Leadership In a Vacuum

Our U.S. culture is consistently assessed as one of the most individualistic and masculine cultures in the world1. This means that our tendency is to give too much credit to the leader when things go well, and to place too much blame on the leader when results are not achieved.  However, in my work with leaders and their organizations, I continue to be amazed at the frequency with which organizations fail to create an environment that enables these talented leaders to succeed.

Most organizations do not proactively think through their current decision making, governance, portfolio, human resources, structures, and other aspects of their culture prior to investing in hiring seasoned and expensive talent.  Instead, they determine that a proven leader with experience and expertise will quickly diagnose issues, develop alternatives, secure approval, marshal the necessary resources, and achieve goals. This fallacy of leadership is expensive, disruptive, and de-motivating.

The chart below describes a holistic view of culture change.  Please note that leadership behavior is only one of the key levers that can be used to achieve an organization’s vision.

PIB Culture Wheel

Turnover costs are estimated at 25% of executive salary, plus benefits.  The cost of replacing a failed C-suite executive can easily be $1 million to $3 million2. New incumbents typically leave organizations where they have formed important relationships, gained lucrative salaries/benefits, and become comfortable with familiar cultures, to start a new position in a new organization with high levels of exuberance and energy.  They step into new surroundings that are unfamiliar to them and are rife with organizational and political landmines.  Consequently, it is critical for hiring managers and organizations to think proactively and reconfigure outdated and dysfunctional cultures, lest the new hire lose her motivation and reach levels of frustration that will result in low productivity and in higher doses separation.

A large pharmaceutical organization has invested significant energy in aspiring to change its culture to resemble “bio-tech” organizations.  More specifically, it has declared that in the future, its leaders should exhibit the following behaviors, among others:

  • Risk-taking
  • Accountability
  • Enterprise mindset
  • Openness and transparency
  • Patient-focus, including the ability to speed up decision-making by eliminating bureaucratic and unnecessary processes

A number of new employees were hired from bio-tech organizations, academia, and other large pharmaceuticals in order to accelerate this change (throwing talent at the problem).  These leaders report significant frustration and dismay at what they perceive as a broken promise.  They have experienced organizations bloated with complex and slow processes, and leadership teams that publically espouse the new vision but are resistant to meaningful change.  For example, when new scientists have more creative and “out of the box”  new product ideas,  they are told to continue to follow the traditional portfolio allocation and new product development processes with stage gates that are based on more conservative and traditional hurdles.  They find that they are not able to voice their own ideas in front of senior mangement.  Travel and outreach to the external scientific community is restricted through cost-control measures that have to be cleared at the highest levels in the organization.  In one case, a renowned scientist experienced a significant delay in getting approval for a trip to Europe where she was asked to present to a senior scientific audience. Significantly, these leaders were promised that they could hire and bring new and more innovative talent into the organization.  In reality, they discovered that separating low-performing existing talent required a lengthy and bureaucratic human resources review and approval process.  In addition, the cost-control measures prohibited them from adding new headcount.

Not so surprisingly, a number of these leaders are frustrated, feel underappreciated, lied to, and unproductive.  As a result, the organization is in danger of losing these leaders. The hoopla behind the “bio-tech” culture has taken a back seat to quarterly targets, Wall Street analyst projections, and defensive legal maneuvering to prolong the life of expiring patents.

Organizations should think clearly and proactively prior to hiring senior talent.  They should conduct an honest “change readiness” exercise that paints a detailed picture of the future and assesses the readiness of the senior management to change its beliefs and behaviors.  Management must go on record and commit to these changes prior to making the hiring decision.  One clear indicator, and one that I encourage my clients to pursue, is the wording of the announcement letter introducing a new hire.  The announcement letter should not only communicate the background and qualifications of the new hire and the level of excitement of the receiving organization, but equally the specific changes that will be put in place and the level of authority that the new hire will enjoy. For example, a more streamlined reporting and decision making process or the ability to hire up to X number of new people and to restructure the organization as he/she sees fit.  Furthermore, organizations should invest in a thoughtful on-boarding program and transitional coaching in order for the new hire to be able to adjust to the new surrounding in a way that is natural, and help avoid early mistakes that could establish longer-term negative perceptions.

In short, the challenge for leaders as they acquire and on-board new talent is to ensure they are not leading in a vacuum, but preparing their grounds for new talent. The ability to understand an organization’s culture, articulate it to prospective leaders, and actually live it on a daily basis is the cornerstone to creating an environment that enables leaders to succeed.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. How should organizations prepare the grounds for new talent?
  2. What are the biggest obstacles and blockers?
  3. What are your recommendations?


1. The Hofstede Centre. http://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html. Accessed February 3, 2014.
2. Byrnes, Nanette and Kileyy, David. “CEOs: Hello, Your Must Be Going.” BusinessWeek. 11 Feb. 2007.


Year-end Reflections

More than at any other time in my 35+ years of business experience, I have noticed the profound challenges leaders face in honoring their soul (or North Star as I prefer to call it) while performing their roles of stewarding the financial success of their organizations. 

