Bad Advice to Leaders (New York Times article)

Tue, Sep 15, 2015


SELF-DOUBT OF leaders has been among the top issues in my career as a coach to CEOs. One of the key learnings from interviewing three dozen CEOs in 2007 was the extent to which they worked on overcoming self-doubt and how they did it. In fact, I wrote a book about it:

what made jack welch JACK WELCH still available on Amazon. Through a series of shaping experiences they developed their desire and their ability to lead themselves and others.

Last week, the NY Times published an article on self-doubt Paul Jasnukas, on the faculty at Maryland Institute,

Self-doubt and The Confidence Game  in which he argues that:

(1) in no line of work is extreme confidence <always??> wholly justified yet we are constantly tested to see if we have it with “moment-of-truth” gut checks – “…are you sure?” Others ask us to test us.  “To be sure and unsure at once, to suspend doubt long enough to perform your role with convincing élan — this is the challenge.”

This far, his view is consistent with my research and professional experience.

Then he goes astray from my findings and decades of experience, saying:

(2) It is necessary to act with loud-voiced bravura. In our society, “it pays to brag and boast” and act with brawn and braggadocio.” He cites sports champions and Donald Trump. He asserts that avoiding perceptions of weakness requires affecting such persona. Speaking quietly in meetings, he asserts is a bad thing.

Having worked closely with CEOs in moments of high stakes, this is rarely effective and even more rarely required.

In fact, GRAVITAS is the more important quality and (as argued in my two prior posts on this subject) the behaviors are anything but brawn and braggadocio – and the best followers recognize it when they see it. If you wish to learn how to know Gravitas when you see it and if you wish to understand what is going on inside the leader who lives it, read two prior posts on this website:

Gravitas: Best of the Best Leaders

Leadership maturity: Inside the Eminence Grise

If you are an aspiring future leader, if you are already a leader and aspire to be better, there is more downside to following Jaskunas’ second assertion. Confidence is not a game. It is a developed state of mind.

That’s just my view. What’s yours?


Gravitas: Best of the Best Leaders

Fri, Aug 28, 2015



Ever notice someone in a meeting seems to command immediate attention when he or she speaks? Not just because of their rank but because of respect for their views when they choose to express them?

And when this happens, does it also seem that they seem wiser, more thoughtful, more centered, more articulate? They may not show up as the smartest or quickest. But they seem to get the big picture and have the ability to resolve conflict and move the group forward. Their very presence is calming.

The French have a phrase for this person: “eminence grise,” literally gray eminence or elder statesman, someone of high repute.

My CEO coaching clients may be successful leaders by most standards: set the right course, top-graded the team, created the climate for the best culture, opened communication channels, made tough decisions and saw the fruits of their labors in increased market position and earnings (and other ways). But the best of the best want to be more than strong leaders. They want to achieve gravitas which they can then apply as CEOs, board members or board chairs who can make a difference in their world beyond their companies.


What differentiates the person with gravitas from others?

  • Experience and Knowledge, translated into relevant story-telling
  • Presence and behaviors


Some people capture the essence of each of their many experiences – translate them into lessons learned, take-aways and analogies for future use.

Some people’s passion for their industry or calling leads them to be voracious readers of articles and books with abstracts of other leaders’ stories. And they seem able to relate these stories when relevant to a conversation.

Some people are both privileged and able to have a ringside seat while other leaders create or tell their stories. And the ability to bring those stories to life at the right moment as well.

All of these become the mental library from which wise elders (some quite young) draw upon in conversations.

These same people may at times use the library to formulate better questions than others or make better suggestions than others. But the primary approach is to use the library to tell the right story at the right time in the right way.

I once heard a CEO introduce what he thought a relevant story in a management team meeting. Desiring to avoid coming off in a negative way, he described what another company had achieved outside their industry. He prefaced the story with this tale:

A rooster came to believe his hens were not as productive as they should be. He borrowed an ostrich egg and rolled it into the hen-house saying: “I am not complaining or criticizing, just showing you what is being done elsewhere”).

