Three ways to lead with thought and action today

Inside out, outside in

One of the great frustrations of people with vision, energy, and insight – the way we like to see ourselves – is why others don’t see the world as we do. Once we notice this, and all of its obvious obstacles, we take a step.

The easiest step to take is to infer that others are against us for some very poor reasons. They’re not very smart or have no imagination. They’re afraid of change. They just don’t get it. They’re invested in the status quo. It’s personal.

Even if there’s some truth in those conclusions, rehearsing the ways others are opposed to us builds a wall. It gets stronger as we hang onto the notion that “the old guard are protecting their bonuses,” for example. That wall will be there when we look for it. We can count on it. That’s not real, not a fact, not “reality.” But it becomes more real to us the more we rehearse it. It becomes a part of us.

We can take the wall apart by by what we do and what we think. But if we do not take it apart, we will experience work as a maze of walls and alleys.

Instead of drawing taking the very human step that reinforce]s us vs, them, we can take a step into the Learning Leader Lab. Here are three ideas to help you move from certain to curious.

Open up “data collection”

Whatever you infer about others, you’re selecting a small set of data. It’s probably skewed toward what you believe. That’s a human habit; no harm, no foul.

Pay attention to other inputs, information, contributions people are making to the issue you think they oppose. If this feels a bit like being a Pollyanna when you suspect other intentions, keep it up. You’re on the right track. That suspiciousness is also a common human habit.

Try thought experiments

What other legitimate interests might this person be attempting to serve? What’s the good thing, principle, or value they’re trying to bring about?

Stretch yourself. You may find it hard to see the good interests of others if you’ve already decided they’re set against yours.


Ask for more information about others’ perspectives and conclusions. Like you, they’re synthesizing a collection of values, assumptions, experience, and popping out with “what we should do.” You may find common ground in the things that haven’t been said yet.

Watch your questioning, though. With practice, we learn to tell when closed-end questions are set as traps, when leading questions are really statements, and when even open-ended questions are designed to make us look smart rather than to learn something new.

How did you learn to let in other points of view this week?

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

“I don’t want to be a leader”

No thanks

Good. There are probably too many people who want to be in charge, tell people what to do, control events, and bend circumstances to their way of thinking. But that’s not leadership. That’s authority. That’s the exercise of power. It has a bad reputation and it’s well-deserved.

Maybe you haven’t always been a leader, but you’ve met people who were. Did you do your part, play your role eagerly? Did you notice that being the person that everyone looked to sometimes got in the way of good judgment? Or maybe you saw that acclaim for those in charge also bent them to do questionable things as that tried to manage their reputation.

Still, after developing our own expertise, we come to recognize that we want to make a difference. We want to be recognized for it, too. Especially early on, we need the encouragement and feedback, which is sometimes critical. That impulse to matter and be recognized for it is a growing plant fed on good intentions, hopefulness, willingness to learn, and some ego, both healthy and otherwise.

You don’t need lead a big corporation. Just stick with the impulse to make a contribution. Keep working to do that today. You don’t have to do anything else. But as a thought experiment, extend that same impulse to your team or your church or club. What might making a contribution full of good intentions look like? Move beyond that to the next circle. Maybe people who see what you’ve accomplished invite to give similar help in another sphere. What could you contribute? Or maybe your commitment to a good goal keeps leading you into organizations where you can make your contribution. No thanks

You may find yourself leading. You don’t have to. But you might. Don’t throw the idea aside because you haven’t seen good examples of it up close. No matter what the scope or scale, you could be the person notice by another discouraged expert, inspiring them to do what you do. That might lead him to change his mind. It might inspire her to resolve to make her own contribution.

On the one hand, leading is nothing special. On the other, in the complex, dynamic world of work of this decade, it’s not natural. But you don’t need to be every kind of great leader at once. You simply need to follow the impulse to make a contribution. You’ll need to answer new challenges. You’ll learn a lot about your ego. But the cumulative effect is that you become one of the people whose impact is as nearly as good as their intentions.

I don’t feel strongly about what you call it. But for all our sakes, do it.

Three ways to get learning into your bones

Forty eight percent of employees say they receive no formal training. You’re thinking, “That’s not good. But taking in the big picture, it’s conceivable.” So what?

First, get pragmatic. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting formal training at work. Ask for it. Seek it out. Find programs outside the company and ask for funding. But don’t blame the company (or any “them”) if it’s not going to happen. And don’t hold a grudge.

You can build your own curriculum. Dorie Clark has offered some great ideas for DIY professional development. Shout out to her for pointing me to the Accenture study in which the opening data point is found.