Today, more and more leaders are hearing competing voices dominating their inner conversation in hopes of tipping the balance of power. Through my personal one-on-one executive coaching sessions, I often work with clients to reconcile these tensions. Below are a few of the more frequent, compelling, and often times, simply gut-wrenching inner discussions that leaders face.

(1)   Nurture vs Performance – Often times, leaders struggle with the challenge of balancing the fulfillment that comes from nurturing, teaching, and mentoring employees, and enabling them to reach their potential, which is often at odds with the performance orientation that exists in many organizational cultures. Organizations espouse that talent and their commitment to their employees are their greatest distinguishers; however, this message is not carried though in practice.  Often when the “real business” conversations commence during operating plan reviews or presentations to boards, leadership styles that are more caring, emotional, and less aligned with rational, objective, and efficient styles are perceived as “risky”.

My clients confess that during these times of high pressure, they often feel bulldozed and even violated, but find themselves feeling helpless and paralyzed by fear and anxiety.  On the one hand, they intuit that not speaking up or acting on behalf of their organizations is violating their pledge as servant leaders. On the other hand, they worry that they may be labeled as “too soft”, “wearing their emotions on their sleeves”, “not able to make tough decisions or have difficult conversations”, and subject to a litany of other judgments that may jeopardize their hard work and careers.  One of my clients reported that her sleeping, eating, and general wellness was compromised for weeks as she watched a consultant, selected by her organization’s President, force individual team members to publically, and in the most direct manner possible, tell others what they did not appreciate in them.

Needless to say this exercise in “courageous conversations” backfired, and my client felt resentment and an unsafe environment for weeks after the workshop.  She felt she had abandoned her soul by sitting back and watching the exercise unfold and not speaking up.  Her intuition, upbringing, and values were demanding that she stop the exercise and point out the destruction she and others were experiencing. However, she felt straight jacketed by her organization’s culture that whispered “you will be seen as too soft and not a team player”. In short, this real tension of bringing out one’s heart and nurturing side is often perceived to be at odds with being able to generate results and perform at a high level.

(2)   Personal vs. Professional Relationships – My clients often report that they feel pressure to relate to their work colleagues in a narrow and “professional” manner. However, it turns out that this prism is a robotic and unfulfilling one.  Organizations are not well-oiled machines as some prefer, but a tapestry shaped by human fabric made up of aspirations, fears, anxieties, courage, and numerous other feelings.  In addition, the multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce of the 21st century brings with it a litany of beliefs, cultures, and mindsets. Given that in the U.S., more than 70% of our waking hours are usually spent at work, it would only make sense that we get to know our work colleagues as “whole people” and not as functionaries of their organizational roles. Connecting to others is a basic human need like food, shelter, and physical safety.  When we are forced to abandon this basic human impulse in favor of artificially classifying, categorizing, and judging others, we feel unfulfilled and react in unnatural and destructive ways that may harm others and ourselves.  Getting to know the whole person also makes business sense.

In a recent survey conducted by Rath, Conchie, and a Gallup research team asking more than 10,000 followers what they need from their leaders, they consistently pointed out four areas:

  • Trust
  • Compassion
  • Stability
  • Hope

Notice that these four needs are realized when the leader is able to connect with her followers at an individual level and when they get to know her as an authentic and real person. It is nearly impossible to trust, feel compassion, and invest our hopes in someone whom we don’t really know or connect with. In short, the tension lies in the desire for leaders to be authentic in cultural environments that often times penalize them for doing so.

(3)   Whole Self vs Work SelfWork is a natural and healthy calling. It validates our evolutionary need for productivity and achievement. It is noble and honorable to create better and safer products and improve our societies. However, extensive research on happiness and wellness confirms that work comprises only one of our basic human needs. Leaders are under increasing pressure to borrow from other parts of their lives and invest more time, focus, and energy into work. Many leaders report symptoms of burnout, depression, sleep deprivation, weight gain, drinking, and other unhealthy outcomes. Extensive research documented in “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee shows that rather than constantly sacrificing themselves to workplace demands, leaders must be resonant–combat stress, avoid burnout, and renew themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally if they are going to be able to successfully lead others. In short, this core leadership dilemma lies in the need for leaders to be more balanced, while operating in organizations that often do not provide them the time to do so.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. Are you facing any of the above mentioned dilemmas in your leadership?  How are you managing them?
  2. Are there other competing forces that you think leaders are challenged by?


1. Rath T, Conchie B. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Team, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press. 2008.

2. Boyatzis R. McKee A. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2005.

The Greatest Leader

I have been thinking about ways to bring together many of the thoughts and ideas that I have posted over the past two years.  The passing of a man that I consider the greatest leader of all time, Nelson Mandela, reminded me that he embodied them all.

Nelson Mandela was the perfect balance of the feminine and masculine energy. In his zeal for independence and hate for apartheid, he exhibited many of the traits typically attributed as masculine: courage, resilience, drive, focus, decisiveness, and results-orientation. In his preference for reconciliation rather than rancor and revenge against the Afrikaners, he decided to build a rainbow coalition, and exercised qualities typically attributed as feminine: expressive, emotions, tenderness, relatedness, love and compassion, imagination, gentleness, creativity, intuition, and harmony. This aspect of his leadership is one of the most important reasons for the peaceful transition of South Africa from the apartheid regime to majority rule.

