforded them, their place in history, and their obligation to others.

Many of the leaders I work with are experiencing severe emotional pain. Some have lost their families by devoting themselves to their work and feel lonely. Others are under great pressure to deliver on results and work with autocratic and demanding bosses leaving them feeling helpless and frustrated. Many are simply tired and unfulfilled.

In my work with these leaders, we go through the 4R phases:



Questions for online conversation:

  1. Share pain or adversity that you have with us
  2. Were you able to manage it? How did you manage it?
  3. What did you learn from it?
  4. What is your life like now? How did your loss, pain, or suffering create a “shift” in you

Guest Posting: Fear & Loathing in Executive Coaching

Note from Kaveh: This month, I invited my colleague, Mazher Ahmad, to contribute to my blog as a guest writer. Mazher’s passion is working with organizations to educate and develop their leaders. As a Principal at Philosophy IB, Mazher leads client engagements with Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations to design and implement strategic organizational change and leadership development solutions. He also acts as an executive advisor and coach to senior leaders across a variety of functions and industries.


Fear & Loathing in Executive Coaching
by Mazher Ahmad

“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” Benjamin Franklin

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to school today. My tummy hurts and I can’t concentrate in math class”, my 8 year old daughter cried, as my wife and I helped her get ready for school. To her credit, she mustered up the strength and made her daily trek to school that day.

Less than an hour later, I began an executive coaching session with one of my clients, a senior business leader of a Fortune 500 company, where I heard him utter almost the exact same words as my daughter: “I feel it in my stomach, and it comes out of nowhere and prevents me from being able to think straight. I’m not sure what it is, but it scares the heck out of me and it is impacting my performance on the job.”

As I reflected on the eerie similarities between an innocent 3rd grader’s articulation of dealing with the anxieties of math class and a seasoned Senior Vice President’s description of dealing with the realities of Corporate America, it became clear that one of the most common problems that we deal with throughout the course of our lives is simply…fear. So simple, so innocent, yet so debilitating.

The Necessary Evil

As part of my work as both an executive coach and a management consultant, I am often asked, “Isn’t fear a necessary evil? Don’t we need fear to keep us sharp, keep us motivated, keep us focused?” My response is always a resounding, “Absolutely!” Fear is a fundamental human emotion that allows us to stay clear of harm’s way, and as a result sharpens our ability to make lucid decisions. The issue, therefore, is not how we eradicate fear altogether, but rather how we manage it. Kafka captured it beautifully when he said, “My fear…is my substance and probably the best part of me.”
A few years ago, I coached a leader (let’s call him Ben*) to help him uncover why he was having such a hard time sustaining success in his job over time. Ben would start off strong and after about 12 months, he would begin to second guess himself, which often led him to intellectualize things and read more into his manager’s feedback. As a result, he berated himself for not knowing certain parts of his business, which in turn unleashed his inner monster leading him to lose more confidence and spiral into a downward trajectory.

The VOICE Model

After identifying the moment where fear started to creep into his mind, we began to employ the VOICE (Visualize, Optimize, Isolate, Calm, Embrace) model where he would engage in the following steps:

  1. Visualize the voices – During this first step, Ben went through a series of simple, reflective visualization techniques, where he entered a meditative state and saw his core being as separate from the distinct voices that were raging in his mind. As an example, he identified voices that ranged from being disapproving and angry, to those that were also confident and empowering. The ability to separate his core self identity from any one part or voice was critical for him to understand that he in fact possessed limitless potential and could control these self-limiting voices that had taken over his inner dialogue.
  2. Optimize the imagery – In the second phase of the process, once he had identified the number of voices that were active within himself, Ben optimized each one by giving it vivid physical descriptions, including the sound of the voice, the gender of the voice, and what the voice was actually saying to him to induce the fear he experienced. Ben found that this technique helped him further separate from these distinct “characters” and allowed him critical space to breathe.
  3. Isolate the critical voice(s) – Once the primary voice of fear was crystallized, Ben then named it. In this case he decided to call it “Big Ben” and with this new moniker, he was able to better identify when this voice would be triggered to its fullest. Once the voice had been given an identity, Ben was able to play out a mental exercise of bringing “Big Ben” to his fullest, ugliest, most intense form and experience the subsequent intensity. During this stage, I asked Ben how he felt physically when “Big Ben” was at its peak, and he described a distinct increase in tension in his neck and shoulders, butterflies in his stomach, and dryness in his mouth.
  4. Calm the critical voice(s) – In stage four, after Ben brought his inner critic to life, we began to work through a process of putting it in its proper place. By visually shrinking its physical size, and allowing another part of Ben (“Champion Ben”) to come forward, he was able to calm the noise, and gain more centered control of his experience. During this stage, when asked how his body now physically felt, Ben described that his neck and shoulder tension had subsided, his stomach butterflies had disappeared, and his mouth was back to normal (all of which occurred while remaining in the exact same physical environment he was during the earlier stage).
  5. Embrace the balance – As the exercise came to a close, Ben began to embrace the balance he had found by controlling his “Big Ben” voice, while allowing his more positive, supportive, “Champion Ben” voice to gain amplitude. Once he was in a state of inner calm and confidence, Ben reflected on his experience and shared that he was not only energized, but by being able to separate these parts from his core being, he discovered that he was actually more in control of his emotions and feelings (particularly the emotion of fear) than he had ever imagined or felt possible.

