Most of the coaching requests that I receive revolve around emotional intelligence: clients are described as lacking self-awareness, or are unable to control their impulses, or don’t empathize with others. But what if this diagnosis is only half correct: What if many leadership deficiencies are rooted in shortcomings of critical thinking? According to the Foundation of Critical Thinking there are three components:
A dear colleague and I were talking at lunch about the usual subjects – our work, our families, the miserable state of the world. We commiserated about our aging parents growing more frail. I said, “It is what it is,” and my friend replied, “No it isn’t.” I repeated, “Yes, it is what it is,” and she repeated, “No it isn’t.” After a few more rounds of this craziness, I said that though it may be cliché, the phrase indicates acceptance of a particular situation. She countered that this might be true in some cases, but that I should listen more carefully.
When clients proclaim, ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable’ I can’t help but smile. Why? Because the declaration, itself, displays such a lack of accountability. ‘We’ve got to’ diffuses any responsibility for taking action. But imagine if the speaker said, “I’ve got to hold people more accountable.” Then we’d be getting someplace. The first step to holding others accountable is to hold oneself accountable, and most of us believe we do so. But even the most powerful leaders among us often take on the mindset of victim, the enemy of accountability.
Glenn had no problem asking for support. As CEO of a financial services firm, he was accustomed to asking people to do things for him. So I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to provide him with executive leadership coaching. But I was surprised at how challenging our relationship would become. There’s a saying among coaches that ‘you are only as good as your clients.’ This is overly simplistic. In reality, a coach is only as good as their client is coachable. ‘Receiving coaching,’ like ‘providing coaching’ is a skill, and both require disciplined practice. A good coach ensures that this skill is developed in their coachee. It is the same for leaders coaching direct reports: A good coachee is as essential as a good coach.
Over half of my executive coaching clients have “improve delegating effectiveness” as a development priority. All are experienced senior players; each has a long, successful track record. And yet, they all share a simple, yet profound blind spot that turns them, and the people they delegate to, into jug heads. Last year, I began work with an especially talented client. As the new CEO of a mid-sized Chamber of Commerce, her board suggested she engage me to help her “change the Chamber’s leadership culture.” After she quickly reviewed her background and the Chamber’s priorities, Chris got right to the point: “I’m not sure I’ve got the right team. They’re fairly experienced, but they lack urgency. I have to keep following up just to make sure things get done and I really don’t have the time to babysit senior staff.”
The football coach stood frustrated on the sideline as his quarterback threw incomplete passes. He suddenly rushed onto the field, grabbed the ball from the quarterback’s hands, and started passing to the startled wide receivers. After the coach completed a pass he returned the ball to the quarterback, and said, “my boy, that is how its done,” as he walked off the field. This never really happened. But countless times managers behave the same way by grabbing a ‘problem’ out of their employees’ hands, ‘solving’ it by taking over, and then thinking they are good coaches. They are wrong.
“I’m stuck…. I can’t move,” my friend stammered, as he stood frozen trying to exit my open front door. Brent has Parkinson’s, a neurological disease that sends conflicting messages within his brain. One part of his brain knew the door was a safe passage to home. Yet at the same time, another part of his brain perceived the door as a dangerous open window. This part of the brain sends directives to his legs to either stop or go. After an awkward moment, Brent took surprising action. Leading with his head, he forced himself to fall forward through the doorway. His legs responded by trying desperately to catch up with his falling torso. And they did. Safely outside, he turned to me and said sheepishly, “Sometimes my brain has a mind of its own.” Though I don’t have Parkinson’s, I’m all too familiar with times when my mind interferes with what my brain knows I should do. I rationally know that I should exercise daily, but my mind tells me that there are more important things to do. And at work, there are times when my brain knows I should be bold and confront my coaching clients, yet my mind
I was recently exploring a new coaching relationship with a high achieving, successful executive. Paul insisted that he wanted to ‘bring his game to another level’ and thought I might be a catalyst for his professional development. As I listened to his background and his amazing career trajectory a funny thought occurred to me: I wished I was him! He was outgoing, unpretentious, self-aware, and possibly the least neurotic person I’ve met in a long time. I wondered how I could possibly support him. Then he told me a story about one of the vice presidents who reported to him.
Wayne is an accomplished and overburdened senior executive who hates dealing with his direct reports’ conflicts. He once told me that he’d rather have a spike driven into his eye than listen to them complain about each other. But leaders like Wayne often fail to realize that what appear to be interpersonal conflicts are often just the visible symptoms of deeper, more strategic problems. After all, people generally want to get along with each other. And most of us don’t go to bed plotting how to annoy our colleagues.