He was the ultimate reflective leader. Twenty seven years of prison provided him ample time to reflect and learn. In prison he learned the language of the Afrikaner, his culture and mores.  He realized that the journey to reconciliation started with understanding your adversary.  His reflections allowed him to piece together his strategy for the rainbow nation and ways of moving Afrikaners into nation-building.  After his liberation, he continued to take his nightly walks alone to reflect on his day and to capture the learning.

Mandela was the personification of an authentic leader. He made his values and beliefs transparent and his actions supported them.  For example, when it was discovered that Winnie, his lifelong soul mate who stood by him throughout his prison years had misused her power, he stripped her of power and eventually left her.

He was the giver leader. After he stepped down from presidency, he spent most of his time in the service of children with grave illnesses and AIDS. He travelled the world for peace and harmony, and because of his credibility and stature, was able to influence numerous world leaders to better the human condition.

Mandela understood the power of words and the impact of humor.  Those that heard him were moved by his words, which were often spoken with conviction and the wisdom that comes with years of suffering and reflection.  His words resonated with people across the globe because he understood his audiences and took special care to connect with each at their level.  His informal style and humor made him approachable and liked.

We have lost one of the most inspirational and exceptional leaders our planet has known. In dedicating this posting to him, my sincere wish is for my readers to reflect on the actions of this great man. Hopefully, each of you can reach deep inside yourselves to access the leader attributes that are awaiting discovery and to be carried out in the service of those that have entrusted their lives and careers to you.

The Humorous Leader

“Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor.” – Eric Sevareid

My client was a member of a leadership team reporting to Jim, a hard-charging, results-oriented leader who delivered a direct punch when he thought it necessary.  The operating plan reviews were viewed as an especially stressful time, with members of the leadership team presenting the performance of their businesses. It was not uncommon for Jim to pass judgment and admonish team members publically.  My client’s business experienced a difficult year, as several of his long standing contacts had either retired or transitioned to other roles.  Their successors had decided to place their accounts with their own preferred vendors.

Needless to say, my client was concerned and anxious about his upcoming review.  However, he carried abundant charm and a disarming sense of humor.  He presented himself at the appointed time for the operating plan review meeting carrying a small bag that no one paid attention to.  It was a brutal meeting, and Jim was in a feisty mood as the organization had underperformed and he had an analyst tele-conference confronting him the following week.  He let his displeasure be known to all and publically derided the presenters.  When the person to my client’s left started his presentation, he excused himself and left the room.  He went up to his hotel room to change into a new outfit.  He came down to the conference room where the reviews were being held, stood outside, and opened the door slightly so he could hear the proceedings.  When he heard his colleague finish his presentation and it was his turn to speak, he heard his colleagues asking where he had gone and whether they should proceed without him.  At that moment, he entered the room wearing a bullet proof vest and other protective equipment from head to toe and carrying a white flag in one hand and a sign in the other saying  “I am sorry boss, I promise to do better next year…”  The room exploded with laughter, and the tension that had been felt so intensely just prior to his entry suddenly started to melt.

Well-placed and effective humor is a powerful ingredient of leadership.  In my client’s case it was used to diffuse dysfunctional tension and to create a different and more productive climate.  There are many other ways that humor can serve a leader.  Outlined below is a partial list.

  1. Humanizes and makes the leader more approachableIn particular, self-deprecating humor can go a long way in making the leader appear genuine, reachable, and likeable.  Warren Buffet’s sense of humor has helped frame him as a leader who is an everyday kind of person, genuine, approachable, and believable.  His disarming and down-to-earth humor is exemplified by quotes such as “I buy expensive suits, they just look cheap on me” or “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out”.
  2. Affords an opportunity for the leader to role model behavior that creates a positive and high performing culture/team – Too many leaders confuse great leadership with astern seriousness, lack of emotion/feelings, and a brand of “just the fact please…” that disconnects them from their followers. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis ground breaking work on emotional intelligence show that our brains carry a number of “mirror neurons” that function to mirror or mimic what another person is doing.  So in a sense, followers often quite literally mirror what their leaders do.  Or as they state “ A boss who is self-controlled and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A bonded group is one that performs well, as our colleague Fabio Sala has shown in his research. He found that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid-performing leaders. Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.” 1
  3. Effectively communicates a message in a manner that is memorable and lasting – For example, during a St. Patrick’s Day reception, president Obama was presented with a certificate of Irish heritage by the Irish Prime Minister. “This will have a special place of honor alongside my birth certificate,” Obama deadpanned, hinting at the on-going conversation of his citizenship.

Humor must be used with judgment and discretion.  Ill-advised use of humor can result in serious damage to the leader’s reputation.  Examples include:

  1. Humor that is insensitive or offensive to a group of people – Typical examples include sexist, racist, and patronizing comments.  For example, the former Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi, in response to allegations of a philandering life style, replied “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.”
  2. Humor that is out of context with the environment or cultureDuring President Bush’s speech at a White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2004, he narrated a slide show that included a photo of himself hunting around in the Oval Office. He went on to say, “Those weapons of mass destruction gotta be somewhere.”  This was seen by many as being insensitive to the military personnel and their families making the ultimate sacrifice for their country, under the false premise of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
  3. Humor that is badly timedFor example, a leader I was working with had a nervous habit of making jokes as ice breakers. This habit was not received well in overseas cultures where it takes longer for relationships to progress to a point where one can joke or use puns.