In short, this brief mental exercise gave him (and many other clients who have utilized this technique as well) the ability to begin to control their fears and increase their level of consciousness around what was happening for them in those moments of high stress. One does not need to be a neuro-scientist or psychotherapist (of which I am neither) to be able to employ these techniques in the services of clients. I for one, have gained more wisdom to wrestle with my own demons and hope to harness some of these insights as a parent, so that my daughter has more tools to help her during her journey of going from tears and tummy aches to discovering the magical mysteries of mastering math.

*Note: All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

  1. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.
  2. Dweck Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Fight or Flight Leadership

In my work with organizations and leaders, it is impossible not to note the symmetry between the fight or flight reactions of the most primitive parts of our brain with the instincts of organizations and leaders under stress.  Millions of years of evolution formed the frontal lobe in our brains responsible for more deliberate planning and mature thinking.  Outstanding leaders and organizations seem to have the ability to slow things down to utilize their frontal lobes.  However, many organizations and leaders have a tendency to regress into a reflexive mindset that prevents them from more rationale and longer-range planning and thinking.

To better draw this comparison, let us first examine how our brain operates. Research shows that when the hypothalamus, a part of the limbic1 nervous system, tells the sympathetic2 nervous system to kick into gear, the overall effect is that the body speeds up, tenses up, and becomes generally very alert. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and tells the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) into the bloodstream.

The sudden flood of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dozens of other hormones causes changes in the body which include: an increase in heart rate and blood pressure; pupil dilation; constriction of veins in the skin, sending more blood to major muscle groups; increase in blood-glucose level; tensing up of muscles; relaxation of smooth muscle, allowing increase of oxygen into the lungs; the shut-down of nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) to allow more energy for emergency functions; and increase in trouble on focusing on small tasks, helping the brain focus more directly on where the threat is coming from.3

These physical responses are intended to help survival of a dangerous situation by preparing you to either fight for your life (“fight”) or run for your life (“flight”). Much like the release of hormones commanded by the hypothalamus, organizations and leaders also generate instinctual commands to perceived threats and conditions that often produce suboptimal long-term results.

In 2000, when Pfizer decided to pursue a hostile takeover of Warner Lambert and the management of Warner Lambert resisted, they decided to take a win at any cost strategy.  At stake for Pfizer was the perceived loss of control in a co-marketing alliance of Lipitor which was accurately projected to be a multi-billion drug.  The Pfizer machinery went into a war-like stance.  Its organizational blood stream increased its flow, its pupils dilated, and all non-essential and distracting activities were put on hold. An army of several hundred lawyers were unleashed and money became no object.  In its haste to win, Pfizer missed the “enhanced severance package” provision at Warner Lambert.  A poison pill put in place by the previous CEO dictated that change of control would trigger compensation packages of up to 36 months of salary with maximum bonuses and immediate vesting of stock options for any leader whose job duties changed.  Pfizer’s fight instincts allowed it to win control of Warner Lambert.  However, by not slowing down to allow for more reflective and rational thinking, Pfizer spent millions more in enhanced severance packages than expected.  In addition, the best laid plans of Pfizer management and its lead merger consultancy Booz Allen to realize the cost savings associated with synergies of combining the two organizations, were significantly delayed or put aside since meaningful structural or job duty changes automatically triggered further financially crippling enhanced severance packages.

Leaders also get emotionally hijacked under stress, in effect assuming the fight or flight stance. It is precisely at these moments of inordinate stress and urgency that great leaders rise to the top, and the sub-optimal leaders revert to the more primitive parts of their brains.

