Monthly Archives: August 2010

Exceptional Leaders: Driven or Courageous?

It is easy to look at a successful leader and conclude that they are driven. The truth is many are. They haven’t come to grips with the demons from their past and are actually on a race to outrun them or prove them wrong by demonstrating that they actually are something while deeply inside thinking they actually are not much. This type of “drivenness” has led to some forms of success for many people, but not the success that we will speak of more fully in this space, which is a success that is more than making it to the top of the corporate ladder or the money list.

I am reminded of a little book entitled, Hope for the Butterflies, by Trina Paulus, that was given me early in my career by a friend who was well on his way toward achieving what most of us would define as success. It describes the life of caterpillars, those lowly, fuzzy little creatures that really don’t have much going for them, except to get ahead of the other caterpillars in pursuit of “success”. It is clear in the book that even these little creatures that are out front in this race to the top have this disturbing intuition that there must be more to life than this. The book concludes by reminding us that these little guys only achieve what they were designed for when they step out of the mad pursuit and relax a little. To their amazement once they stepped away from the constant striving they wake up significantly different than when they went to sleep.

When it comes right down to it most of us want success that includes much more than the rat race to the top of the heap. In the past few years, we have witnessed many leaders tumble from the top, only to be swallowed up by the recession and the personal meltdowns that accompanied it. Exceptional leaders have courageously stepped back from the rat race and have clearly defined success that includes multiple dimensions of their lives, including home, family, health, fitness, faith, peace, friends, finances and community. Once success is clearly defined, they work diligently to make choices that lead to the achievement of their goals. Do they work hard? You bet they do! And they make hard choices every day. They also know that their hard work is likely to pay off in the areas that mean the most to them. And if they happen to experience a failure in one area, the balance they have achieved will often serve to sustain them until they get back on their feet.

Exceptional Leaders Know their Strengths

Exceptional leaders know their strengths and play to them, rather than comparing themselves to someone who has a different experience than theirs. One common tendency is to see a successful person and play down our efforts or accomplishments in comparison. This practice often leaves people depressed, hopeless, and desperately chasing illusions. A strength-focus, on the other hand, is the primary reason exceptional leaders appear to have greater self confidence. They have taken that hard look at reality that we talked about earlier and have identified their strengths and chose to build on what they do have instead of dream or whining about what they don’t.

It is easy to say how nice it would be to have Bill Gates’ fortune. However, he didn’t just stumble into it. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, reminds us that it was the 10,000 hours of practice that led him and others like him to become Outliers. Gates’ 10K effort led him to become a computer expert whose practice resulted in advances in technology that have become invaluable to our wired society today. It is possible for any of us to have similar results with similar efforts. So instead of sitting around wishing and dreaming of what might have been, or being depressed because of these comparisons, exceptional leaders play on the strengths they have. They focus on continuous improvement and personal development. They are not destroyed by their failures, and they refuse to be limited by their weaknesses.

There are numerous examples of people who have done just that, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or holocaust survivors such as Victor Frankl, but I want to highlight a group of survivors. In the field of psychology volumes have been written about adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) and the devastating effects that growing up in such an environment can have on a child’s life. Take a moment to Google or Bing ACOA and you will find page after page of lists and symptoms, sympathy and help. And, while most of what is written may be true, the reality is that only about 15% of ACOAs are debilitated by the experience. The other 85% have become what I like to call “thrivers“. Though they have had a tough life experience, completely undeserved by them, they have done more than survive. They have refused to allow that experience to dictate the outcome of their lives or to stop them from living productive lives. They choose instead to control the things they can control. They focus on their competencies, capabilities and strengths. Then they gather the resources at their disposal and build the best life possible, one step at a time. Many do so quite successfully. It does not mean that they are free from pain of those early experiences, or that life may have been better for them had they not had such an experience. It simply means that they do not allow the pain of their past to destroy them.

Regardless of your life experiences, it would be easy to look back to your past or your childhood and find hurts or injustices that you could point to as justification for failure or lack of progress. However, the same look back can find better things to focus on that can, just as easily, become your reasons for thriving today. It is simply a choice that everyone must make, often on a daily basis. Exceptional leaders have learned to do this exceptionally well. They come from all walks of life, family backgrounds and personal experiences. They have had their setbacks and successes. They have learned to play on the one string they have and, from this make great music.

One of my best friends in all the world gave me the following poem on an occasion when I was going through a rough period in life. He likely does not even recall the gift, but to me it was a God send that I have imprinted in my memory. When I received it, it was on a plaque that was unauthored. I have since learned that it was written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The Set of the Sails

One ship sails East.Another WestBy the self-same winds that blow.Tis the set of the sails and not the galesthat determine the way they go.

Like the winds of the seaAre the waves of time,As we journey along through life,‘Tis the set of the soul,That determines the goal,And not the calm or the strife.

Executive Coaching: A Hard Look at Reality

Your Journey to Exceptional Leadership Begins Here: A Hard Look at Reality

Research indicates that a leader’s effectiveness is based more on EQ that IQ. EQ, or Emotional Intelligence, describes self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management as essential elements for leadership effectiveness. The development of EQ starts with self-awareness, or a hard look at reality that gives you an opportunity to see yourself as you really are. This is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Most good leaders say they welcome feedback and many often solicit it. However, there is a certain self-protective nature in us that can lead us to soften the feedback, especially if it becomes a little painful. That softening of the message leads to rationalizations and justifications for our behavior. So rather than making a change, we easily continue on doing what we have always done. Unfortunately, the old phrase does not apply here, you don’t keep on getting the same results. The results of failing to pay attention to feedback and not taking a hard look in the mirror is the primary cause of leadership derailment.