Some learning is more challenging, though. You could call it the adaptive challenge of learning. We need to change our minds, but also ourselves. Some learning has to be chewed slowly and patiently if we’re going to really digest it and use all its nutrients.

Put hindsight to work and test it with foresight

Start holding your own regular after-action review. I call it reflection-in-action. Schedule it least once a week. Look back over the week, pick its high point and low point, and take a wider view of events.

The after-action review (AAR) comes out of military training. It’s designed to provide a well-rounded picture of what happened. The first step: review without blame or prejudice. Start with you.carrying a leg

Notice that the AAR focuses on what happened in the concrete world of objects and actions. You can go one better by adding what you thought, intended, felt, experienced. Mindset drives the choices we have and the choices we make. What can you see now, or imagine might be true, that you could not see then?

You can’t know what others thought or felt. But you can develop a hypothesis about what they were trying to achieve and why. Here’s where foresight helps. Set up a test of your hypothesis. Ask questions. Or plan to try a different approach in a similar situation. This is a test, so stay open to new data.

Bundle the learning with peers

You are not alone. Whatever you find challenging, others are struggling over it now. Others need to know what you want to learn.

Find some friends or people you trust. Decide on a a method for a small group peer coaching. (Here’s one good example from Marshall Goldsmith.) Start meeting regularly. For a small investment, you could even hire a coach to teach you a peer coaching method. In a couple of hours you will know the process and have seen how it works.

The kind of learning that gets into our bones will make us (very) uncomfortable from time to time. You want to work with peers who will both support you and keep you honest. If you don’t find a dream team immediately, don’t give up.

Get expert help but share the cost

I know that people get great value out of working with a coach individually, but you might say I have a bias. If you can enlist a few people with similar challenges and intentions, hire a coach for the group. It’s more economical and you’ll still get some individual attention. The big benefit in group coaching is that you don’t need to run the meeting. You can focus on the slow and steady digesting of learning and change. The coach will be responsible for focus, facilitation, and creating a productive discussion for learning.

What have you done to digest deep learning or big change and get it into your bones?

Fixing a fixed mindset: Failure is an option

“Failure is not an option.” For some people, this is how they say they’ve got grit and persistence. But others live it without recognizing that they’re working as hard as possible to avoid failure in many ways, big and small. “If I don’t do well, what’s become of my skills, talents, abilities? Doesn’t it call them into question?” If this is one of your worries, you may be operating in the fixed mindset.

If we can’t allow ourselves to consider the possibility of failure, we have locked ourselves into a cell with only one way out. And we’ve foreclosed the chance to learn. We make it difficult to course-correct. We make it more difficult to accept help, new ideas, and the inevitable developments that don’t go as planned. Worst, we make it almost impossible to notice what’s developing while we drive for our fore-ordained goal.

Circumstances sometimes go against us. Opponents may best us. Or, apparent opponents may prove to be allies as new developments take shape. Even if we do succeed on our own terms, we will not have learned how to respond to circumstance and change. We will only have found a way to manhandle events the way we have done in the past.

How to start fixing the fixed mindset

First, notice when success is the only option. Take responsibility for your part in feeding that mindset. Did you sign up for the assignment because it would confirm your string of successes? Did you sell yourself short and take on a sure thing? Are you blaming others for things that neither you nor they can control?

Second, use self reflection: What will I lose if I fail? Job? Maybe, but not likely. Not many of us will lose our jobs over a one-time fail. Respect, yes, for a while. Will you lose the fond idea of yourself as a success, and brilliant, and next in line for [whatever you think you want next]? If you think you can’t handle losing those, you may be noticing the fixed mindset.

What we believe about ourselves is pretty important to us. Think about it: it’s pretty important to you to be seen as a success, or as kind, or collaborative, or creative, even visionary. But you will not die without it. You may have to take my word on this. But from here on, watch and see if not getting everything right the first time inflicts a mortal wound. Oh, it will hurt. But you’ll come back from it stronger.

Third, keep an eye on yourself. Pay attention to when you insist that success is the only option. Learn to recognize the urge to take on the sure thing, the thing that proves you are who you think you are. See if you can name what you are really trying to get out of it. We’re usually reinforcing something that makes us feel very good; nothing is more natural. So don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s going to take some practice to learn to recognize this habit.

Last, try something like this. “I’m not positive how to [decide, select, present, evaluate, your verb here]. Here’s what I’ve learned about our situation so far, and that makes me think [this]. What do you make of the situation? What are we learning from this situation right now?”

