To coach leaders, ask yourself the right questions

Lucas B. is the CEO of a well-known multi-billion dollar company whose survival was threatened at the height of the pandemic. Many analysts had written it off. Lucas had a strategy to return the company to profitability, which his board supported, but he struggled to implement it. In Lucas’ opinion, he faced a series of external obstacles. When we started working together, he resisted the idea that his own leadership was central to the problem.

But his own leadership was exactly the problem. And not for the typical reasons you might guess.

I’ve been coaching CEOs and other C-suite leaders for two decades. In a hugely complex and challenging world, I have found that leaders, more than ever, need to understand how what happens inside them influences their actions in the outside world. Instead, for most business leaders I’ve worked with — often doers more than deep thinkers — what’s happening internally is vast uncharted territory that they haven’t appreciate a lot. This includes how they feel, where they feel triggered, and how early life experiences influence the choices they make in the present.

The leadership issues that concerned Lucas the most – and many others like him – included prioritization, decision-making, accountability, and the alignment and empowerment of his team members. But our work together also focused on three more personal questions designed to better understand their motivations and drives:

  • Why are you the person and the leader that you are?
  • Who are you capable of becoming?
  • What stands in your way?

Our principle with customers is deceptively simple: you can’t transform a business without also transforming yourself. To be a better leader, you have to become a bigger human being. This is based on years of experience with senior leaders who failed to implement new strategies and change initiatives. Overcoming these obstacles requires a willingness to challenge fixed beliefs, blind spots, biases, fears, deeply ingrained habits and rationalizations that influence us all deeply, but especially beyond our awareness.

Leaders are mistaken when they assume they are making free and deliberate choices. In fact, a series of studies have shown that at least 43% of our behaviors – and in some cases many more – do not occur by conscious intention, but automatically, habitually, and reactively.

The added challenge for leaders is that being strong and confident – ​​even invulnerable – has long been seen as necessary to their roles and central to their identity. Too often this persona becomes just another way to defend against discomfort and pain. Today’s leaders must understand that openness, humility and a desire to grow are essential to running a modern organization.

“There were moments of heated debate where I fundamentally disagreed with your point of view,” Lucas told me recently. “I would say 90% of the time it was signs that I wasn’t ready to take the leap. The inflection points took place when I entered my heart and was ready to listen and eventually evolve.

For Lucas, it started with exploring what he stood for most deeply, rather than being overly swayed by a desire to avoid conflict and reach consensus. It also meant noticing his own tendency to step in and micromanage. When he began to feel anxious, he found himself making decisions and seeking multiple iterations of the same work from more than one person. The more he was able to observe and accept his contrasting impulses, the better he was able to find a balance between them.

As Lucas’ ability to set clear expectations and hold his team accountable to them grew, so did his willingness to empower others to achieve those results without his direct involvement.

Part of Lucas’ job was to fulfill his unspoken role as the company’s “energy director.” It meant acknowledging that what he was feeling and communicating at any given time had a disproportionate impact on those working under him, for better or for worse. With vulnerability and transparency, he began to recognize his own triggers and how he was learning to sit with them, rather than acting on them. This made other members of his team feel more secure in acknowledging their own struggles.

What it means to be a leader today

Part of the challenge of modern coaching is to understand that each of us does not operate from a single self, but rather from a complex dance between three main selves: the child, the defender and the central self. . This perspective is deeply influenced by Richard Schwartz (no relation) who originated a framework called Internal Family Systems.

The child self, into which we are born, is our most vulnerable self. Our advocate arises early in our life to protect our child from feelings of fear, hurt, shame, vulnerability and helplessness. For Lucas, it was particularly powerful to recognize how his defender reacted under stress, when he felt his own worth was threatened. As he was able to connect with his more capable and measured core self, rather than just letting his defender take charge, he found he was calmer, more self-regulated, more thoughtful, and better able to make thoughtful choices. .

Most business leaders I’ve worked with rely primarily on one source of intelligence and insight: the mind. In fact, there are at least four centers of intelligence, including the heart, body, and mind. To make the most informed decisions, we must rely on each of them.

Lucas, for example, found that his perspective changed when he moved away from the whirlwind of his conflicting thoughts and listened more closely to the intelligence of his body. It meant paying more attention to his deeper intuition rather than relying solely on his mind, which could rationalize almost any choice he made.

Why human connection matters as much as the bottom line

Many business leaders I have worked with have limited access to their hearts, which means sensitivity to their own feelings and emotional needs, and empathy for the feelings and needs of others. This is especially true of leaders who are primarily motivated by external rewards such as money, power, and recognition, which are the primary signifiers of value in most corporate environments.

Andrew K., for example, is a senior executive who has measured himself almost exclusively by his company’s results. He felt safe and comfortable in the objective world of numbers. The awakening of his heart’s intelligence began with his willingness to explore the fears and discomfort that arose when he turned his attention to how he felt and how he affected others.

Over time, Andrew found that he held his desire for a more human connection at bay, believing it would make him more vulnerable and hinder his external goals. By allowing himself to have more personal relationships with his colleagues, he also found that collaborating with them became easier and conflicts were resolved more quickly.

The fourth center of intelligence, the mind, refers to the larger perspective that emerges when leaders strike the right balance between caring for their own needs and caring for others.

Paulina B. is the CEO of a large non-profit organization. The clients her organization serves have long been a powerful source of spiritual energy for her. When we started working together during Covid, she felt deeply exhausted, to the point that she was considering quitting her job.

As we explored her experience, Paulina began to see her advocate rising up whenever she felt she was falling short of perfection – in the form of a relentless self-criticism that found her insufficient. The louder that voice became, the harder she pushed herself, the more involved she became in the details, and the more discouraged she became.

We focused together on a very basic question: what fuels your energy and what drains it? By giving herself permission to explore the answers, Paulina discovered that tackling all of the organization’s problems served her perfectionism, but often prevented her from investing in the parts of her job she found most valuable. nourishing. Chief among them was the energy she exuded spending time in the field with employees and customers, and interacting with leaders from other organizations.

The paradox of working with CEOs and senior leaders, I have found, is that the more they are able to accept and embrace the parts of themselves that they have previously denied, the less they have to defend. The core job of a modern executive coach is to help clients understand themselves more deeply – to tolerate the truth more until it can set them free. It starts with the simplest of questions: “What am I not seeing?”

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