Leadership Library Review: “Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite”

March 2020

“Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Zafer Gedeon Achi (McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Company, 2020)

What are the big take-aways?

Followers of the Leadership Library may remember last year’s review of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger, in which she names five “shortcuts” that we have all naturally developed, to some extent, in order to move through our busy days in a complex world.  These shortcuts serve us up to a point, and then they become limiting and get in our way as leaders if we do not commit to unlocking them by expanding our self-awareness.  One of the shortcuts that can become a mindtrap is ego: “shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach for who you’ll be next.”  (The other four mindtraps are: simple stories, rightness, agreement and control.)  In this McKinsey Quarterly article, Berger and her colleague Zafer Achi rename the ego shortcut as the “identity mindtrap” and outline how vertical development (a.k.a. adult development) theories “offer us a map of the terrain where our growth potential plays out.”

Why do I like it?

First, the authors cite research that says “most of us tend to believe that we have changed a lot up to now but won’t change much in the years ahead. Yet we tend to express this belief at any point in our lives when we’re asked about it”!  This is powerful information.  It means we tend to attach ourselves to, and defend, the identity we have now instead of “growing into the person we might become next.”  That is why it is a trap: we get stuck in certain patterns because we think that’s just who we are, when more than we imagine might be possible for us.  The identity mindtrap often triggers the other four to kick in, as well, when we respond reactively to a perceived threat to our cherished idea of who we are.

Second, Berger and Achi provide an excellent mini-guide to the four stages of vertical development, called “forms of mind” in Robert Kegan’s framework.  The forms of mind are sequential and cumulative phases of psychological growth, “much as a tree grows new rings.  And like tree rings, our older ways of making sense of the world do not vanish but remain within us, where they may, occasionally and unbidden, shape our behavior.”  The descriptions of what our sense-making thoughts and behaviors look like at the four forms of mind (i.e. self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored and self-transforming) are succinct but not oversimplified.  They offer enough information about the key characteristics of each stage of development for you to create a working hypothesis of where you might be on the developmental spectrum, if you’re interested.

In what situations would this be useful?

The third reason why I like this article so much is that it culminates in “three questions to help you grow.”  These three self-coaching questions are useful in any leadership situation, at home or at work or in any other dimension of life: (1) Why do I believe what I believe?  This question encourages us look at the origins of some of the beliefs we have which we might be confusing for the truth.  It asks us to examine the supporting evidence for our beliefs.  (2)  How could I be wrong?  As a leadership coach, this question is a favorite of mine (for myself and for my clients)!  It is meant to open us up to consider other possible ways of seeing the world and recognize that multiple truths can exist simultaneously.  The authors comment that “[w]hen used in the right way, this question is a high-energy packet of developmental goodness.”  Yes!  And: (3) Who do I want to be next?  “If we have a sense of this new person we are growing into, it will be easier to spot – and avoid – the identity mindtrap.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

While it focuses primarily on the mindtrap of “simple stories,” there is a wonderful interview of Jennifer Garvey Berger about the book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps on Amiel Handelsman’s podcast, The Amiel Show.  Jennifer Garvey Berger’s other leadership development books are Changing on the Job (which is what made me such a fan of hers, starting many years ago) and – my favorite – Simple Habits for Complex Times.  For more about Kegan’s theory of adult development, I highly recommend Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review — “Vulnerability: The Key to Courage” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (“10% Happier” Podcast #185, 2019)

February 2020

“Vulnerability: The Key to Courage,” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (10% Happier Podcast #185, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

While the word “vulnerability” makes many people cringe, social scientist and leadership researcher Brene Brown asserts, “There is no courage without vulnerability.”  Stereotypically super-tough leaders who have been trained by Brown, such as Navy SEALs and NFL players, agree with her.

Why do I like it?