It can be really challenging to do this. How old are you? That’s how many years you’ve been reinforcing the mindset you have. You can change it. It will take some time. It may take some help.

Step back when you are able. See yourself as the project. Ask, “What am I learning from this project so far?”

How to Use Fixed Mindset to Discover What Matters Most

If you’ve ever had a 4:00 a.m. thought about something you’ve done and you cringe, you may be experiencing the “fixed mindset.” Maybe it comes back to you as, “I screwed up.” It’s personal. Recalling it brings to life good old-fashioned shame.

For a more than two years, I’ve been recommending Mindset to friends and colleagues. Carol Dweck’s research defines what many people experience: failure calls into question one’s talent, intelligence, and track record. So instead of relishing new encounters, and what we could learn from them, we treat them as pass-fail tests. (I’ll talk more about the fixed-mindset habits and their effect in another post.) I like to think I’m pretty capable, but I saw myself in the symptoms. Understanding the fixed and growth mindsets proved useful.

But I’ve also struggled to help people use the concept. I still recommend the book. The more you pay attention to signs of these mindsets, the more you notice the extent of your habit of proving your talent to yourself and others, or avoiding situations where you may fail.

Still, how do you fix the fixed mindset? What’s become clear to me is that our commitments are where we don’t want to fail. We want to be good parents, ready and able for advancement at work, engaged and active citizens, a good shortstop on the softball team. If we have a fixed mindset, that’s where we will see it at work. And that’s where it will constrict us most, dogging our steps as we try to advance.

Before we fix the fixed mindset, we need to see it. And where we see it, it reveals some commitment that’s important to us. Start from either end. If you are hell-bent to succeed and determined not to fail, that’s the fixed mindset. It’s keeping you boxed in more than you think.

Or, think about what’s important to you. Where do you strive hardest to succeed? In what areas do you protect yourself from even small failures? Underneath the good intention and the effort, there’s a commitment that represents an important element of your identity. Notice these and you’ll start to see them show up in new settings. Don’t worry. The fixed mindset is more typical than you might think.

Take time to get used to your mindsets and where they appear. They’re clues to the most important things you believe. And if you’re noticing them, you’re also feeling an impulse to move beyond their limits.

Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

What’s all this pushback about?

I was talking with a friend recently who explained that everything was going just fine. In fact, he felt that he was positioned for great things. But he was struggling.

“I push through the day,” he said. “I’m confident I’m doing the right things, the big ones and the small ones. But it’s all stretch. It’s work. And I don’t feel much certainty about it at the end of the day. It leaves me feeling tired and disoriented and as though I hadn’t done much.”

One thing he has going for him is clarity of purpose. He doesn’t doubt his direction, though he sometimes doubts himself. “But I’m all in,” he added. Given what he can know now, he’s sure he’s on the right course.

So what’s wrong?

I encouraged him and said: “You’re on the verge.” He’d taken big, if planned, risks with his work. He’d begun to lead his own projects, and not everyone welcomed it. “I’ve stepped out front,” he said. He felt somewhat alone there, but confident that his experience and expertise had laid a good foundation. He can see capacity for leadership taking shape. “You know what’s wrong?” he said. “Nothing.”


Here’s what we decided might serve him best:

Dig in

First, the facts: Acknowledge that the hard work of sticking to his plan and its goals will continue to be hard work, and that that will change over time.

Recognize that the challenge will tax him in ways that make him feel like something is wrong with him. He’ll feel like he’s not himself. But he may be becoming more like himself.

And he should be prepared to step back and take a break from time to time. Then dig in again.

Watch and listen

When is it difficult to face the work toward those goals? When is it almost unbearable?

Notice the thoughts and feelings in those moments at the verge. The resistance we feel when developing new abilities feels like we’re going in the wrong direction. We may look around for someone to blame or take responsibility off our shoulders. But resistance is crucial feedback that reveals our learning edge: where current capability ends and learning opportunity spreads out like the night.

My friend’s edge is full of information about what it will mean to step out. Watch for the little lights winking on in the darkness. Listen to what you tell yourself at the verge and be prepared to doubt that it has always been true or that it will always be true.


Resistance follows from challenging ourselves. If we’re pointed in the right direction, not fooling ourselves, it may take more than bliss to lead us to a deep and satisfying destination. So keep one eye on yourself and test where you may be telling yourself only what you want to hear. Then turn back to the resistance. That’s the frontier.

So, nothing is wrong. My friend’s purpose and goals led him to this verge. And they are changing him. He didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t suspect it would call on resources that he’s still developing. But even in the face of uncertainty and resistance he says, “I’m in. I am so in.”