To get a bit more specific, these are the library sections for my industrial CEO clients:

  1. Broad knowledge/stories on key topics such as how industrial companies really make money, typical problems at different life stages, challenges they all face today and some solutions that have worked
  2. More general knowledge or functional knowledge of how companies work and respond to world conditions
  3. Drawing on the broader list of what the leader has learned at a ringside seat: international boards, currency, banking, hedging, business cycles, failures, recovery and lessons learned
  4. Ability to introduce visual frameworks for choices being made
  5. Mix of truly strategic thinking and practical translation into action choices
  6. Humor that illustrates the above


What makes a person seen as “senior,” wise, having gravitas, chairman-like?

  1. Behaviors/presence: speaks only to add value, not to sell or show off; appears cool, calm, confident; appearance is “together;” quick of mind, but unhurried
  2. Responses are “considered” rather than quick; may re-frame the question rather than give a direct answer
  3. Demeanor is thoughtful, exploratory: what analogies are valuable? kindly, calm but firm when needed; centered, one of quiet but strong confidence; ego does not lead; rarely emotional; ego kept in check by quick self-awareness of becoming emotional (“mood check” or “body signal”); emotional if it is a deliberate choice
  4. Communication statements are articulate, brief (packets, testing audience tracking periodically), positioned as “in my experience” rather than axiomatic and generic; no one person in a group is the entire focus, the audience is all participants; humor, especially avoiding sarcasm that diminishes or discounts others’ worth
  5. All of the above is supported by powerful active listening and patience; summarizing, eliciting assumptions by asking “say more or tell more,” making the other’s argument); asking: what do you want others to walk away feeling, believing, wanting to do?

That’s my view. What’s yours? I am truly interested in all comments and examples. I thought his post had already been published but was wrong. See also the prior post which should have followed this one.



Leadership Maturity: Inside the Eminence Grise

Wed, Aug 26, 2015


In a prior post, I wrote about the “eminence grise,” the person you recognize immediately as having wisdom and gravitas. It is evident in the highly relevant, experience-based stories they tell, the penetrating questions, the ability to distill a complicated situation to the simplest core, their centeredness and calm under duress. They are broad-based thinkers, not just subject matter experts. They have a calming and salutary impact on everyone around them. When they speak, everyone listens. People treasure the time in their presence.


The prior post spoke of how to recognize such a person and steps on the journey to become one. This post is a peek inside the Eminence Grise.

Jimmy Carter held a press conference earlier in August. He had only just been told that his cancer had spread to four areas of his brain. Whether or not you are a fan, he gave us a gift.

He told the attendees (as close to verbatim as I remember):

  • I am at ease
  • I am ready for the adventure
  • I am happy with my life: living to age 91, the presidency and maybe more important, the Carter Center (and its humanitarian impacts)
  • I do have goals still to be accomplished, but I am at ease

What more may we surmise is inside this most accomplished of former Presidents?

Carter was at that moment, by every observation, centered, calm and confident.

It was a rare glimpse inside the eminence grise. In my experience either observing them on stage or in conversation with the alone, these thoughts are contributors to that centeredness, calm, ease in moments on stage:

  • I am who I am and need no one’s validation (not to be confused with my continual search for inputs from others or my ability to admit being mistaken)
  • This is not about me. I will deflect making it about me. My ego is not at the table.
  • Few moments are high stakes for me; all I have to do is show up and be myself; there is no reason to be nervous or defensive
  • Listening, thinking, then speaking are at my pace, not others’. I may re-frame the question as well.

How long ago do we suppose President Carter reached this state of mind? I would speculate a long time ago. And I have seen leaders in their 40s to leaders in their 70s exhibit this state; and more than a few “senior” leaders as well as “newbies” easily triggered into non-constructive behaviors.

In a later post, I will return to steps along the journey and specific tactics for self-leadership.

There are some good books on various aspects of leadership maturity. Here are a few:

Leadership and the Art of Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute

New Earth and other titles by Eckhart Tolle

Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith

All available on Amazon Books


That’s just my view. What’s yours?



Wed, Jul 1, 2015


These are my notes for an internet radio conversation this morning with Jim Blasingame, The Small Business Advocate, who is a treasure trove of advice for business owners.


 Leaders often fear replacing people they know in their hearts must go.


 I have been CEO coach in more than a few such situations. Often, there is a history of earlier performance and relationships that makes the boss hesitate well beyond the point where the enterprise risk of not acting is far greater than the risk of separation/termination.