Brown defines vulnerability simply as the emotion we feel when we are in the midst of uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure.  (Vulnerability does not “equal” personal disclosure, which is a common misconception.)  Brown explains that as kids we learn to deal with emotional pain and the fear of it by “armoring up” using strategies like control, cynicism and perfectionism.  When this no longer serves us as adults (Brown tells the story of how she herself endured a breakdown over her perfectionism several years ago), we can operationalize vulnerability by developing the courage to stay with challenges and problems rather than immediately switch into the self-protective mode of trying to fix or control things.  Interestingly, sometimes vulnerability is actually more about setting strong boundaries than anything else.

In what situations would this be useful?

This information about vulnerability being the key to courage is actionable in all kinds of day-to-day leadership situations (in organizations, on teams, at work, at home, in friendships, etc.).  Brown describes a leader who believes in vulnerability as someone who does not punish failure or imperfection.  She says a courageous leader encourages innovation and creativity by establishing (and, I assume, modeling) the psychological safety that allows for unarmored uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.  “What gets in the way,” she observes, “is giving in to the fear” and armoring-up.

For example, leaders, managers and supervisors often feel vulnerable when giving tough feedback, even though they are the ones holding the status power.  They fear they will deliver the feedback poorly and/or hurt people’s feelings and/or get a reaction that makes them feel uncomfortable, so they are vague or hold back.  I agree with Brown that managers need to develop the courage to offer compassionate, hard feedback: “clear is kind; unclear is unkind,” she says.  This requires a willingness to be vulnerable.  Brown explains that learning how to feel uncomfortable, and breathing through the (often literal) pain, is something our culture doesn’t teach very well and we as a society need to learn more effective strategies for how to handle what she calls “the physiology of vulnerability.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I really liked Brown latest book, Dare to Lead, which defines the ways “daring leadership” is effective, in contrast with “armored leadership.”  The heart of the book is a section entitled “Rumbling with Vulnerability” containing segments with headings like “The Call to Courage,” “Shame and Empathy,” and “Curiosity and Grounded Confidence.”  (If any of those words excite, intrigue or trigger you, then I particularly recommend this book!)  For another approach toward much the same stuff, check out The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (I love the book, but you could start with the handout of the same name at this website).

For a looser, wider-ranging conversation with Brown about this topic, listen to her fun and fascinating interview with Russell Brand, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.  It’s a rollicking exploration of addiction, recovery, politics, leadership and spirituality, much of which is about practicing the courage to hold boundaries in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leadership Library Review: “Love in Action”

January 2020

“Love in Action,” Krista Tippett Interview of Congressman John Lewis (OnBeing.org, updated 1/26/17)

I want to open 2020 by honoring Congressman Lewis and by lifting up the practice of “love in action” he described to Krista Tippett in this interview, which originally aired in 2013.  Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis – one of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement – has been serving Georgia’s 5thcongressional district since 1987.  Lewis was a Freedom Rider, organized sit-ins, and in 1965 led the first Selma march over Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday.  An advocate of nonviolence, he was beaten viciously and jailed many times.  Congressman Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last month, following a routine check-up.

“Love in action” is needed as much as ever right now, with our polarized culture collectively stepping into this fraught presidential election year under the cloud of an impeached incumbent.  By my understanding, “love in action” is an internal growth process by which each of us can, as the leader of our own life, approach the world inhabiting a radical stance of loving.  We can intentionally cultivate – and “be” – love in action via myriad pathways.  (For example, during the Civil Rights movement, activists studied and then actually trained themselves extensively in the practice.)  Congressman Lewis says, “It’s a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive. It has the capacity, it has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action.”

The heart of my blog entry this month will simply be the following excerpt from Congressman Lewis’s interview with Tippett, regarding his view of the entire Civil Rights movement as a work of love:

Ms. Tippett: So here’s a line from your book Across That Bridge: “The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet even 50 years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word ‘love’ to describe what we did.” What you just said to me illuminates that. I think part of the explanation of that is the way you are using the word “love” is very rich and multilayered and also challenging, challenging for the person who loves.

Rep. Lewis: Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say “I love you.” But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong. But love is strong. Love is powerful.

The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, “Just love the here outta everybody. Just love ‘em.”