This leadership quality was demonstrated during the height of the Cold War through the example of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. On September 26, 1983, he was the duty officer at the command center, monitoring early-warning satellites over the United States. When the system reported that a nuclear missile was being launched from the United States, Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing the staff the monitored these incoming signals. Despite the electronic evidence, he declared the system’s indication to be a false alarm. This tense decision, made under enormous stress, is credited with having prevented an unprovoked retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in large-scale nuclear war. A later investigation confirmed that the satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned, and had he reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. At that, time according to experts, the US–Soviet relationship had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on trigger alert — very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that rang on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense time for US–Soviet relations. At that time, according to Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, “the danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, the Americans may attack, so we better attack first.” Petrov clearly accessed the frontal lobes of his brain to regulate himself for more rational action rather than allowing the more primitive limbic nervous system to highjack his emotions (Amygdala hijack).4


1. Limbic – evolutionarily primitive brain structures (

2. Sympathetic – involved in the stimulation of activities that prepare the body for action (

3. Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health Publications. ( March 2011.

4. Hoffman D. I Had a Funny Feeling in My Gut. Cold War Report. ( February 1999.

Questions for Online Conversation:

  1. Have you noticed which part of your brain is triggered under stress?
  2. What is your strategy for arresting “limbic highjack”
  3. How have recent examples of corporations, such as General Motors’ cover up of faulty ignition switches, reflected leadership under stress?

Mindful Leadership – Part II

Most leaders report that over time, they lose the roots that connected them to their values and passions.  Like the experiment in which the frog does not feel the gradual rise in the temperature of the beaker and eventually dies, leaders slowly lose their values and authentic selves.  As they rise in the organization, they gain more power, status, and wealth.  The external world surrounding them rewards outward signs of success and wealth.  The social fabric that once judged them on who they were and held them accountable now gives them a pass.  They are treated in special ways and are exempt from the normal codes of behavior that others are judged by.  Their sense of self-worth is validated through their status, power, and wealth.  In addition, the excessive time spent at work with colleagues and the addiction to stay connected to work-related issues blurs and destroys the healthy work versus home separation required to recompose and build resonance.  In private rooms and confidential conversations, it is not unusual for me to witness depression, addiction, burn out, tears/despair, broken lives, extreme loneliness, and spiritual and emotional bankruptcy.

The road to recovery is a slow and deliberate journey.  It starts with the leader surrendering and admitting that he or she is unfulfilled and asks for help.  This seems obvious.  However, many have practiced the art of deceiving themselves and others.  Their public persona shouts confidence, positivity, and inspiring leadership.  The ego that is now addicted to the worldly signs of success resists interventions aimed at change –  change that may require more time and focus away from work and working hard to build real, rewarding, and longer-term relationships – which can get them back to their core values, principles, and authentic selves that made each special.  The ego will demand status quo and create fears of being left behind, losing privilege, or losing the attention of powerful people.   Bill, the leader described in Part I of this posting finally admitted that he was unfulfilled and on the verge of a breakdown.

The next step requires the leader to engage in a disciplined process of self-reflection and examination in order to achieve meaningful insights.  Bill committed to our every two week, one hour session, and to calling me on an unscheduled basis if needed.  He committed to regular reflection and introspection, and to talk openly with his wife about his fears and insecurities, and to ask her to remind him of the person she had married to help him create conditions that would rekindle their original connection.

The leader must be ready to look at different perspectives and competing agendas and to make trade-off decisions that will better align them to their core.  Bill declared his working hours to his colleagues.  He told them that unless there was a real emergency, he would not be returning their emails or phone calls during the weekend or while on vacation.  He encouraged his team to do the same.  He spoke to his supervisor and explained that while he realizes that cutting back on travel may have consequences for his career, he was willing to take that risk.  Bill told him that he thought spending more time at home and using technology rather than in-person trips may actually improve his productivity and creativity.  To Bill’s surprise, his supervisor told him that it was his call and he would be judged as anyone else at year-end based on results, and not how he got there.

Finally, the leader must commit to practicing the new behaviors and to ask for help if he has difficulty following the regiment.  Real learning occurs only if it is practiced.  The brain literally creates budding neuro pathways for the new behaviors.  The new pathways compete with well established routines that have been long rewarded and therefore easier for brain to access.  It is only through repeated practice and reinforcement by the leader’s support system that these new behaviors take more permanent and sustainable form.  Bill and I talked regularly to focus on his progress, emotional barriers to practicing his new self, and ways to normalize the enormous challenges inherent in achieving longer-term behavioral change.  Bill’s wife was enormously helpful in providing emotional support, as well as guiding him to rediscover his authentic self, which was what had made him so attractive to her when they had first met.

Leaders are human.  They enter the work environment with inordinate passion, creativity, and purpose.  As leaders rise in their organizations, it is critical that they find support systems that regularly help them remember their core values and the unique gifts that led to their success. They remind her of who she is and what she stands for.  They provide a safe environment for her to share her vulnerabilities, hopes, and fears. They hold up a mirror that reflects how others see her, and they champion her as she tries challenging new behaviors that will fulfill her and make her a balanced and inspiring leader.