 Objections range from:

  • S(he) is too valuable
  • He will be too hard to replace
  • We don’t have time to go through a search
  • No one can pick up the slack while we are shorthanded

 They are often derivatives of fear and just wrong.

Balaji Krishnamurthy, business consultant and former CEO,  led a workshop with my Vistage peer advisory Board offered a way to think about this: assess the “life-chits” owed to such a person, decide if the person can be repositioned to a different job and, if not, determine the amount of severance and outplacement help which, if given, would allow the CEO to sleep at night.

Such a framework helped more than one member work his way through such a situation.

In some cases, a member of the senior team is the outlier and is actually toxic —dispiriting the senior team by negative comments, constant criticism and sometimes passive aggressive behavior or worse. Such a person cannot be repositioned. The longer the CEO turns a blind eye to the situation the more respect he loses and the more damage is done.


 One such CEO knew the person in question for 20 years before hiring him two years ago. Their wives were friends. Henry, as we will call him, was deeply dissatisfied with the role assigned to Henry and with the company strategy. A series of efforts by the CEO to give Henry alternative roles and great counsel all failed to change Henry’s behavior. At this point, the CEO wrote his Intentional Leadership Agenda. I will address the content but first say that having completed his own, he asked each senior team member to prepare theirs, redacted sentences too sensitive to publish and distributed the documents among the senior team. They then had a meeting to review each other ILAs. It made absolutely clear that the toxic person was indeed an outlier on an otherwise unified team. A week later, the CEO arranged severance at life chit levels and took action to separate him from the company.

The senior team has been liberated, morale has soared and the team is on a roll toward higher performance.

Outline of an ILA (must be done in 3 or fewer pages), whether the CEOs or a senior team member:

1. A paragraph with your definition of your job (scope and major impact on the company

2. Your Legacy (what difference your having been in your job will make by the time you depart (a) in the minds and hearts and organizations affected by your presence, (b) in the results achieved and (c) in the positioning of the enterprise beyond where it is today)

3. Your leverage (the people through whom you will achieve your legacy) . Relationships (whom you must help and must help you and how)

4. Your presence (how you need to show up to achieve your legacy: roles played, engagement, enlistment, demeanor)

5. How and through whom you intend to find out how your are doing on this agenda

That’s just my view. What’s yours?

For more on this topic, visit:

Krishnamurthy on Leadership

Jim Blasingame


To the CEO: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Thu, Jun 11, 2015





Questions can be more important than answers. Good CEOs know this. Among the questions: “What don’t I know that could kill me?” And “Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough?”


It is NOT that they do it every day, just periodically. Good CEOs challenge their own assumptions and their own knowledge and routinely do it to others. They also imagine scenarios beyond those for which they are planning. “What if….” is a frequent question not only to test assumptions, strategy and plans but also how the organization may have to adapt in the face of change.


In a meeting, if you ask for questions and allow “top of mind” responses you will often get superficial answers. If you ask each person to write down their top 2 or 3 best questions that go deepest to the situation at hand, then go around the table you will get richer answers.

There are workshops (including in my Vistage International community) which suggest an architecture to questions:

Level 1 questions elicit facts and known solutions.

Level 2 questions elicit elaboration of thinking and logic (or lack of it).

Level 3 questions reveal deeply held emotions (including fears), prejudices and more.

If this is of general interest, we may write a column with more granular insights into asking terrific questions. It is, after all what both leaders and coaches need to do all the time.


In 1988, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May wrote: “Thinking in Time, The Use of History for Decision-Makers.” I find it is timeless (no pun intended). Do I know all I could? How could I find out what i really need to know? Is the analogy in my head a good one or flawed? Let’s decide how to think about “this” before we decide “what to do about this.”

The book is still available on

For more about the world’s best CEO membership organization, visit:


That’s just my view. What’s yours?



Thu, Jun 11, 2015


One of my CEO clients was asked by his P/E firm to present his view of what has made him a successful CEO in two different companies. The top line will come as no surprise to the experienced CEO:

  1. Aligned Strategy & Scorecard Up Front
  2. Strategy Deployment Plan – A Tool to Roll Out Everything and Set The Operating Cadence
  3. Talent – Early upgrading and an annual review with the Board
  4. Stretch Budgets
  5. Recruiting Outside Board Directors
  6. Retain an Executive Coach

In my view, this list also applies to companies that are founder-owned, employee-owned and public (with a few additions for publics).

