How a Great Leader Brought Change to His Own Behavior

I got a call a while back from a founding CEO of a growing company.  He asked if I would coach him.  I liked him from the beginning.  He said, “I’ve been an individual performer. But I need to learn to be a leader.”

Imagine what a cool world we’d have if we all wanted to learn. Imagine:  A co-worker frustrates you, but you know she’d love feedback. Or, your son is acting disorganized, but you know he welcomes your coaching!  Or, your husband talks in a way that drives your 14-year old crazy, but it’s okay, you know he wants to learn to communicate better. Ahhh, we can wish.  Or, be practical:  Model how to crave coaching and others around you may learn to seek it, as well.

My client’s been true to his word: he eagerly wants to get better. And it turns out he was right; he does need to do some things differently. Here’s the one that all of us in positions of power can learn — or re-learn from him: Great Intent to motivate does not equate to Great Motivation.

This fellow IS truly an amazing performer. His technical prowess and total fearlessness in the face of challenge wow his team.  He was motivated by his dad (and later by teachers) who kept setting the bar:  5 feet? Nice leap.  5’1″?  Missed. Again. Come on, leaping 5-foot 1-inch is not that hard.  Made it.  Good, although you did graze the bar with your heel. Come on 5-foot 2-inches. What, you’re tired? Come on.  Missed.  Try harder. Work on your technique. Focus, You want to be great, right? Let’s go. Math. Music. Language.  That was the kind of “coaching” he always got.  And that’s how he was leading (like so many grown-up sons and daughters of task-master parents). His team told me at a firm retreat, “We’ll raise a problem and he’ll say, ‘That’ll just take 5 minutes.’ And he’ll smile and walk away.” The message is clear: don’t complain. Get it done.

To my client’s enormous credit, he entertained a totally open feedback session with his 10 employees. They shared comments like the “That’ll just take 5 minutes” comment, or his clipped statement to a brand new and young IT person, seeking some direction: “You’re smart. Figure it out.” And they shared how such comments caused them to feel tested, intimidated, and even abandoned. He was awesome in “getting it” without being defensive. He shared that his intent had been to communicate, “You’re smart, and I know you can figure this out.” But he understood how they had heard, “If you were (as) smart (as me), you’d just buckle in and get it done.” He asked what should he have said.  One person said to him simply, “Just tell me, ‘You can do this.'” He smiled and said simply, “Then that’s what I’ll do.”*

Wow! If only everyone in authority was so eager to learn how to help their people; if only they could quit worrying about defending their intentions and instead focus on the impact of their behavior; if they could stop trying to pretend or defend their competence and instead focus on their improvement. What a help they would then be.

I left the retreat knowing that my client had created a radical transformation with his team.  It didn’t take great statements or vision or strategy.  It took great, simple listening and a commitment not to coach and change others, but to change his own behavior.

Let go of what you think you know, to learn what you need to lead, and

Lead with your best self,


* Obviously there are cases — like a younger worker — where you may need to offer more specific guidance and not just an expression of confidence. In this particular case,  however, the woman was quite capable, but heard his comment to her — a very new employee – as a real shot at her competence which left her feeling abandoned.

  • Great behavior by your “coachee.” I’ll add that any worker who is new at a task (not only a younger one), even if experienced in other ways, may need more specific guidance. Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership is a really useful model on this topic.
    For example, when I started my new job I had never worked for the Federal Govt. With 30+ years of work experience, “I know you can do it” wasn’t enough for the things that were unique about THIS work environment. I needed a lot more specifics, pointing me to resources, explaining the politics and personalities, etc. (And all the best from South Africa, Dan!)

    • Cathy,
      South Africa? Cool.
      I love your comment. I was thinking about Blanchard’s “situational leadership,” and nearly wrote about it in the footnote! I’m always happy when my good mind is in tune with your great mind!

  • Good article. I’d add that it also takes great humility and strong emotional intelligence for a leader to seek feedback from his team, listen non-defensively, and take responsibility and positive corrective action of his behaviors.

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