Questions for on line conversation:

  1. How have you used humor in your leadership presence?
  2. What have been the results?
  3. What are some of your thoughts and suggestions in this regard?
1. Goleman D, Boyatzis R. Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership. Harvard Business Review. September 2008.

Guest Posting: Leadership Communication

Note from Kaveh: Periodically I invite thought leaders and practitioners who have done important work in the field of leadership to contribute as guest writers. Such is the case for this posting. Paul Black is a former actor and an accomplished leadership practitioner with a particular expertise in the area of communication effectiveness and executive presence.  We have worked together on several coaching assignments where one of the presenting issues was communication effectiveness and executive presence. Paul is one of the leaders in the leadership and coaching practice of my company, Philosophy IB.


Leadership Communication
by Paul Black

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James Hume

The goal of any communication, other than the most social, is persuasion: to move your audience to think, say, and ideally do something different. As a leader, you are constantly trying to move people to the action that serves your objectives, and the more mindful you are about it the more success you will have. The wide array of communications you will undertake in a given week (from one-on-one meetings to large presentations) are all opportunities to persuade.  You will benefit from a systematic approach to thinking about and executing these interactions. What follows is an introduction to an approach which I have called the SAM Model:

At the center of the three interlocking circles is your ‘Sweet Spot’, where YOU (Self) deliver the RIGHT MESSAGES (Material) that move your AUDIENCE in the desired direction. This model applies to all and any interactions, from one-to-one conversations, to small group meetings, to large group presentations, to broadcast communications. The principles apply in each scenario in different proportions dependent on the specifics of the interaction.

With each of these elements, it’s important to recognize that you will have some natural tendencies that you will want to lean on, and some that you will need to work around. Since we have been communicating since birth, we’ve learned a lot of habits, not all of which are helping us. By raising our awareness of them, we can begin to be mindful about what we choose to use and what we need to develop.  In addition, we can choose a sub-set of specific elements to lean into or emphasize for one type of interaction, and a different sub-set for a different scenario.  In other words, what works well with a peer at a power breakfast, might not work so well with the C-suite in the afternoon. As with all personal development, mindfulness is foundational. Let’s take a closer look at each other three elements of SAM to understand them better.


I start with the audience because that’s where you should too.  It is easy not to do so, but to preclude this thinking is a fatal error.  Many individuals get so caught up in their own agenda that they forget to engage in adequate thinking about their audience.  You need to develop an understanding of and connection to your audience.  Preparation here is crucial.  Ask yourself the following two fundamental questions:

  • What does my audience WANT?
  • What does my audience NEED?

Make sure you know the difference. Here’s a simple example:  if my friend takes me out to lunch, and suggests “You need a healthy salad,” I’m much more likely to agree if I can get some of what I want (bacon bits in the dressing), and I’m much more likely to think it was a great experience. Balance out both Wants and Needs in your interaction, and you’ll set yourself up for success.  Speakers fail when they confuse their own objectives with the Wants and Needs of the audience – don’t make this mistake.


You can now begin to develop messages that will service both your audience’s Wants and Needs as well as your objectives. Some considerations here include:

Clarity of objective: Write out a clear one sentence description of your interaction. It will:

  • Define your purpose
  • Focus your energy
  • Provide you the only true measure of success

Structure and Flow:

  • Have a robust structure with a beginning, middle and end
    • Start: tell them what you’re going to tell them
    • Middle: tell it to them
    • End: tell them what you just told them.
  • Obey the “Rule of Three,” for example, three messages per slide
  • Use stories and personal anecdotes to add flavor and color

Visual Aids:  You have three tools in your content tool box. Ensure you think adequately about each:

  • What the audience SEES
  • What the audience HEARS
  • Your NOTES (it’s OK to have then, but they are not a substitute for practice!)


Finally we turn to you and the elements of your physical being and persona that you can control to bring success to your interaction. There are three buckets here:

Mindset: A critical piece that is often overlooked by the busy leader who believes she can “wing it” and succeed.  She often can, but she’s flirting with danger and may be courting disaster. Considerations include:

  • Clear articulation of success: write it down and use it to vision success.  Be crisp and precise
  • Imaging: pick a role model you admire and think about how he or she would do it….what can you learn from that person?

