The Power of a Negative Moment

It’s important to remember that anytime we create a negative interaction with another, it has a shelf life much longer that you would ever imagine.  We humans are wired to respond to crises and potential disasters in the oldest part of our brain.  As a result, brain research says that we are five times more likely to remember a negative interaction than a positive one.

And this is amplified when that negative moment emanates from a power figure such as a boss.  You will have to demonstrate over a longer period of time than you can imagine that you no longer get things done through negative motivation or through careless insensitivity to others.

If you have a reputation of being an “a**hole” and you want to evolve that reputation to being a tough but admired leader, you have to change that perception one day at a time, which is a manageable equation.  If you concentrate on handling well just this one interaction and then the next, it won’t be as hard as you think to change your habits.  When you interact with others, consciously choose that you will manage well both the relationship and the result – no tradeoff is needed.

Another helpful way to alleviate such a label is to ask for feedback regularly so that people have to consciously acknowledge that things have changed.  Many times those that work for you are attached to the old reputation and have a hard time adjusting to the new leadership you may truly be exhibiting.  By consciously acknowledging, or offering you constructive criticism, they have to let go as well.

The Limitations of Commando Leadership

Perhaps, you, like many executives, have achieved your success through your ability to take the hill regardless of the toll it takes on those that work for you.  Or perhaps you largely take the hill yourself, leaving others trailing behind.  This can particularly be true if you generally are the smartest person in the room and the one that works the hardest.  However, this kind of leadership can only take you and your organization so far because no one can push themselves or others without dealing with the consequences of the toll it takes.

Most commando types have a hard time accepting that you can be both results-oriented and people-focused, as if it’s a binary choice.  However it’s been proven over and over again, that the best leaders move both ahead – people and results.

So how does one evolve from the commando approach?  The first step is always self-awareness about the underlying reasons you’ve defaulted to this way of leading.  Are you a perfectionist that wants things done a certain way, becoming critical and controlling?  Are you driven by fear of failure and the only way that you can feel confident is by over-managing, over-working and driving others as you drive yourself?  Are you less sensitive about the impact of your actions on others, not understanding the toll you are exacting?  Do you contain your emotions and then under stress, blow up out of proportion to the situation?

Analyze the source of your own behavior just as you would analyze a business problem because each of these scenarios requires a different plan of action to change your behavior.  You may need an outside perspective – a coach, a mentor or leadership class – that can help your perspective and offer new alternatives and support.

Many of these tendencies are deeply wired and it’s very hard to give up behavior that has created success in the past but the past is so over.  Anyone can push their edges and broaden their capability with sustained effort and a change in mindset.  Commando types don’t have to give up their edge but couple this intensity with more depth of leadership abilities.

How to Listen

1. Internal Voice
We spend more time listening to ourselves than to the party in front of us. While our brain is taking in the data, our internal voice constantly runs a monologue that we don’t even notice – assessing, judging, relating, and making sense of whatever is happening. “Tell me something I don’t know.” “Is there a point in here somewhere?” “I’m not prepared.” “It’s important that I speed this along.” It becomes even louder when we are stressed, or emotion is high.

Before you can listen well to anyone else, tune into your own station and listen to the internal dialogue. What am I saying? What am I feeling? Once you notice, it calms down and murmurs instead of shouts. Noticing brings awareness, awareness brings calmness. Add some deep breaths to help balance the emotions and you immediately have more space to listen to someone else. This can be done before going into situations but also on the fly. A small change that will bring big results.

2. Calmness
When you aren’t focused inward, you can be present outward. When you are calm, you have the capacity to notice, to connect, and listen in a comprehensive way. Desire to be calm. You don’t have to lose your intensity, it’s not an either/or scenario. When you are calm, you calm others, which brings out their best thinking. Isn’t that what you want?

And those of you who are talkers or who naturally dominate discussions, please realize that no one will see you as calm, regardless of your demeanor. Strive for more balance between talking and listening. It will be a huge step for those that work regularly with you.

