Partnership for Coaching Excellence and Personal Leadership
Many years ago, I led a small team at a large firm-a spoke in the wheel as they say. While I came from a military background, this was one of my first opportunities to lead in a corporate environment and I was excited. My team of five young, capable leaders was responsible for providing strategic insight to a $1 billion-plus business. It was a great opportunity for me to prove myself as a leader.
When I first took over this group our division had just launched a major new product, and by all accounts, it was not going well. Not at all. Our volume was off and we were missing across most key metrics for success. A young manager on my team, let’s call her “Sarah,” was responsible for the business tracking and strategic insights for this new product launch. She regularly reported results to senior management, and she felt the stress of the situation.
As I coached Sarah during our one-on-one meetings, I would try to provide my best advice, make suggestions on how to analyze data in different ways, and be as supportive as possible. I thought I could be a source of humor to relieve some of the daily tension from all the senior management “help” we were getting. I would often try to laugh at the absurdity of the situation with her, which for me included a bit of cynicism at what was happening around us. I figured if anything she would know that I had her back and we’d be a team in getting through this.
Man, was I Wrong
I know this might be a blinding flash of the obvious for some people, but it turns out not everyone finds cynicism quite that helpful or funny during stressful times. In fact, I demotivated Sarah through our conversations, as she let me know clearly during one of our coaching meetings. I was failing her as a leader, not encouraging her at all, and actually making her dread meeting with me. I really had no idea. Sarah gave me the gift of feedback and it stung in real time. However, I suddenly had the opportunity for some self-observation-understanding more about how others were experiencing me.
Ronald Heifetz is a professor of leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He utilizes a wonderful metaphor for leaders to consider—to see ourselves simultaneously on the dance floor and from the balcony. In other words, we need to be in the thick of the action as we perform, but we also need to observe our behaviors, thoughts, and actions as objectively as possible. While we play on the dance floor, we need to see our performance from the balcony perspective to understand more about our own identity and reputation. It’s a cycle and a skill that can be learned to happen simultaneously.
So how do we build this skill, to overcome our natural default patterns of unconscious action, and to be more present to observe ourselves? My colleague Eric Johnson and I have developed a Self-Observant Leader Model that we have found helps the leaders we work with. We use this model in the Kelley Full-Time MBA Leadership Academy and with a number of our executive coaching clients as we work to drive insights and change for high-performance leaders.
At the heart of the model is the power of self-honesty-becoming more honest with ourselves through an active and ongoing reconciliation of our identity, how we see ourselves vs. our reputation, and how others experience us. The way to get closer to self-honesty is through an ongoing practice of self-observation. When we effectively observe ourselves, we’re able to better process all the feedback around us by differentiating between the channels of feedback that are coming at us, and the filters by which we’re processing this data to make sense of it.
Recognizing Your Filters
The more we can see ourselves in the meaning-making process, that conversion of raw feedback to what it means to us, the more ability we have to grow as adults and ultimately as leaders. For instance, you might receive critical feedback from a boss on ways that your performance could be better. But not recognizing the difference between the raw feedback and your interpretation of that feedback (due to our personality, disposition, values, level in the organization, etc.) could be a big mistake and lead you down the wrong path. We all have these feedback filters that help us make sense of the world, but we can simultaneously distort intended messages that the feedback should deliver.
In my case with Sarah, her feedback was very clear once she was so frustrated with me that she hit me over the head with direct language. However, as she told me later, there were plenty of non-verbal signals she provided prior to this moment that I missed, or chose to miss. My filters were processing that non-verbal feedback in a different way than she intended, and as a result, I was not able to observe my impact on her-not ideal as a leader. It was when the feedback was so pointed that my filters could no longer ignore that we were not on the same page, and I needed to change my approach. Only when I could see myself from a different angle did my ability, to be honest with myself to improve, and it changed my leadership approach for the better. I feel ever indebted to Sarah for this insight.
As I work with leaders to improve their own ability to be more honest with themselves, I always start with the power of self-observation. I encourage you to try it as you practice becoming a leader that’s more conscious of your own development journey.
Ray Luther is the executive director of the Partnership for Coaching Excellence and Personal Leadership at the Kelley School of Business. To learn more about how you can achieve your leadership goals with coaching, please visit bit.ly/2ARMjhf .