Vocal Quality:  I coach leaders who are told “…we can’t hear you…” or “You’re boring.”  The basic tools available to all of us are:

  • Volume
  • Rhythm (speed, or rate of delivery)
  • Clarity (enunciation)
  • Pitch (musicality or tune)
  • Style (e.g. didactic for credibility; conspiratorial for humor)

Physicality: This is most evident when a leader is presenting on her feet and needs to figure what to do with her hands, her feet, etc. Some simple considerations are:

  • Body language:  Understand your non-verbal vocabulary and use it mindfully because your audience is interpreting it constantly
  • Gestures:  make them genuine and fluid
  • Movement:  don’t hide behind a lectern, desk, or other physical object – add a little bit of flavor with some thoughtful movement to pique the audience’s interest

While the SAM model is simple, it is robust enough to be used in any interaction where you are communicating with substance.  It provides a useful framework to dissect the question of how to best communicate in any set of circumstances.  I have used it effectively in my coaching work with leaders to assess where their natural strengths are and where they need to spend some additional time preparing for their interaction. Here’s an example to illustrate:

REAL WORLD APPLICATION:  A Senior Vice-President wins over the Board

Steve was a successful SVP at an insurance services company, and unofficially, the successor to the CEO who was grooming him. The CEO, however, was fully aware that Steve had some career-limiting blind spots. In working directly with Steve, we assessed that he was technically brilliant, knew the industry and business intimately, and could lead his people from a place of intellectual superiority.  One of Steve’s challenges was interacting with the boardroom, who chaffed under what they preserved as an air of arrogance and “know-it-all-ness.”  The CEO was not blind to this and knew that his succession plan hinged, in part, on a shift in Steve’s ability to influence the board, without whose good grace he could never succeed.

We identified an opportunity where Steve would be making an important presentation to the board to request funding for a series of initiatives that under-pinned a large part of his operating plan for the following 18 months.  This would be no push-over presentation. The board would scrutinize his plans and could easily hold back funding for a wide variety of reasons, including, to put it bluntly, “not liking his attitude.”  To increase the stakes, this kind of presentation only happened at most once a quarter, and with such a tight agenda, he might not get a second bite at this cherry for 6 – 9 months.  Without a clear approval of funding for his initiatives, his operating plan for the next fiscal year would be in jeopardy, along with the CEO’s succession plan.

We met with Steve several days before the board was due to convene at a private ranch in Arizona. We set up a video camera with playback options so Steve could self-assess and we could work with him to make any necessary modifications.  However, it quickly became apparent that the technology was redundant, for reasons I’ll explain.   Steve launched into his presentation, which was thick with the technical justification of why his requested funding was imperative. We had agreed beforehand that he would have about 15 minutes to present and would anticipate about 15 minutes for questions, but by the time the quarter-hour mark was up he was only about 1/3 of the way through his dense slide deck. We stopped Steve and began to lean into the SAM model.  What did his Audience Want?  What were their Needs? Were his messages crisp and clear?  Were his material / slides appropriate?  What was his mental attitude (coercive, or generous, or…what?).  Steve was a quick learner and quickly understood that he had to make some serious shifts.  After an hour of coaching and discussion he had a clear plan of what needed to change and how.  Despite his very busy SVP schedule, he committed to carving out the time before the Arizona presentation to re-visit the key areas we identified together….the ball was in his court.

When the presentation came, Steve, with a clear view of what his Audience Wanted and Needed, along with a new, leaner set of messages and a significantly altered mindset, stood up to make his case to the board.  We later learned that within two minutes of his starting to speak one board member discretely turned to another and whispered, “Something’s changed here…has he been coached?”   Steve’s presentation was a roaring success: the board funded all his initiatives for the following year.  His operating plan was now well positioned for execution, and the CEO’s succession plan appeared to be falling into place, which was good news for both the CEO and Steve.

Habitual Leadership (Part 2)

RoutinesIn the last posting, I presented the neurological framework of habits, described the auto behavior progression of cues—routines—rewards, and shared a case example loosely based on a coaching client (Sam) – a pharmaceutical R&D executive recruited from academia. Sam’s habits from academia were not aligned with the culture of his new employer, and therefore not rewarded.

In this posting, I will describe my experience in working with leaders on habits that interfere with their growth and success. The goal is to disrupt the dysfunctional habits, and replace them with new leadership behaviors that help them succeed at work and in life.

Theoretically, the dysfunctional habit can be disrupted by leveraging any of the three elements of the habit formation—the cue, the routine, or the reward.  For example, if a leader continually disrupts the flow of a leadership team meeting by responding to text messages, one can eliminate the cue—take away his smart phone so that he cannot see the incoming text messages. Or, we might change the routine that he defaults to—tell him not to respond to incoming texts. Finally, we can change the reward/recognition mechanism to discourage him from answering incoming texts—have the team exhibit the right behaviors and call out his behavior to remind him that he is not adhering to the team’s norms. Experience shows that more permanent behavioral change occurs when the leader chooses and takes accountability for the new behavior. That is to say that the change is self-generated rather than imposed from an external source.  In most cases, changes that are imposed from an external source have limited shelf life. They are effective as long as the external source can regularly inspect and monitor compliance, and can execute the consequences for non compliance.  In our example, the cue (incoming texts) and the reward mechanism (public admonishment for texting) are both external factors that surround the behavior of the leader. However, ultimately, it is the performance of the routine itself that is displayed and judged.  If the actor/leader’s auto response mechanism can be slowed down to the point where the leader is able to reflect and use judgment prior to acting, the habitual cycle can be disrupted.