Ms. Tippett: Love the here out of them. Yeah. [laughs]. Gandhi was such an important figure for you, for all of you, for Dr. King as well. I also think that may be a little bit lost in our collective memory. I think it’s important to remember that, the very rich spiritual lineage that you were all drawing on and became part of. I was really struck by you. You often refer to one of Gandhi’s important terms, satyagraha.

Again, in terms of breaking open this word “love” out of the kind of superficial ways we talk about it, or nonviolence in a superficial way, the definition of that that you give is “steadfastness in truth,” “active pacifism,” right? Revolutionary love is another way to think about that. Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls. It’s very powerful. It’s not the way — certainly not the way I hear people talking about public life or political action now.

Rep. Lewis: I think all of us in life, not just in the Western world, but all over the world, we need to come to that point. We need to evolve to that plane, to that level where we’re not ashamed to say to someone, “I love you. I’m sorry. Pardon me. Will you please forgive me? Excuse me.” What is it? Have we lost something? Can we be just human and say, “I love you?”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For another “On Being” episode about practicing love in action during the Civil Rights movement and how it relates to perplexing dynamics in our contemporary culture, I recommend Tippett’s profoundly inspiring interview with Vincent Harding, “Is America Possible?”

In a dramatically different tonal treatment of nonetheless similar themes, consider this fun and fascinating conversation, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” between Russell Brand and Brene Brown from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.  It’s a rollicking discussion of addiction, recovery, politics and spirituality, much of which is arguably about practicing love-in-action in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review — Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation

December 2019

Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis (Paradoxical Press, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

A “polarity” is a pair of apparent opposites that are actually two equally valuable, interdependent parts of one dynamic whole.  A few of my favorite examples of leadership polarities are these pairs of competencies: well-grounded and visionary; authentic and politically savvy; confidence and humility; reliability and constructive risk-taking; doing and being.

The authors’ formal definition of polarities (p. 3) is that they are “paradoxical situations in which two seemingly opposite yet interdependent states need to coexist over time in order for success to occur.”  And these tricky paradoxical situations are what Emerson and Lewis explore throughout this spectacular little handbook: how to spot, map out, navigate – and, importantly – leverage polarities to our benefit (as individuals and as organizations and other collectives).

Why do I like it?

I like that the authors’ writing style itself navigates a polarity beautifully: it uses clear, simple language to convey knotty, complex concepts!  I also like that the book provides a number of useful examples that are realistic and relatable in terms of the frequency with which we encounter them in life and especially at work, such as the polarities of candor and diplomacy, collaboration and competition, structure and flexibility.  The book explains how to identify whether a dynamic is a polarity to manage, a problem to solve, or a combo; how polarities work; and how to use the authors’ Polarity Navigator for gaming them out as an action-planning tool.

If you are already familiar with the popular-for-good-reason polarity management model originally postulated by Barry Johnson, and are wondering whether Navigating Polarities has anything new to offer, it does.  Its Polarity Navigator tool is what distinguishes Emerson and Lewis’s approach; it “builds on Johnson’s sensemaking map by incorporating…the thinking of Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, Brene Brown, and Smith and Lewis” (p.51).  In the Polarity Navigator, Emerson and Lewis add a mapping component for embodying a “Transformational Third Way” by integrating and transcending the poles while acknowledging the risks and vulnerabilities associated with the Third Way.  So, the four-part process begins with (a) naming the poles, (b) listing each of their benefits and over-uses, and then (c) moving to the space on the Navigator “where we can honor the differences between the poles, hold and reintegrate both, and eliminate neither” (p. 67), balanced with (d) thoroughly recognizing what feels risky about the Third Way.  If this description sounds complicated, it will appear much more straightforward when you view the elegant graphics in the book.

In what situations would this be useful?