3. Curiosity
There is a reason behind everything each of us do or say. You have cultivated great curiosity about data, facts, information, scenarios, strategies, or you would not be in these senior roles. Become just as curious about how someone is expressing themselves, or not. Where they start a discussion, or how they end. Why whatever they are saying is so important to them. The emotions they are feeling. When you have this deep curiosity, a world of information becomes available to you.

4. Questions
Questions are meaningless without true curiosity. Window dressing that others see through. Questions fueled by curiosity make others feel heard. They can tell that you are sincerely trying to get what they are saying, even if they don’t say it well. You can change the arc of a discussion with a question. There are times and places for declarations and advocacy, but questions hold far more power. They allow for decisions and actions to be built together, which is how alignment and commitment are built.

5. All the Senses
Hear beyond what is being said. Notice the small hesitations or the filler words, the tone. Notice the hands shifting, the stillness. Each of us has emotional habits of expression that immediately are obvious upon astute observation. Interpreting them may take some time but with practice, you can see who is truly confident, who is unsure, feeling vulnerable, skeptical and so on. Calmness facilitates your ability to tap into this vast array of information.

6. Practice
No one changes habits without practice. These points are to awaken you to a new mindset about how to listen and to create a path. Now it takes practice. You will feel uncomfortable, expect it, and congratulate yourself that you are on the right track. The good news is there are unlimited opportunities to practice. Review these points, give yourself a grade at the end of the day, make it a part of your work. You listen all day long – you might as well be great at it.

EQ AND IQ – the Winning Formula

No one can make it in this competitive world without strong technical abilities, industry acumen and great critical thinking skills – the IQ part of the equation.  The real differentiator, though, is strong EQ, particularly when faced with high levels of complexity.  Emotional Intelligence can be described as possessing strong self-awareness of your own emotions, being able to manage those emotions in difficult times, and choosing how we respond rather than responding out of our emotional patterns which are set early in life.  As well, EQ is about our awareness of other’s emotions with the ability to stay in a productive relationship even during difficult times. The good news is that EQ can be cultivated, with the goal of staying in choice with our actions at all times.

In terms of the impact of EQ on leadership, Daniel Goleman, who coined the EQ phrase, conducted research with a wide variety of people about what makes a good or bad boss.  Here’s what his research revealed:

Good Boss Bad Boss
Great Listener Blank Wall
Encourager Doubter
Communicator Secretive
Sense of Humor Bad Temper
Shows Empathy Self-Centered
Decisive Indecisive
Humble Arrogant
Shares Authority Mistrusts


These are all characteristics of emotional intelligence or the lack thereof – and all are in our control to change.  One challenge of leaders is a gap between their own and others’ perceptions of them because they don’t get the “real news” from those around them.  Thus it is incumbent that you ask and gain honest feedback about your impact on others.  And that you exercise discipline in power, never taking advantage of the authority that you have.  This is the real rigor of leadership, to manage carefully the impact you have on others so that not only are you building your own emotional resilience but also building organizational resilience.

Confidence Taken Too Far

A core characteristic of those who’ve achieved executive status is confidence in their own judgement which has been finely honed from experiences, most of which have been successful.  To a large degree, this confidence is well-placed and is a seminal reason they are in the job.  However, we’ve all heard the expression, “What got you here, won’t get you there,” and it’s a fine mantra to remember because it is fundamentally true.  Success is always in context and one has to freshly observe the current reality, the new client or employee, the new market conditions.  The apex of personal performance is bringing well-honed experience to the table but always seeking new information and truly listening before formulating judgements.  Otherwise, confidence can evolve into hubris and as a high-level executive, no one may differ with you which is a dangerous place indeed because it reinforces your belief that you are right.

Creating Healthy Conflict in your Organization

One of the great organizational challenges is creating open debate which is an essential ingredient to think beyond the current reality.  Those at the top can espouse their strong desire for this but that alone won’t compel a team to handle conflict productively.

Patrick Lencioni discusses conflict as one of the cornerstones of good teams and utilizes a Conflict Spectrum as a helpful metaphor.  At one end is “Artificial Harmony”.  We all know what this looks like as illustrated by a CEO client who astutely observed that, “Polite conversations equals polite results.”  On the other end of the spectrum is “Personal Attacks” and we know what that looks like as well.  Conflict that becomes personal, whether meant or perceived, becomes completely unproductive. The middle of the spectrum is the healthy and productive place to be, with the conflict or disagreement focused on ideological issues that aren’t meant or taken personally.