In the last posting, I described the case of Sam, the pharmaceutical executive whose habits and routines from his days in academia were not productive in the new setting. Initially, our work focused on making Sam more aware of the perceptions of his colleagues, and the differences between the academic culture (where he had spend the first 20 years of his career) and the culture of his new employer. Once he became aware of the adverse consequences of his habits, he agreed to practice new routines that were more aligned with his new culture. For example, he spent more time networking and asking questions prior to making decisions.  In doing so, he gained a better understanding of the organizational dynamics and practices, such as ways to make requests for and secure additional resources. With this new understanding, our work focused on systematically changing his routines and habits in ways that were aligned to his new surroundings. Rather than unilaterally determining to pursue projects that he was passionate about, he spent time understanding the prioritization process that his employer used to determine which projects should go forward with additional clinical trials. With this new understanding, he became more adept at focusing his team’s efforts on areas of high priority for the organization. In addition, he coached the team to develop their ideas in a language and format that had maximum impact at portfolio review meetings. Naturally, it was not an easy task for Sam to break old habits. In fact, it took a great deal of perseverance and self-monitoring to change old habits. At first, the new ways of doing things felt unnatural and accompanied resentment for having to change practices that he had become so accustomed to.  The new behaviors felt uncomfortable, and did not feel authentic and natural for Sam. However, with repeated practice and patience, he gradually became more comfortable with the new habits, and in some cases, he somewhat reluctantly admitted that they were more effective than his old habits.

Questions for On-Line Conversation

  1. What has been your experience in breaking old habits? Were you able to break these habits permanently, or did you go back to them at some point? Why?
  2. How did you change your habit(s)?
  3. What has been the outcome of adopting your new habits?

Habitual Leadership (Part 1)

This is the first of a two part posting on habitual leadership. Part one will address the neurological basis for habit formation and the consequences of habits both positive and negative. We will illustrate these concepts through a real case (identities have been altered to safeguard client confidentiality). In part two (next posting) I will share ways to isolate and modify dysfunctional habits.

Part I
In the center of our brains close to where it meets the spinal column are the parts that have evolved over millions of years and that control much of what is known as the “auto behaviors.”  These include functions that are critical to our survival as species such as breathing and swallowing. Over time more complicated routines such as cooking a meal have been made into habits that require very little effort. Extensive research chronicled in “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” written by Charles Duhigg 1, shows that our brain is on a constant mission to use its energy in the most efficient manner possible. In other words, it is looking for ways to economize and if possible to convert as many of the decisions into routine habits as possible. This opens up space for the brain to address less familiar and more complicated computations and decision making. The danger of course is that if our brain switches channels pre-maturely, we ignore important information and/or critical nuances prior to turning on our auto response behaviors. We develop “blind spots” that prevent us from making the correct calls.

It turns out that our brain looks for ways to select amongst the cues and see which can be categorized as habits. The way that it selects cues has a lot to do with which routines have been rewarded. Furthermore, the routines that are most established and hardest to change are those where the associated reward actually satisfies a “craving”. For example, the sight of chocolate, chocolate craving and eating chocolate to satisfy the craving.


Habits Are Formed In This Way

  1. Cue – Incoming information
  2. Routine – Our auto response to the cue
  3. Reward – Positive response from our environment which connects with and fulfills part of our persona and overtime creates a craving

Leaders too have developed habits and often display reflexive behaviors. These behaviors are typically learned and practiced over their career and to the extent that they are rewarded they become part of the formula associated with their success.

Sam had been attracted to drug formulation because he found the science of discovering new molecules and formulary fascinating and fulfilling. Throughout his academic career he has been recognized as one of the most creative and ingenious scientists. Sam had perfected a routine for his work and research. He had come to understand what areas would attract the most interest from his peers and broader scientific community, how to write proposals and seek grants, develop an extensive and well recognized cadre of collaborators and knowledge network. He also knew how to position his projects and himself for the right venues and audiences. Throughout his academic career various pharmaceutical companies had been courting Sam to join their R&D organization and had dangled impressive titles and compensation. However, he remained indifferent to these offers. His freedom of thought and unrestricted collaboration with his network of thought leaders were more important to him than financial rewards. By the time we started our work together Sam was at a very different place. A global pharmaceutical organization had convinced him that they were in the midst of a transformational culture change that would make their organization look and feel like a more nimble bio tech. He was promised in no uncertain terms that he could continue to conduct his research in the same manner with unrestricted access to his network. He was promised significantly larger budget and unlimited access to the intellectual property of the organization. He was also promised to lead the culture change initiative and told that his background and external perspectives make him the ideal candidate for the role. After numerous courting sessions including several with the CEO and global head of R&D Sam relented and joined the pharmaceutical organization.