In my experience, if a leadership or organizational issue that’s treated as a problem-to-be-solved keeps arising repeatedly in short- or long-term cycles, it might be a polarity; as might be a decision-making tension or dilemma that becomes a chronic, paralyzing condition.  Polarities almost always show up in a major organizational change effort (e.g. in a merger or a restructuring or a cultural transformation, you might notice this polarity: investing in the core business and supporting continuous innovation).  In Navigating Polarities there is a list on page 124 of the “places to look for polarities,” which include: From-To Situations; Too Much of a Good Thing; Opposite Arguments; Fear of Taking It Too Far; Threat of Losing Identity; The ‘Other’ As Villian; The Energy is Stuck.  In these cases, this handbook will be useful.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Given my appreciation for several of the thought leaders whose ideas Emerson and Lewis mention weaving into their process – beyond Barry Johnson’s ground-breaking work – I’ll recommend my favorite books by them: Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey Bass, 2011); Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy (reviewed here in the Leadership Library) and Brene Brown’s latest, Dare to Lead (also recently reviewed in the Leadership Library).

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

November 2019

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss (Penguin, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

In 2020, Americans will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which granted women citizens of the United States the right to vote.  The Woman’s Hour focuses – with breathtaking journalistic detail – on the screwy, fast-paced, shameful and marvelous process that took place in Nashville over a few weeks in the summer of 1920 which led to the Tennessee becoming the 36th and final state needed for ratification.  There are definite winners and losers in this story, as well as lots of profiles in courage and grit and tenacity, but in my view – given the naked racial bigotry in which every major actor traded at one time or another – there are few genuine heroes.

The big take-away for me was a renewed sense of profound dismay that, a century later, and there still is no federal Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equal legal rights to all American citizens regardless of sex.  (One of the authors of the ERA, Alice Paul, figures prominently in The Woman’s Hour.  The original ERA was introduced to Congress in 1923, and didn’t go anywhere.  It was reintroduced in 1971, when it was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1972 it was approved by the U.S. SenateIt lives in limbo to this day.)

Why do I like it?

Somehow, Elaine Weiss makes what could have been a soul-sucking legislative procedural account into a genuine nail-biter, even though you know the outcome.  Weiss describes the main characters, their cultural context, the scenery and the personal and professional stakes of the drama in Nashville (and beyond) in compelling detail, and from multiple perspectives.  As the reader, what you cannot fathom – while Weiss deftly unspools the bizarre thread of events – is exactly how the women and men who devoted their lives, careers and political destinies to the Cause will finally prevail.

The other thing I appreciated about The Woman’s Hour is what a stunning reminder it provides that the struggles for civil rights for minorities and women, and true universal suffrage everywhere in America, are not only ongoing but still echo precisely the same underlying misogynist, racial, regional, and damaging partisan dynamics (across the political spectrum) with which they reverberated a hundred years ago.

In what situations would this be useful?

This book gives the reader valuable perspective on post-Civil War American history, southern U.S. political and cultural history, African-American history, early 20th-century presidential history, and the roots of the League of Women Voters, the Civil Rights movement and modern activism against voter suppression.  If you’re a leader who locates yourself in any of these contexts, The Woman’s Hour will offer powerful insights.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are several significant exhibits going on right now in our nation’s capital commemorating the adoption of the 19th amendment ahead of the upcoming centennial.  While visiting D.C. on business in September, I was glad I carved out time to view the documents, artifacts and film footage on display at the Library of Congress in a superb collection entitled “Shall Not Be Denied.”  The exhibit features a magazine cover reproducing “The Woman’s Hour” poster, explaining:

Five thousand artists entered a poster contest held by NAWSA to launch their 1917 campaign. New York illustrator Edward A. Poucher won the $250 first prize, drawing inspiration from Carrie Chapman Catt’s rousing 1916 convention speech challenging suffragists to abandon their complacency. In an obvious reference to women yielding to “The Negro’s Hour” after the Civil War, Catt declared that “The Woman’s Hour has struck.”

Two other national museums (and their websites) featuring the suffrage centennial include “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives, and “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” at the National Portrait Gallery.

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review – “The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

October 2019

“The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

What are the big take-aways?