I asked him how his own views had changed as a result of his gigs as CEO. This is his view:

  • He may have been initially doubtful that he could not fare just as well without the extraordinary amount of help involved in these KSFs. but he now believes:
    • There is no substitute for an early, independent assessment of strategy by an experienced firm who can bring market and customer insights to the table
    • Frequent review of the scorecard based on the strategy keeps both Board and management time and focus where it is needed as well as maintaining alignment with the Board
    • The use and frequent review of a strategy deployment tool[1] makes clear the goals, each executive’s part in achieving them and drives the rest of management to focus the most precious resource — time and attention — on their contribution to the results
    • Recruiting a project management expert to drive strategy deployment is essential, possibly with experience in ‘Lean manufacturing and services”
    • Early upgrading of the senior team and next level are crucial as is an annual review of talent.
    • Stretch budgets increase transparency and contribute a lot to exceeding budgets
    • Outside board members (even if an advisory board) bring perspectives, talents and connections that no one inside has
    • An executive coach is the safe accountability partner who will challenge the CEO on all dimensions of his leadership and may be able to learn from all parties (including the board) what he cannot via periodic assessments (“360”)

 I did not have any influence on his adding the last KSF which is clearly in my own interest. I will add that one of the other portfolio company CEOs commented on the nature of a coach he considers worthy: enough years of working with CEOs to recognize patterns in CEO behavior, business issues and the like and to be unflinching in challenging the CEOs assumptions, approaches and behaviors.

 If you find this helpful, please tell your friends. If not, please tell me. If you wish to know more about any of the tools, just ask.


[1] A display of overall goals, initiatives and tasks which align to achieve the goals along with names of individuals responsible for each of these


It’s Not About the Horse (Part 2)

Fri, Apr 10, 2015


EXTRAORDINARY LEADERS: It’s Not About the Horse, Part Two

In the prior post, we described the challenge of working directly with the horse and the immediate feedback and learning we received. The learning was surprisingly relevant to work and family.

Examples included:

  • Inadequate support kills rapport (the horse put his foot down when he sensed you were not holding his foot up sufficiently)
  • Even horses detest your multitasking (if you look away at, say a camera, the horse will stop cooperating)

The conversation with the handler was equally useful with what we will call “nuggets” worth considering (ask which of these applies to people, which apply to the boss and which to subordinates; enjoy grazing):

  • Horses will open themselves to risk with you only if you demonstrate safety and earn trust and respect
  • Horses read how you show up (clarity of intent and underlying emotions communicated by your posture, movement, the smell of fear or confidence) and act accordingly; train or be trained
  • If at first you do not succeed, try something else; it is good to admit a mistake, be vulnerable for a moment then move on. And don’t prove to yourself that you can repeat a success – celebrate and move on.
  • Be open to examine yourself and how you show up; do you have triggers of fear or aversion that go way back? Do you know what they are and can manage? Were you sheltered or encouraged to fend for yourself? Peel the onion.
  • Learn to ask for help. The way you frame your questions will be tip-offs to the handlers. A small aperture leads to a small life.
  • Don’t try the same approach to a stubborn, confident horse that you would use with one that is shy and skittish
  • Look at your desired destination before you move; only then will the horse follow
  • There is no equality in the herd; there is always someone below you and someone above you

I asked the handler how they screen new handler candidates. “Easy, she said: we have them observe a session or two and ask them what they saw. And we then have them witness the group exchange afterward of what the guests learned. If they don’t get it, no way.”

I also asked their view of having both spirited horses who may fight with others and more easygoing animals. “We are ok with different temperaments as long as they do their job and don’t bite the guests.”

If you would like to read more, find Wyatt Webb’s books or better yet go to Miraval and have the equine experience.

That’s just my view. What’s yours?






What Made jack welch JACK WELCH

How Ordinary People Become
Extraordinary Leaders

by Stephen H. Baum (Random House)

Most leaders of American companies started out as ordinary people. What prepared them for the top job?

Countless more ordinary people of equal talent never developed the leadership core required to run the show. Why not?

"Lessons for life about the core leadership traits of character, risk taking decisiveness and the ability to engage and inspire followers."
--Jim Clifton, CEO, The Gallup Organization


Buy Now
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