It was not long before Sam started to notice that what had made him successful in the academic setting was not going to be rewarded. For example whereas in the past he had been attentive to signals from the scientific community and focused his research accordingly, his new organization placed more importance on the perspectives of the business development and commercial organizations to determine where research resources should be directed. In his new environment open ended Socratic dialogue, which was his preferred approach to innovative thinking, was not respected as much. His colleagues seemed always to be in a hurry, shuttling from one meeting to next. They seemed to be anxious about having conversations and discourse that did not result in defined deliverables or next steps or that were not somehow connected to a cascaded set of goals that were supposed to connect and align the activities across all levels in the R&D organization. He was given feedback about his communication style. He was told that he did not carry executive presence and in fact he came across as too academic (a definite negative in this new setting). His request to release his budget and resources came under scrutiny. His supervisors wanted him to present the “business case” for these expenditures and were not impressed by his instincts and experience (for which he was hired in the first place). They told him that they simply could not expend resources based on hunches or discovery projects that were not backed up by the collective wisdoms of their pharmaeconomic and value proposition groups. And that these expenditures needed to be “on strategy” and have to be in areas that aligned with the portfolio prioritization process that the organization had put in place for allocating resources to projects. Prior to attending industry and academic knowledge sharing forums he had to secure approval from his supervisors and his presentations were now thoroughly reviewed by corporate lawyers and intellectual property experts to ensure that he did not divulge proprietary information. His former academic colleagues started to feel the difference in how Sam interacted with them and became more reticent in sharing their views and perspectives with him as freely.

[1] Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. 1st ed. Louisville: Random House, 2012.

Questions for On-Line Conversation

  1. What leadership habits have you formed over the years that are no longer serving you?
  2. What are/were the cravings behind your habits? ( how did it satisfy an important need in you?)
  3. How are/have your habit been rewarded?
  4. How would you coach Sam at this point?

The Narcissist Leader (Part 2)

In the last posting, narcissism was defined and explored as a behavior exhibited by some leaders. In this posting, I will share some of my insights arising from my work with these leaders.  Coaching a leader with this characteristic is one of the more challenging assignments one will experience. These leaders have blind spots that often prevent them from: 1. being aware of the dysfunctional aspects of their leadership, 2. assuming accountability for their actions, and 3. changing their behavior. It takes perseverance and a strong back bone to achieve results.  In addition, it is to be expected that there will be many narcissists that are not open to change, and are not “coachable”. The approaches listed below will be more or less applicable depending on your role and relationship with the narcissist.

  1. Clarify Your Role – Explain that you are not there to pass judgment, but rather to support them by focusing on their strengths, (list those—narcissists like to hear them), and hold the mirror in a manner that reflects an accurate image of the perceptions surrounding them. Help her understand the distinction between the positive aspects of her leadership style and the “overuse” of these strengths that may lead to suboptimal results
  2. Enlist a Support System – Are there individuals that the narcissist leader has let into his circle of trust?  Often these collaborators have hitched their wagon to the leader and have a powerful incentive to keep him in power. If you can enlist these individuals by demonstrating that their leader is setting himself up for a fall through his actions, you may be able to encircle the narcissist leader with a consistent message of change. This strategy has to be used with finesse, as the narcissist is by definition mistrusting and suspicious. He must not detect that there is any sort of conspiracy or palace revolt, or there will be a backlash that will only worsen the narcissist’s unproductive behavior
  3. Use Setbacks As An Ally – Narcissist leaders leave a trail of misjudgments and mistakes prior to the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. Create a compelling case for the cumulative outcome and direction of the leader’s decisions. Provide external benchmarks and other normative examples to demonstrate the probable outcome of his decisions
  4. Build an Strong Culture – Narcissistic leaders often seek openings in organizational culture (processes, procedures, policies, etc.) that allow them to shortcut and bully their way to their desired outcome. The strongest impediment to the narcissist’s bullying tactics is a culture that rewards leadership and accountability at all levels in the organization and discourages the single leader knows it all mindset
  5. Prepare For The Worst – If all else fails, begin to plan for the “fall”.  Who is ready to assume the reign? Which critical projects to initiatives will be adversely affected? What are your plans for rescuing them? How will you council and work with the fallen narcissist?

Questions for On-Line Conversation

  1. What strategies have you used to reign in a narcissist leader?
  2. How have these tactics worked?
  3. When you are in a narcissist frame of mind and what can be done to pull you out of it??

The Narcissist Leader (Part 1)

This is the first of a two part posting on the Narcissist Leader.  Part I will provide the foundation for understanding, distinguishing, and recognizing the differences between the strengths of a narcissist leader and the overuse of these strengths.  Part II will highlight lessons learned from personal coaching experiences with this type of leader.

Part I – Definition, Symptoms, and Consequences

“(The leader’s) intellectual acts are strong and independent even in isolation and his will need no reinforcement from others … (He) loves no one but himself, or other people only insofar as they serve his needs.”    

— Freud, Sigmund, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”

It was late, and we were still working.  Across the table was our client Jay, the CEO of a venture capital backed organization.  Recognizing an opportunity created by federal legislation/regulation, Jay acted swiftly and propelled the organization from a small start-up to a mid-sized organization experiencing exponential growth.  Jay was an immensely charismatic leader with a vibrant personality who, starting from a very humble background, experienced early success for his efforts.  His drive gained him admission to the most prestigious undergraduate and graduate institutions in the country.