Last week, I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my business by hosting a party in Montpelier for local friends and clients of my leadership development practice.  It was a lively occasion in which I was able to express gratitude to my clients and colleagues, here and around the globe, for a decade of honoring human growth – including, of course, my own!  One of the guests, whom I have known for about a dozen years and worked with in several different capacities (as is often the case in intimate Vermont), had written me a heartfelt note into which was tucked this quietly dazzling Mary Oliver poem:

The Black Swallowtail

The caterpillar,

interesting but not exactly lovely,

humped along among the parsley leaves

eating, always eating.  Then

one night it was gone and in its place

a small green confinement hung by two silk threads

on a parsley stem. I think it took nothing with it

except faith, and patience.  And then one morning

it expressed itself into the most beautiful being.

By using this unsentimental version of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor, the poem underscores how mysterious and fragile and unstoppable the natural process of transformation truly is.  Supporting change and transformation in other humans is the business I am in, even while I am being mutually transformed by that work.

Why do I like it?

I believe that we are all leaders: we are each the leader of our life, at the very least.  In my interpretation of this poem for the purposes of the Leadership Library, the simplicity of its analogies to leadership development – on any scale – are rich and powerful.  Are we not, every single one of us, both interesting and “not exactly lovely”?  Are we not all living snugly within the confines of an identity structure of our own making (though we’re mostly unaware that we’re building it, and why), and aren’t we constantly grappling with a vague consciousness that it’s hanging by a thread?  Isn’t the most we can do is bring faith and patience to the possibility – perhaps more accurately, the inevitability – that our “confinement” will somehow end one morning, allowing us to become who-knows-what?  Our next expression, that’s what: whatever that may be!  I like that Mary Oliver describes it as a “beautiful being.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Currently, I have a particularly large number of clients going through significant personal and professional – e.g., biological, social, strategic, financial and spiritual – transitions right now.  Some of the changes are rather confusing and intense.  “The Black Swallowtail” is useful as a reminder that change is simply what happens when time passes, and that transformation is fundamentally nature’s way.  From this perspective, every moment is an emergence, and faith and patience are the most effective strategies for rolling with it.  “You can’t push a river,” and if you try, you’ll exhaust yourself.  Nor can you avoid transformation; it doesn’t care if you ignore it, because it’s always coming for you, regardless of your attitude.

However, the perpetual opportunity is to choose to make meaning from it; perhaps faith is the crux of this.  As the sociologist and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker Palmer (no relation), observes in Healing the Heart of Democracy and elsewhere: heartbreak is unavoidable but we can influence whether the heart breaks open or breaks apart.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Mary Oliver died earlier this year at the age of 83, and her final collection of self-selected poems is a gorgeous volume entitled Devotions (Penguin, 2017).

I heartily recommend Krista Tippett’s “On Being” interview with Oliver, “Listening to the World.” Consider pairing it with the episode featuring poet David Whyte, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

For basic information about the Black Swallowtail butterfly, papilio polyxenes, here is the Wikipedia entry.

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leadership Library Review – Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change

September 2019

Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams (Picador, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

With candor, insight and flair, Stacey Abrams – the first woman and first person of color to make the general election ballot for governor of Georgia – offers a clever mash-up of memoir and leadership handbook in Lead from the Outside.  Drawing on her dazzling career as an attorney, novelist, entrepreneur, nonprofit guru, as well as her political experience as minority leader of the Georgia House Democrats before narrowly losing her bid for governor in 2018 in a vote-counting controversy, Abrams uses her own life story in service as a mentoring guide for all kinds of leaders to gain traction in systems historically rigged to keep them out. Her primary audiences for this book are women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and millenials.  Abrams says on pp. 200-201 that the whole point of Lead from the Outside is to:

…ask each of us to think about why we want what we want and to give ourselves permission to figure out how we can continue to grow personally and professionally. I want you to be uncomfortable with the exercises, to dig into your plans, and to question your assumptions about what could be yours.  My mission is to help you imagine or reimagine your future…For all of us, even me, we have to consistently remember that the game is stacked, but if we unlock the cheat codes, we can play to win.