Questions for Online Conversation:

  1. Have you or others you know gone through the journey described in this two part series?
  2. What was it like?
  3. How did you address it?

Mindful Leadership – Part I

DalaiLamaI work with educated, sophisticated, well-travelled, and experienced leaders.  Many lead large groups of people and achieve amazing results.  However, I consistently notice that they expend significant portions of their energy on leadership at the work place, and minimize or outsource the role in their personal lives.  Many profess that their passion and the way they assess their sense of self-worth is related to the welfare of their families and their role/contributions to it, and fostering deep and long-term relationships are paramount to their happiness and well-being.  However, when the conversation focuses on energy expended or commitment to success in these areas, it becomes obvious that their actions don’t necessarily support their words. By and large, they have scant knowledge of child psychology/development, and they spend little time reading and becoming more accomplished in human relations and powerful conversations.  Many see areas relating to emotional and social competency as important, but they are areas they may compromise given their busy lives and work commitments.

I recently spoke to the spouse of a leader as part of the interviews I was conducting in order to coach him.  He told me that his family is the reason he works so hard and wants to succeed. He wants to provide for them and ensure that he shares a long and prosperous life with his wife, described as his long-time sweetheart.  Not so surprisingly, I had expected that his wife would describe him as a rare example of a C-suite executive with the ability to leave work behind when he entered the house; someone who was present and mindful during their time together; aware of what is important to her and the children.  I had visualized that he would go out of his way to make her and the children feel special, notice the little things that she did on a day-to-day basis to support him and his family, and show appreciation and do things that would in return really lift her spirit and be important to her.  In fact, I found out that my client could not turn off work and was absorbed by it.  His wife told me that she is often frustrated by his poor listening skills.  “Sometimes, I feel like I have to shake him on the shoulder to get him to be with us…”  She felt there was no separation for him between work and home, and felt like most of his colleagues at work were with them in their house every night.  “He talks and obsesses about them as if they are members of our family, and knows more about them than he knows about me and the children.  I can’t help feeling like we are taken for granted…”  She admitted that he does all of the nice formalities – holiday, birthday, Valentine’s, and anniversary presents and cards.  However, they felt to her like rituals since his conversations and level of curiosity were superficial.  He seemed not to care how she really felt or what it was like for her to juggle and balance the multiple areas of their life.  He seemed to outsource their family and friends to her and to follow suit, rather than being an engaged partner with her.  Not surprisingly, she told me that his teenage son only told him what he wanted to hear – how well he was doing in athletics, how popular he was, etc… Their elementary school-age daughter would not even bother to talk to him about anything of substance and saw him as an easy target for funding things she wanted to buy.  Both thought it was “cool” that they had a rich dad, as it made it easier for them to achieve social status in their schools.

As the coaching progressed and he started to trust me, he revealed that he felt lonely and unfulfilled.  He does not really open himself up to anyone because most of his time is spent at work, and he does not trust his colleagues with his vulnerabilities.  He said that he did not feel “whole” because he expends great physical, psychic, and emotional energy on work and on his team, but every time he feels like he is accomplishing something or getting close to someone, things within the organization change. The organization is re-organized, a project is changed or discontinued, or people are leaving or coming into the organization. This leaves him empty and he feels like he is on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster and faster, but not leading to anywhere.  He then starts to regurgitate what he could do, why certain things happen, and why so-and-so said this or that, and he just cannot turn it off when he gets home.  He told me there is just not enough of him left for his family.  “It’s not that I don’t care or love them.  They are my whole world.  I just feel like there is nothing left.  I just can’t get the gremlins from work to stop talking…”

I wish he was the only one, or just one of the few.  Sadly, this leader represents the norm at this level in an organization.  The advent of electronic gadgets such as smart phones and tablets has only exasperated the extent to which my clients feel unanchored and out of balance. They are reliving the past or planning the future, but never really being present with their “whole” self.  They are failing as leaders in the most important arenas of life – being a father, a partner to their spouses, using their skills and presence to make a difference in the world, and serving as role models to those with less privilege, education, social capital, and influence. 

In the next posting I will share my thoughts about the work leaders need to do to get reconnected to their values and core essence.  I will update you on the work that the leader discussed in this blog is doing to rediscover his “whole self”.


 Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. How would you coach the leader discussed in this blog?
  2. What are you doing to reconnect with your values and whole self?
  3. Do you have examples or stories that can provide further insights?