He was relentlessly driven by competition, success, his mission to change the world, and an insatiable thirst for recognition and public admiration. During our meeting, one of the members of our team noticed that Jay seemed to be looking past him into a distant horizon.  Eventually, our colleague followed Jay’s gaze to a window with a reflection of Jay’s image.  Jay had been gazing at and perhaps admiring his image even as he spoke with us.  This did not strike us as unusual as we had been experiencing Jay’s need for power and recognition in every aspect of the organizational decision making.  He made it known that he needed to understand and approve decisions in all areas and at nearly every level in the organization. In a number of meetings, he could not contain himself.  He often jumped to the front of the room, seeming to project an impatience with the meeting lead of the moment.  Of course, he was articulate and smart and could often come up with a quick solution to any problem being addressed.  In the front of the room, he made it clear that he had the answers.

On several occasions, based on our concerns as well as those expressed by colleagues, we tried, unsuccessfully to provide constructive feedback and  to coach him.  While moving at the speed of light, emboldended by his own brilliance, he simply could not hear our message nor see the danger signs surrounding him and the organization.  Eventually, his self-absorbed impatience with the speed and capability of others, coupled with his own talent and inability to see his blind spots, led him to decisions that drove the organization into bankruptcy.

His will to win and crush the competition drove him to drive the organization much too hard and fast. The organization did not have the infrastructure and talent to respond to his mandate to grow at unrealistic levels. Cash flow ran dry and customer service suffered significant damage.  In an effort to not lose market share and to patch negative publicity, the field force turned to questionable practices resulting in ethical and legal issues. State regulatory organizations brought legal actions against the organization.  Concerned banks and vendors began to demand payment on time and would not compromise. Jay was eventually unable to secure additional venture funding and the organization imploded.

Narcissism is defined as—“dominant interest in one’s self; the state in which the ego is invested in oneself rather than in another person.  Self Love.

It is usually characterized by an excessive display of love and admiration of oneself. This pre-occupation with the self often diminishes empathy for others. At a psychological level, it is usually driven by unconscious deficits in self-esteem and a need for external validation such as attention and admiration from others or obsession with attention-attracting possessions.

Freud named this type of personality after a mythical figure, Narcissus, who died because of his psychological obsession with himself.

Of course narcissism can also be positive.  Narcissists have motivated and inspired others to reach great accomplishments. Donald Trump and Larry Ellison of Oracle might be some of several leaders who come to mind  These leaders see the world as it can be and not as is.  They don’t shy away from risk or the necessary effort to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  A narcissist has a strong back bone and the audacity to not take no for an answer and to push through resistance.  He has extraordinary oratory skills, charm, and charisma that allow him to influence and motivate the masses in support of his grand vision.  His followers want to like and follow him and to receive his approval.

However, these strengths can also be “overused”.  The same energy and skills that make the narcissist successful when overused can lead to his downfall.  Grand vision when not responsive to change or new information can become an impediment to creativity and innovation.  Resolve and resilience to push through obstacles to achieve extraordinary success can become the source for engaging in brutal and senseless dysfunctional behaviors designed to eliminate opposition, win at any cost, and to cause burnout in the organization.  The courage and risk taking mindset that provided the organization opportunities to experiment and be an industry leader can turn into a high stake reckless poker game that created the financial collapse of 2007 and the downfall of Enron.

Success is the enemy of the dysfunctional narcissist. As he gains power, wealth, and adulation he sees himself as of a higher order and not bound by ordinary societal conventions and rules. He gravitates towards a survival of fittest mindset.  The more his followers bestow admiration on him the more isolated he becomes. He will not hear those that are trying in earnest to help him.  He starts to reward and recognize those that are aligned with his views and distances himself from the others.

The fall of the narcissist leader is a tragic and gut-wrenching event to witness.  Not only because of the toll it takes on those that surround them, but also the personal agony and pain that the narcissist experiences.  The narcissist is usually marching to a different drum in his head and is generally oblivious to the emerging disaster surrounding him.  He lacks self awareness, understanding, and empathy for others and is distrustful and even revengeful of any source that contradicts them. Maurice Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, and Donald Trump make a practice of threatening or taking legal action against those they see as presenting unflattering depictions of them.

In the next posting, I will pick up at this juncture and further chronicle the normal demise of narcissist leaders overusing their strenghts and my experiences in coaching them.

Questions For On-line Conversation

  1. Have you experienced Narcissist tendencies in yourself?  If yes were you able to manage it productively?
  2. Have you been led by or worked with a narcissist leader? What lessons or takeaways would you like to share with the readers?
  3. Have you through your actions empowered a narcissist? Tell us about it…

The Giver Leader

There are occasions in my readings of leadership that I come across material so profound and self-explanatory that I will refer you the source, step aside, and put the spotlight on the author or the guest writer. Such is the case for this posting. This posting is devoted to Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton Business School and his work on the dynamics of “giving” and the work place.

Please read the New York Times Magazine article of March 31, 2013 titled Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? by clicking the following link:

As mentioned in the article, “Grant, 31, is the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton. He is also one of the most prolific academics in his field, organizational psychology, the study of workplace dynamics.”


After reading the article, please join our online conversation by thinking about the following questions, or by posting your own questions or suggestions:

  1. What were your impressions after reading the article?
  2. How do the findings of Adam Grant line up with your own life experiences and thoughts?
  3. tIf you could have dinner with Adam Grant, what would you ask him or suggest to him?