At the same time, she makes clear that the purpose of winning leadership power is to serve everyone with integrity, including those in whose favor the game is stacked.

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s advice on ethical ways to hack into powerful positions, and its consistent focus on authenticity and belonging.  For example, Abrams chronicles how she leaned into her natural gifts and strengths during her rise to power in the Georgia House in order to counter stereotypes about her as a woman of color, even as she realized that this caused people in her African American community to question her “blackness.” She was also keenly aware that her ability to transcend expectations of demonstrably indignant behavior created a bind for her within the double-standards applying to white men, whose similar calm demeanors were seen as “composed and introspective,” whereas she was critiqued as being “cold and aloof” (pp. 43).  Abrams confides on pages 43-44:

More than once, I have found myself wondering if I have overcorrected, moving from one stereotype to another: from Shanaynay to Uncle Tom.  When these doubts arise, my instinct is to quash them and bask in the righteousness of my decisions.  I refused to be a stereotype, to be reduced to the memes of my community.  But to defeat those labels and emerge authentic, we cannot simply ignore the fear of being treated as a single representation. We must examine our actions to ensure that our reactions are genuine and not a fear-driven response.  Fear of being seen as too colored, as too female, as too much of what we are.  The analysis must be internal, exhaustive, and honest.  And in the end, if you think you were right to behave as you did, then own it and move on.

In my opinion, Abrams is at her best in Lead from the Outside when she is in this mode of curating her own life lessons and then converting them into empathetic advice, career-mapping ideas and coaching tools. The whole book is an engaging course in how to effectuate change from outside of traditional power structures, but the most potent chapters – in addition to the inspiring preface – are the ones titled “Fear and Otherness,” “Hacking and Owning Opportunity,” “Money Matters” and “Prepare to Win and Embrace the Fail.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Lead from the Outside offers pragmatic strategies that any motivated person of an under-represented group can employ in order to spot, seize or create leadership opportunities without compromising their values or authenticity.  If you feel caught in the double-binds within double standards in your career and could use some moral support and fresh exercises to help you plan your next steps, this book could be very useful.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

In alignment with Abrams’s philosophy of leadership, I too believe that sharing authentic narratives is crucial to how women, people of color (perhaps African-Americans in particular, at least in the U.S.) and leaders from other traditionally excluded populations can leverage their life stories in order to amplify their voices and influence.  For a handbook specifically designed to develop authentic leadership, see Bill George et al.’s True North Fieldbook (reviewed here in the Leadership Library), and for an embodied example see Irving Washington III’s TEDx Talk, “Authentic Leadership for the Future.”

To embark on a exploration of courage in leadership, with a focus on the African-American experience, I recommend the On Being” interview of Congressman John Lewis by Krista Tippett, “Love in Action,” combined with an illuminating piece by Maria Popova in her wonderful Brain Pickings blog, entitled “A Burst of Light: Audre Lorde on Turning Fear into Fire.”   (Stacey Abrams opens her book with one of my all-time favorite quotations about leadership, which is by Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”)

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leadership Library Review — “Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills”

August 2019

“Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review (June 25, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

Citing stark statistics about how women occupy tiny, single-digit percentages – 5% and under – of the CEO positions in top companies worldwide, Zenger and Folkman assert [authors’ hyperlinks]:

For centuries, there have been broad, cultural biases against women and stereotypes die slowly. People have long believed that many women elect not to aspire to the highest ranks of the organization and take themselves out of the running (though recent research disputes that). Lots of research has shown that unconscious bias places a significant role in hiring and promotion decisions, which also contributes to the lower number of women in key positions. […]  Our current data presents even more compelling evidence that this bias is incorrect and unwarranted. Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.

In this short article, after presenting compelling summaries of their data, the authors advise that men who are making promotion decisions consider their unconscious bias; they should “pause and ask, ‘Are we succumbing to unconscious bias? Are we automatically giving the nod to a man when there’s an equally competent woman?’”

Why do I like it?