It is true, some people simply refuse to change. Others fail to see the need for change, until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain associated with changing. Unfortunately, these changes often come too late to redeem the derailing leader.

The challenge is to get ahead of professional derailment and to develop a strategy that leads to being an exceptional leader. Self-awareness can be accelerated with an executive coach, especially one who is thorough in their assessments, interviews and use of resources that will help you get a clear picture of reality. The value of the coach is the support that comes from an advocate who wants to help you succeed, who will serve as a sounding board for you and who will work with you to develop skills and strategies that have proven themselves in helping avoid derailment or recover from it.

The coach’s tools, especially the professional assessment instruments paired with information from interviews and observations can give you insight into your leadership style, the impact you have on others, your strengths, weaknesses and competencies. They will guide you through the development of your personal purpose, vision, goals and objectives. They will serve as a foundation for developing a plan that capitalizes on your strengths and ensures that your weaknesses don’t turn into derailers.

As an Executive Coach and as a past coaching client, I can attest to the value of the process. Painless? NO? Helpful? Unbelievably so! Worth the investment? Without a doubt!

As an Executive Coach, the process of seeing an executive move from the brink of derailment to success is incredibly rewarding.

Exceptional Leaders Focus on Strengths

“Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.” Helen Keller

The following story is a true story that illustrates the power negative thinking as well as the power of focusing on the strengths of those you lead. This story is about a nineteen year old African American female who was terribly distraught when she first called me for help. During the first few minutes of our conversation she was crying uncontrollably. When she was finally able to talk she told me that she was considering taking her own life. She said that her mother had kicked her out of her house, that she felt helpless and hopeless and confident that she would never amount to much. I knew that she was most likely ready to reiterate all the reasons she was worthless. As you can imagine, I was quite concerned for this young woman.

Several questions ran through my mind. What led her to this point in life? Were things really as bad as she was seeing them at this very moment? Did she have any strength or resources she could draw from that would pull her out of this?

I chose to reflect on the one positive thing I heard from her rather than on the difficulty between her and her mother. I affirmed her relationship with her aunt whom she said had taken her in, telling her I was glad she had at least some temporary shelter. She agreed by indicating that they she and her aunt had a great relationship and that her aunt had told her she could stay as long as necessary to get back on her feet. Next, I checked to see if she had any resources or whether she would need some kind of special assistance. When I asked about a job she said she had a good job and enjoyed her work. This led me to conclude that she had probably completed high school, and since she was only nineteen, I asked about that experience. She said she had made very good grades in order to compete as an athlete in track & field and that she still keeps up with her fitness by running three miles every day. In fact, she had just come in from her morning run before making the call to me. I commended her again and suggested that she is unique compared to most people who never get off the sofa.

I then asked her about friends or associates from whom she could receive encouragement and support. Since she had recently graduated from high school I expected to hear about friends from there. To my surprise, however, she said that most of her friends were from work rather than her high school. She said that most of her friends from school had become pregnant before finishing high school, were on some type of welfare or aid programs, or were involved in drugs. With that, I asked how it was that she ended up making such different choices. She turned the conversation back to her accomplishments at school. She said that the competition of track & field motivated her to stay focused academically because good grades were required to compete. I asked how well she did in her track experience. She said she had won several competitions and had even received a full scholarship to a nearby college. I again commended her with amazement at her success and asked if she planned to attend college. She said she was not sure, but, now that it was on her mind, she would consider checking into it further.

Nearing the end of the call I told her that I was quite amazed at her accomplishments. I further apologized for not spending much time talking about the situation with her mother. She said that she actually felt much better after the call than she had in weeks. I could tell that her mood had changed significantly from the beginning of the conversation. When I asked about that, she said that no one had ever told her all the things that I had told her.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. I stopped her immediately and reminded that I had told her nothing, but that it was she who had told of all her accomplishments, and of all the positive things in her life. She thought about my comment for a minute and then excitedly agreed. She also recognized that she had fallen victim to selective memory that focused on the most negative things in her life. She realized that she could actually change that to a more positive focus. She said that she really wanted to keep these positive things in the forefront of her thinking. She immediately listed those things on a piece of paper and taped it to her bathroom mirror so she could read them every day before she left her house. She said she wanted to be reminded that she is worthwhile, loved by friends and family, unique, talented and capable, and facing a future with lots of opportunity.

I asked again about her mother. She said that she still did not have a good answer for that, but that she was certain that she would be okay, even if things did not get better between them. I suggested she call me again to discover some ways she could try to work things out. I also asked about suicidal thoughts, and she said she was certainly not going to harm herself and was more hopeful about her life and her future now than ever before.

Several weeks passed and she had not called back so I called her to follow up on our conversation. She said that she was doing great. She said she still lived with her aunt, and that her relationship with her mother was slowly improving. She said she still sees the list every morning and is reminded that even when a few things are not going well, there are a lot of other good things about her life that she can focus on and draw strength from.

Everyone has enough problems and challenges in their lives. Exceptional leaders don’t ignore those things, but they begin by focusing on the strenghts of others. Without that foundation, few people will have the energy to focus on managing the deficits and continue their growth.