Harvard Business review

To Coach Leaders, Ask the Right Questions

Lucas B. is the CEO of a well-known multibillion dollar company whose survival was at risk at the height of the pandemic. Many analysts had written it off. Lucas had a strategy for returning the company to profitability, which his board supported, but he was struggling to implement it. In Lucas’s view, he was up against an array of external obstacles. When we began working together, he resisted the idea that his own leadership was a central part of the problem.

But his own leadership was exactly the problem. And not for the typical reasons you might guess.

I have been coaching CEOs and other C-suite leaders for two decades. In a fiercely complex and challenging world, I’ve found that leaders, more than ever, need to understand how what’s going on inside themselves is influencing their actions in the outside world. Instead, for most corporate leaders I’ve worked with – often doers more than deep thinkers – what’s going on internally is a vast unexplored territory that they haven’t valued much. That includes what they’re feeling, where they’re feeling triggered, and how early experiences in their lives influence the choices they’re making in the present.

The leadership issues that most preoccupied Lucas – and many others like him — included prioritization, decision-making, accountability, and aligning and empowering his team members. But our work together focused equally on three more personal questions designed to better understand their motivations and impulses:

  • Why are you the person and leader you are?
  • Who are you capable of becoming?
  • What’s standing in your way?

Our premise with clients is deceptively simple: You can’t transform a company without also transforming yourself. To be a better leader, you must become a bigger human being. This is based on years of experience with senior leaders who have failed in implementing new strategies and change initiatives. Overcoming those obstacles requires the willingness to challenge the fixed beliefs, blind spots, biases, fears, deeply ingrained habits, and rationalizations that profoundly influence all of us, but mostly beyond our conscious awareness.

Leaders deceive themselves when they assume they make free and deliberate choices. In fact, a range of studies have found that at least 43% of our behaviors — and in some cases far more — occur not by conscious intention, but automatically, habitually, and reactively.

The added challenge for leaders is that showing up as strong and confident – even invulnerable – has long been considered necessary in their roles, and core to their identity. Too often, this persona becomes just another way to defend themselves from discomfort and pain. Today’s leaders need to understand that openness, humility, and the desire to grow are critical to running a modern organization.

“There were moments of heated debate where I fundamentally disagreed with your views,” Lucas told me recently. “I would say that 90% of the time they were signs of me not being ready to make the leap. The inflection points were when I was going into my core and I was willing to listen, and eventually to evolve.”

For Lucas, that began with exploring what he stood for most deeply, rather than being overly influenced by the desire to avoid conflict and reach consensus. It also meant noticing his own tendency to step in and micromanage. When he began to feel anxious, he would find himself spinning about decisions and seeking multiple iterations of the same work from more than one person. The more he was able to observe and accept his contrasting impulses, the better he was able to find a balance between them.

As Lucas’s capacity to set clear expectations and hold his team accountable to them increased, so did his willingness to empower others to reach those outcomes without his direct involvement.

Lucas’s work included owning his unspoken role as the company’s “chief energy officer.” That meant recognizing that what he felt and communicated in any given moment had a disproportionate impact on those who worked under him, for better or for worse. With vulnerability and transparency, he began to acknowledge his own triggers, and how he was learning to sit with them, rather than act on them. That allowed others on his team to feel safer in acknowledging their own struggles.

What It Means to Be a Leader Today

Part of the modern coaching challenge is understanding that each of us operates not from a single self, but rather from a complex dance between three primary selves: the child, the defender, and the core self. This perspective is deeply influenced by Richard Schwartz (no relation) the originator of a framework called Internal Family Systems.

The child self, which we’re born into, is our most vulnerable self. Our defender arises early on in our lives to protect our child self from feelings of fear, hurt, shame, vulnerability, and helplessness. For Lucas, it was especially powerful to recognize how his defender reacted under stress, when he felt his own value being threatened. As he was able to connect with his more capable and measured core self, rather than simply allowing his defender to take charge, he found that he was calmer, more self-regulated, more reflective, and more able to make considered choices.

Most corporate leaders I’ve worked with rely primarily on one source of intelligence and insight – the mind. In fact, there are at least four centers of intelligence, including the heart, the body, and the spirit. Making the most fully informed decisions requires drawing on each of them.

Lucas, for example, found that his perspective shifted when he stepped back from the swirl of his conflicting thoughts, and listened more closely to the intelligence of his body. That meant paying more attention to his deeper intuition rather than relying solely on his mind, which could rationalize almost any choice he made.

Why Human Connection Matters as Much as the Bottom Line

Many corporate leaders I’ve worked with have limited access to their hearts — meaning sensitivity to their own feelings and emotional needs, and empathy for the feelings and needs of others. This is especially true of leaders who are motivated primarily by external rewards such as money, power, and recognition, which are the predominant signifiers of value in most corporate environments.

Andrew K., for example, is a senior leader who measured himself almost exclusively based on his company’s bottom line. He felt safe and comfortable in the objective world of numbers. Awakening the intelligence of his heart began with his willingness to explore the fears and discomfort that arose when he turned his attention to what he was feeling, and how he affected others.

Over time, Andrew discovered that he had been holding his desire for more human connection at a distance, believing that it would make him more vulnerable, and get in the way of his external goals. As he allowed himself to have more personal relationships with colleagues, he also found that collaboration with them became easier, and that conflicts got resolved more rapidly.

The fourth center of intelligence, the spirit, refers to the wider perspective that emerges when leaders find the right balance between taking care of their own needs, and taking care of others.

Paulina B. is the CEO of a large nonprofit. The clients that her organization serves have long been a powerful source of spiritual energy for her. When we began working together during Covid, she was feeling deeply burned out, to the point that she was considering leaving her job.

As we explored her experience, Paulina began to see that her defender arose whenever she felt she was falling short of perfection — in the form of a relentless self-critic who found her wanting. The louder that voice became, the harder she pushed herself, the more involved she got in details, and the more dispirited she became.

We focused together on a very basic question: What fuels your energy, and what depletes it? By giving herself permission to explore the answers, Paulina discovered that jumping into every problem in the organization served her perfectionism, but often prevented her from investing in the parts of her job that she found most nourishing. Chief among them were the energy she derived spending time in the field with employees and clients, and interacting with leaders of other organizations.

The paradox of working with CEOs and senior leaders, I’ve found, is that the more they’re able to accept and embrace the parts of themselves they’ve previously disowned, the less they have to defend. The core work of a modern executive coach is helping clients to understand themselves more deeply – to tolerate more of the truth until it can set them free. That begins with the simplest of questions: “What am I not seeing?”

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