I like that Zenger and Folkman not only offer crisp assessments about the nature and origins of discrimination against women leaders, but that they do two others things especially well in their data reporting that comport with my experience as a leadership coach to both men and women.  First, they analyze the granular differences in men’s and women’s evaluated competence in key measurable leadership skills (which generally validate my women clients’ self-reported experience of their competence relative to men colleagues); and, second, they address the association between age and confidence in men and women.  Women start out as less confident than men and then “[a]t age 40, the confidence ratings merge [for men and women]. As people age their confidence generally increases; surprisingly, over the age of 60 we see male confidence decline, while female confidence increases.”  These dynamics appear constantly in my coaching practice, and I regard age – and how my clients perceive age – as a vital factor for my women and men clients to consider when they are grappling with confidence issues.

In what situations would this be useful?

Zenger and Folkman’s information is possibly most useful to men – especially men at the board-of-directors levels and C-suite level – who are unwittingly diminishing their organizations’ potential by not elevating women to top leadership positions.

Of course, Zenger and Folkman’s data is also useful to women.  Across all of my leadership development work (coaching, consulting and training) I frequently encounter women who struggle with finding their voice in a world that is systemically and unconsciously biased against them.  One major reason for the struggle is because – and research backs this up – that women leaders tend to be perceived as either competent or likeable, but not both.  In my experience, the “competent v. likeable” dichotomy is less of a paralyzing double-bind than it is a gendered polarity that can be managed, and polarity management is a capacity we are more able to grow into as we mature.

There is a lot of data about women leaders that goes against stereotypes, and from my experiences as a leader and as a leadership coach, I’ve come to believe that the most effective adaptive approach to navigating the likeable/competent polarity is authenticity.  In my view, in its narrative aspects authenticity is crucial to how women, people of color (perhaps African-Americans in particular, at least in the U.S.) and leaders from other under-represented populations can leverage their life stories in order to amplify their unique leadership voices and transcend obstacles by focusing on the larger arc of their individual life purpose.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more information about unconscious bias, I highly recommend raising your own consciousness by taking Harvard’s “Project Implicit” Implicit Bias Assessment Tests (on race, gender, age and more), if you haven’t already done so.  I encourage you to be gentle with yourself regarding your results, and to use them as motivation to get curious about your biases and find ways to challenge your assumptions.

For more evidence of the effectiveness of women leaders, see Scaling Leadership – the latest book published earlier this year by Bob Anderson and Bill Adams – which includes a passionate section discussing the results of their 360 evaluation data analysis that show how and why women leaders out-perform men leaders.  They write, “The predominance of relationship strengths [in the top leadership competencies] suggests that women are more effective because they lead relationally.  Doing so also requires a high degree of self-awareness and authenticity” (p. 46).  If you’re interested in a contemporary real-life example, in my opinion an epitome of what Anderson and Adams are describing is the leadership of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, in the wake of the terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques in March of this year.

Back to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review — Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration

July 2019

“Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration” in Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler, rev. 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

This leadership handbook has been a favorite of mine since the 2008 edition, and now I am reviewing a new chapter that appears in the latest revision from 2017, entitled “Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration.”  On page 46, Cashman writes:

While spreadsheets are the language of management information, stories are the language of leadership inspiration [author’s emphasis]. Stories can activate our deepest, best selves; they are certainly one of the most transformative of all leadership tools.  Powerful narratives can bridge the authentic, essential depth of a leader to the complex breadth of strategy, culture, values and purpose.  The best stories are like concentrated, potent mantras that resonate with our shared humanity and enliven our collective aspirations.

I agree with him when he says we under-emphasize effective, genuine, relevant story-telling as a vital leadership development tool.

Why do I like it?

The “Story Mastery” chapter does a nice job of comprehensively yet succinctly addressing the ancient role of story-telling in human history, what elements make a story engaging (think: Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”), and the brain science of narrative (apparently character-driven stories about overcoming challenges produce oxytocin), all elucidated by two examples of CEO keynotes and why one fell flat whereas the other brought the audience into a state of collective emotional transcendence.  I liked Cashman’s quotation of consultant Annette Simmons: “People do not want information.  They are up to their eyeballs in information.  They want faith – faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell” (p. 47).