Healthy debate can only occur if all are held accountable to conduct themselves well with conflict AND to always have the larger organizational interests at the forefront.  Companies such as GE demand it as part of their corporate culture which is relentlessly oriented towards winning in the market place.  Good conflict skills can be an important investment in a team’s effectiveness that in turn, can bring true bottom-line benefit.

Leadership Edge – the insatiable appetite for increasing knowledge and perspective

Great leaders balance confidence and conviction with a zeal to learn and a willingness to revisit and reconsider.  To accomplish this requires a deep comfort with diversity – to seek experiences and perspectives beyond what is most familiar or mirrors our long-set beliefs.  Most leaders are given many opportunities to broaden their knowledge and experiences – through global interactions, intellectual forums and market pressures.  However, we all know people who have had these experiences but who still seem largely unaffected by them, as if they have armor that “protects” them from the changes that experiences offer.

We also have values and principles that give us a moral compass about how to conduct ourselves and to hold our organizations to standards that shape its actions.  These are essential to navigate effectively in a turbulent world.  However, all of us also have deep-seated beliefs, largely unconscious, that govern our thoughts and actions.  Leaders with edge are willing to look at these beliefs and reshape them based on the world they live in today rather than the world of their childhood.  This self-awareness and willingness to embrace current reality, without letting go of enduring values, creates a capacity to continually learn and change without being thrown off-balance.

Don’t Defend…Change the Conversation

Think of tv shows where the defense lawyer follows the prosecutor’s arguments in the court room.  Notice how seldom you see a direct defense of the points made by the prosecutor.  Effective defense lawyers change the conversation so that the jury focuses on different points or sees things through different eyes.

My observation is that defending your position seldom works.  It positions you immediately as having less power, simply because you are defending, even if you are completely in the right.  It is much more powerful to switch the view of the situation differently, to pose questions that provoke different thinking, to selectively agree and offer new thoughts.  Tit for tat seldom changes anyone’s position, it just further entrenches people on “their” side.


Verbal Brevity = Verbal Effectiveness

Woodrow Wilson famously said about speaking….”If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

As a rule, the longer one speaks about something is usually a good indicator of the less they know about it OR that they have been undisciplined about preparation.  Leaders can truly fall into the trap of “winging it”, especially with employees below them….because they can.  In some ways, it is an abuse of power to stand in front of people as their leader without achieving clarity of thought or without developing skill to bring the message forward in a simple and powerful way.  Everyone may not be born an effective presenter but anyone can become one.  It’s those that don’t take it seriously who are the great offenders, who shortcut the thoughtfulness that these types of situations deserve.

While I don’t recommend many “training” courses for executives, I do believe that presentation and media training can make a world of difference, particularly if done with intact executive teams.  Honing both the message and the skills can be a powerful tool to lead the company.

Corporate Magical Thinking

Haven’t we all thought that when this project is over, this deadline is met, this major issue resolved, that we will go back to a “normal” pace, a world free of strife and stress, or at least better that we have at this moment?  I call this corporate magical thinking, where we yearn for that respite that never comes.  It’s hard for us to grasp that old problems will be replaced with new problems, that there will always be something major to accomplish.  It feels too heavy to give up hope of that nirvana of a free day in the office with no major deadlines or difficult situations.

So what do we do about it?   Rather than live for this futuristic dream that never materializes, live more in the moment.  That’s how we live life any way, literally moment by moment.  When we really get into every moment, much of this heaviness dissipates and rarely are the problems as big as our projections.  We start just enjoying what is in front of us and not being that surprised or dismayed by the next thing that falls into our lap.  Most high-level executives completely operate from this mindset and rarely feel overwhelmed for very long.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t all need to take mental and physical breaks from our work, but rather to lose that sense of dread or anxiety that permeates so many of us.  Just take it one moment at a time.