In what situations would this be useful?

While this chapter is only an introduction to the power of narrative, it should get the attention of any leader who is not already intentional about telling her authentic story, the organization’s, and where they intersect in ways that will be relatable to different stakeholder groups. In addition to presenting “story mastery dynamics” and a good list of “six practices for inspiring stories,” Cashman describes a free online StoryLine exercise at CashmanLeadership.com that you can use to help to elevate your self-awareness to a greater level of understanding “Where do my strengths and development areas come from? How did I acquire these strengths? Where did I form these values? Why are some challenges particularly difficult for me?” [p. 65, author’s emphasis].

Importantly, “Story Mastery: Leading with Inspiration” also covers the “five shadows of destructive stories” (pp. 68-69), describing how certain kinds of narratives can not only be less effective or enduring than others but actually be harmful and create long-term damage.  These types of stories are those that: diminish, discount or exclude groups of people; prescribe only one way of being, behaving or seeing the world; are designed to make us look good (“[s]tories designed to impress are typically not very impressive” [author’s emphasis]); are emotionally detached and/or inauthentic; and stories that misrepresent, in order to secure gain or avoid pain.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

You can find the StoryLine exercise here.

A masterful story-teller herself, Brene Brown (who is cited by Cashman a couple of times in the chapter) writes practically and persuasively about the power of narrative. Her most recent book for leaders is Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work, reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

For another wonderful leadership handbook that emphasizes values, story-telling and purpose, see Bill George et al.’s True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader, reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review — Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness

June 2019

Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. (Harmony, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

I loved Hanson’s book from 10 years ago, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, which discussed brain anatomy and processes in ways that explain why ancient practices of mindfulness (present-moment awareness) and meditation (intentional interior mind-training) actually work to reconfigure the brain. This book, Resilient, is a distillation of the science, habits and attitudes that form the twelve inner strengths of “resilience,” which he defines as the ability to cope with adversity and push through challenges in order to pursue opportunities (p. 2). Resilient draws heavily on neuroscience, and adds more positive psychology and autobiographical real-life examples, to offer strategies to refine the brain rewiring process.

Why do I like it?

Resilient is broken down into four categories of the twelve strengths, which are: Compassion, Mindfulness, Learning, Grit, Gratitude, Confidence, Calm, Motivation, Intimacy, Courage, Aspiration and Generosity. He offers easy-to-memorize methods of repeating certain patterns or habits to build the twelve inner strengths, and at the end of each section there is a beginner exercise in using the strength. If you’re new to any of these strengths as concepts or practices, Hanson makes them all very straightforward and accessible in the exercises. This what I like the most about the book.

In what situations would this be useful?

As a leadership coach, I found that the inner strengths most likely to be of immediate use to my clients at work (while all of the strengths would certainly serve the whole person regardless of context), are the “recognizing” strength of Mindfulness; the “resourcing” strengths of Grit, Gratitude, and Confidence; the “regulating” strength of Calm; and the “relating” strength of Courage. The Malcolm Forbes quotation that opens the essay on Confidence (p. 109) especially spoke to me in terms of what so many of my women and men clients – of all ages and phases of their careers – struggle with at the core of their leadership development process: “Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Since they are such different books with different emphases, I recommend pairing Resilient with Buddha’s Brain if you’re curious about brain structure and some basic mindfulness strategies for interrupting strong primitive responses to one’s environment, such as anxiety. If you’re new to mindfulness and want a simple place to start, consider experimenting with apps like Headspace, Calm or Breathe. I like the gentle and easy (and free) guided meditations at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, which range from 3 minutes to 19 minutes in length.

My favorite hub for information about resilience and related topics and practices in positive psychology is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley, which focuses on the scientific exploration of well-being. The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders. I recommend signing up for the GGSC’s weekly news magazine, which once featured an interesting article on “The Myths of Mindfulness.”

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment