A top-ranking leader has just instituted an unpopular policy—one that, in fact, challenges the ethics of those he leads. A lone woman under his leadership questions and defies him. Eventually, everyone the leader oversees begins to distrust him, but the leader still does not change course. Instead, he decides to make a public example of the woman who challenged his authority.

The scenario above comes not from a company’s boardroom but from Sophocles’ classic drama Antigone. And no classic Greek drama would be complete without a chorus to comment on the actions of the main players. In this case, the chorus tells the powerful leader—King Creon of Thebes—to reverse his unpopular policy. It’s an important message, and Creon eventually heeds it.


Despite the differences between Greece in 400 B.C. and corporate leadership today, I frequently ask senior executives the simple question: Who is your chorus?

In ancient Greece, the chorus offered incisive commentary and gave both warnings and moral judgments about the protagonist’s actions. The chorus was typically detached and uninvolved in the drama itself. Because of this distance, they did not face the same pressures and were able to better anticipate consequences, clarify values, and freely speak the truth.

Senior executives need such truth-tellers more than most. Unfortunately, because of the time pressures of leadership and the headiness of their roles, it becomes easy for leaders to miss out on deep conversations about their values and the consequences of their habits, behaviors and decisions on those they lead. This leaves leaders vulnerable.

Too often in business education and in leadership training programs, we focus exclusively on developing knowledge, skills and tools (horizontal development) without much clear-sighted focus on maturation and integrity (vertical development). Such maturation demands strong social support; and solid, truth-telling relationships are paramount. But, as a senior executive, how does one make time for rich, longstanding relationships? As I work with my clients to identify and empower their chorus members, we typically review a few key areas. I suggest having truth tellers from each:

  1. Work.

A Gallup poll that measures workplace engagement asks, as one of 12 questions, whether an employee has a best friend at work. Friendship is that important and common in the workplace. However, there are complications to workplace friendships for top leaders. These primarily arise from competing commitments—your allegiance to your friend vs. the success of a division; or your affinity for your friend vs. your need to treat others fairly. In addition, it is rare to find a complete truth-teller amongst those you lead. If you can find clear-sighted challengers at work, they are invaluable, as they both understand you and the context within which you lead.

  1. The Tribe Outside.

Because friendships at work can be so fraught, friends outside of work take on paramount importance. If you’re lucky, you build such friendships over time—with peers from business school or from your early years in a corporation, law or professional services firm where you rose together.

For those who have built their career in different ways, many groups exist to facilitate these relationships. For example, a CEO Forum, Vistage Group or YPO Forum will offer groups intentionally created with peers from non-competitive companies. Intense and niche-focused Executive Education programs offer similar benefits. For example, at Kellogg, our popular programs through the Center for Family Enterprise bring together top leaders in multi-generational, complex, family-owned enterprises. Without a doubt, the peer-experience of this program is among the most powerful for our participants.

  1. The “Ties That Bind.”

What can old friends and close family provide that peer groups cannot? These are the people who remind you where you came from and what you stand for. They take you as you are, and in the best case, can provide you with a mirror that makes decisions clear, allowing you to sleep well at night. They become your chorus by making you reflect on their assessment of your leadership decisions, so that you find yourself asking, “What would such-and-such say about this?”

  1. A Chorus by Profession and Position.

Finally, it is helpful to add to your chorus those in “helping” professions or those who are truth-tellers by nature of their relationship and history with you: an executive coach, former teachers, counselors or a long-time personal or professional mentor. Some executives find expert guidance through their spiritual communities. These are the individuals that leaders describe as holding them accountable on a very routine basis for auditing their actions and comparing them with their ideals.

When you’re tasked with big decisions every day—when the welfare of a business and many other people is on your shoulders—it’s tempting to forge ahead alone or to surround yourself with people who think similarly, or who will simply agree with you or affirm your instincts. We have literally thousands of years of examples of this. But taking the time to formulate and empower a strong and vocal chorus—one that will cry out when you lose your way— is one of the most important safeguards you can put in place.

Photo credit: Rande Archer via creativecommons.org.

The people I work with have HUGE jobs and, oftentimes, very strong family commitments and values that they want to honor with their time and presence.  With the publication of  Anne Marie Slaughter’s new book and the concomitant debate it has sparked, we are all well-served to ask how we might set up systems and business environments that don’t make these decisions so fraught.

In the meantime, while more systematic changes are pondered and pursued, I have clients answer the following: even if nothing changes with your work demands, what is possible right now to better connect with your children? I include below some of the incredibly practical and wonderful systems I have seen them set up, with the hopes that it inspires:

  • Parent of teens has “amnesty” Tuesday when he takes one of his three teenagers out for coffee. On those evenings, they can “confess” or tell him anything on their mind. His commitment is to problem solve/mentor only and promises no hyper reactivity. (Note: This structure is particularly genius because he can get in the right frame of mind in advance to listen). After doing this for some time, he’s noted that he can now tell when something major is going on when his kids start to switch their weeks.
  • Saturday “Bagels and Talk” ritual; each of three kids has a turn; they get full attention during that time
  • Movie/dinner night with family every Friday, when they’re beat anyway and can’t muster up energy for much else. If there are no new movies, they do Netflix/order in.
  • Another started gifting an activity for birthdays and holidays (long bike ride, race, kayaking in city, etc)
  • Another signed up for theater series with daughter to ensures it’s on calendar far in advance (sports tickets, opera/symphony tickets, etc do the same)
  • Using the school year as a marker, each child gets a solo dinner out at the beginning, middle, and end of school
  • One chooses LONG books to read to young children and does so by iChat even when away from home (they’re loaded on Kindle)
  • Another has “world cooking” every other week with pre-determined location from kids. If wiped out, they simply dine at restaurant from the region
  • Family works out together at health club once during the week (a two-fer!) then eats dinner there

None of these solve the ultimate problem of competing commitments in our cultural/work system. But they do start the process of getting better at creating the time, space and rituals that we, as human beings respond so well to.


Every day, leaders encounter a wide range of negative emotions—their own and the emotions of those they lead. Impatience. Anger. Jealousy. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Defensiveness. Frustration. The list goes on. Learning to be agile and resourceful in the face of these emotions is a rich and complex area of coaching (and our third and final installment in the “round up” of 2014 coaching themes). We can only scratch the surface here in blog form, but it’s well worth scratching.

I take the term “emotional agility” from Susan David and Christina Congleton’s excellent 2013 Harvard Business Review article.  When you possess high levels of emotional agility, it simply means that you have a well-developed capacity to recognize and “unhook” from negative emotions. You can respond to difficulties in alignment with your values—rather than simply react impulsively from a “hot” state. You have grace under fire.

Here are three distinct ways you can work to improve your emotional agility as a leader:

1. Know Your Triggers

Understand well the people, scenarios, and topics that can trigger and tweak you. What you’re going for is an external map of situations; one that alerts you to tread carefully and to set your intentions in advance, e.g. “I’m here to listen and understand her perspective only.” Then, schedule yourself wisely—know your limits to ensure that you are as ‘on game’ as you can be when you will face difficult people/situations. People face stressful situations with much more grace when they’re rested, not decision fatigued, and when they have food in their systems. These are trite observations, but the research bears them out in a compelling manner.

2. Know Your Signs: Become a Sommelier of your Senses

What happens to you physically when you’re emotionally hooked? Does your jaw clench, chest tighten, ears redden, heart rate accelerate? Do you start to speak more loudly or become more clipped? Do you lightly clutch the table, roll your eyes, collapse your chest in a passive aggressive “who cares” or defeated posture? Do you adopt a look of mild disgust, furrow your brow? The finer your understanding here, the more likely you are to catch yourself before you react in a way that you’re less than proud of later.

3. Develop a Process to Unhook

Effective strategies to manage difficult emotions vary widely. Exercise is an excellent “go to.” A good night’s sleep. A walk outside. Taking ten deep breaths.  It is ideal if we “unhook” in the moment, but if we cannot, the cost of staying in the conversations often outweighs the small hit of saying something like this, “This is important information—I need some time to digest for just a moment. Let’s take a five minute break” (if heavily time pressured) or, “let’s get back together at xxyy time,” (if not).

My favorite strategies for neutralizing strong emotions are from the mindfulness-based stress reduction traditions.  For example, from Thich Nhat Hahn: simply taking deep, slow breaths and on the inhale/exhale saying the following: “Breathing in, I relax my body; breathing out, I smile.”  From Tara Brach, consider her stepwise process of “Working with Difficulties.” I have seen many executives learn and master this process with great effect.

If you lose your cool (or if those you lead do) the best strategy is to face it and learn from it. As bad as it may seem in the moment, if you handle your recovery with grace, you can work to strengthen your relationships. Consider these basic strategies for managing others and yourself after the fact:

What to Do When an Employee Cries at Work (June 2013)

Recovering from an Emotional Outburst at Work (May 2015)

Developing your emotional agility is hard work–it takes tons of practice, always involves slip-ups, and then recommitting to practice again. This skill (like developing patience or listening well) is one that can be refined for a lifetime. This said, like most things that require intensive work, committing yourself to recognizing and mastering your emotions also has rich rewards–in life and leadership.

The second topic in this year’s roundup is “Attentional Overwhelm.” Like executive presence, almost everyone I work with has to wrestle, in some way, shape or form, with the completely overwhelming stream of requests  and information coming his or her way on a daily basis.

Much of this can be attributed to omnipresent technology wreaking havoc on our brains. (For excellent coverage on this phenomenon, see Ed Hallowell’s 2005 article on “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”)

In addition to endemic technology overwhelm, there is also a stealthy transition point in a career hallmarked by success. This largely goes unnoticed until individuals are held captive by the very thing that made them successful—saying yes. (Or, “Yes, please,” in the words of Amy Poehler).  In other words, success comes when one has been willing to stretch—to say yes—early and often. Successful individuals typically leaned in early in their careers and leaned in strong. For this, they were amply rewarded.

And then things change. And the very trait that made them successful becomes their undoing. As a result of saying yes too much, either their work or leadership suffers; or, their life as a whole starts to drain and punish rather than fuel and fulfill. When this happens, it’s critical to master two skills that assist in creating a career that is both a professionally rewarding and personally sustainable: saying ‘no’ and creating rock-solid work processes.

Mastering the No

Determining what is worthy of one’s time (your yesses) and what is not (your noes) requires fine discernment. Many struggle with saying no simply because they have very high levels of interest and enthusiasm. Some others still fear the well-known boogeyman named FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or his evil twin sister FOBFO (Fear of Being Found Out). From fear, they say “yes” reflexively.

There is no better resource to mastering one’s noes than William Ury’s Art of a Positive No (Note: Ury is co-founder of Harvard’s Negotiation project and author of the better-known book Getting to Yes).

I won’t tax your attention spans by rehashing his points. Get the book. I use Ury’s frameworks all the time with clients as they first define their “yes” (e.g. what they are seeking to protect or change by saying no) and then create concrete strategies for saying “no.”

My single favorite strategy of Ury’s: “I have a policy.” As he so well describes, this flavor of “no” frames the limits you’re setting in terms of a broader policy of which your “no” is just one instance. It lets the requestor know this is an ongoing practice that you’ve thought through carefully and that your “no” is nothing personal. Let me give you an example of how I use this one (to protect clients’ innocence):

“Thank you so much for asking, but I currently only do volunteer work that can also involve my family.”

See how that works? I’m not turning you down when you request my time, I’m simply affirming a commitment that I’ve made to volunteerism within the context of family.  It’s a “positive no.”

Mastering Process  

Once one practices (again and again) the art of saying no, personal work processes must be mastered. Life becomes increasingly complicated as we age—i.e. if we are lucky, not only do our careers and opportunities expand, but so do our interests and commitments outside of work (to a family, for example; or to a “virtual baby”—as one of my clients brilliantly calls it—which may be a deep passion and interest outside of work that should also be honored). Simply hoping that things will fall into place or fit together doesn’t work.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, is the undisputed master of systems that support executives and knowledge workers. In his work, he spells these systems out well and offers a wide range of  supports, including online webinars and in-person seminars. Highly recommended.

A dramatically simplified version of David Allen’s work, which I recommend to most of my clients (given their patience levels for a full-length book or webinars) is a very short e-book called Zen-to-Done (ZTD). ZTD was created by Leo Babauta through his Zen Habits Blog. Get it. Read it. Then apply one principle at a time and practice that single principle for a month before moving to the next. This single intervention will significantly upgrade your work processes.

Learning to say “no” with grace and ease and developing work processes are worthy goals, essential even, for the reasons described above. But, they do not happen overnight. I routinely tell people to plan on at least a year before things feel smooth and habitual for them. Once mastered, however, the rewards are great.

Next up? Final chapter in 2014 Round Up: Emotional Agility.

The first theme in the 2014 Round-Up, “Executive Presence,” is not a new topic this year (in fact, I reference it even here, in my highly sporadic blog). One’s executive presence, or lack thereof, is a combination of qualities that conveys to others that you are in charge (or can be/deserve to be). Executive presence is not a measure of performance or merit; it’s a measure of whether your performance and merit is telegraphed to others—whether your behavior and words signal that you have what it takes to make the tough decision, sit in the board room, take on the tough client, etc.

Because this area comes up so frequently in coaching, this past year I designed a new workshop (recently rolled out at Kellogg) entitled “Executive Presence: Deconstructing Gravitas.” I chose the word “deconstructing” because being told, or telling someone, that they need to “develop executive presence” is about as helpful as telling a writer that they need to “be more clear.”  The response? “Um. Ok…how do I do that?” The feedback must be deconstructed to be helpful.

The upshot? Executive presence is an equation involving credibility, ease, and ego:


Though I cannot condense hours of teaching into a simple blog post, I do want to offer a few solid resources that support exploration in each of these areas.

Credibility: I assume deep and broad experience and subject matter expertise in the executives I work with. If you (or those you are leading) do not have that—it is where you must begin.  Expertise is the entry ticket to the party–it’s what earns you the right to be concerned about communicating that expertise out. Once you have that, here are some easy-to-access resources on communicating expertise with credibility:

  • Leadership Presence by Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern has an excellent series of exercises that discuss voice, story and emotion and their role in effective presentations—(works for “ease” category as well)
  • Second City has a series of very popular classes for corporate audiences to refine their presentation skills. (note: Chicago local)
  • I frequently refer folks who need to work on this intensely to Turpin Communication, Speaker’s Choice, or the work of Rob Biesenbach.

Ease: Ease is a measure that combines the qualities of “grace under fire,” congruence, authenticity, and connection with others. There is so much interesting work in this field (and I will cover much more when discussing emotional agility in a later post). To get you started:

  • Exercise and sleep are among the most well-established interventions for overall physical and mental health—both of which are key for regulating stress, anxiety and reactivity–and developing “grace under fire.” If you need any convincing, read Spark by James Ratey, MD (Harvard). Another classic in the field is “The Making of the Corporate Athlete
  • Own the Room by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins—focuses on connection with other people and developing signature “style” with one’s presence

Ego:  Remember that Ego is the divisor in this equation. Reflect: what happens to your quotient when you divide a number by zero or a negative number? Answer: The quotient is zero or negative. We don’t want that; so, too low of an ego is a problem.

On the other hand, if you’re “over-ego’d” and have a very high number as a divisor, it cuts into your quotient as well. When working on ego issues, I like to call to mind Aristotle’s “golden mean” of “proper pride” (from book two of Nicomachean Ethics for those of you so inclined). You are going for a “+1” here—in other words, you believe you have something to bring to the table, but you also believe that others have something to bring too.

For those who need to tame outsized egos, see Robert Sutton (Stanford), The No A**holes Rule (2010) and “More Trouble than They’re Worth” (HBR 2004). I am also a huge fan of the classic Porras Article, “Level Five Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.”

For those needing to amp up their ego from zero or a negative number, see:

My hope is that these resources are helpful to you and those you lead. Enjoy!

Next up in our 2014 Round Up: Attentional Overwhelm.

At the end of every year, I do a personal and professional step-back. Part of this process is hardwired, as I routinely do an “annual review” with clients and have led a half-day reflection retreat every December for the past five years. In order to prepare and to do those activities with integrity, I evaluate my own life and business as well.

From a business perspective, part of this process is identifying themes that have popped up again and again with clients. These, in turn, help me to see shifts in the workplace and how they are impacting the lives of executives. The topics then represent areas of additional research and teaching so I can best serve my clients.

For 2014, client engagements touched on a wide variety of topics, but three top themes appeared again and again:

1)   Executive Presence

2)   Time Management and Dealing with Overwhelm/Overload

3)   Emotional Agility

In the coming weeks, I will address each of these areas, sharing resources that my clients found helpful as they made progress in these arenas.  My hope is that this series will be helpful to you as you do your own “step back” and development planning this year.

The past three years, I have had the great privilege of working with Ronald McDonald House Charities as a speaker at their international and national conferences.

I was pretty overwhelmed with gratitude at the end of this year’s conference. First, for the organization itself, which is a stand out to me. Every year, in speaking with the leaders and incredible front line workers of this organization, I am struck by the important work they’re doing on a day to day basis: providing comfort, care, and necessary support to families whose children are critically ill.

After wrapping my talks this year, I felt waves of gratitude for the following things beyond RMHC, almost simultaneously:

  • A cherished friend’s child who was critically ill at birth is now thriving. (I get to meet him next week!) This comes after a harrowing first three months of life that included long NICU stays at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital and then Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (way to go, little big man Lincoln!). You can see the journey of this beautiful family here.
  • Our own children, whom we enjoy so much and whose health we try our very best not to take for granted; they are thriving, browned and happy from summer time family camping trips and playing about outdoors.
  • The chance to work with amazing organizations (in this case, Kellogg School of Management and RMHC). These organizations trust me again and again to discuss important issues with the people they employ or serve.
  • My work in general–which allows me to learn continually and be inspired by those I work with and the topics I study. A great example of this: in doing research for one of my talks this year, I came across the story of Doug Dietz—Principal Designer at GE who transformed the experience of the MRI for children. His commitment to excellence and demonstration of outstanding empathy is something that will long remain with me. See it here.
  • And finally, I felt gratitude for the long life of my grandmother, Virginia Becker, who passed away earlier this month. Grandma was a testament to the power of dauntless community service—supporting, most notably, the local hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho for years upon years with her volunteer work after she left the rigors of a farming life. She was always quick with a smile and a joke (usually dirty) to brighten the lives of patients and their families. Grandma—you will be missed. May we all live up to your tireless example of service.

In short, life is good and I am grateful for it. Research has proven again and again how a focus on gratitude and on what’s going right in our lives and work is transformative (for just one example of this research, see Shawn Anchor’s short and highly readable 2012 piece on “Positive Intelligence” from HBR here).

So, from my work, I know gratitude is important, but this time I just felt it. And it was a great way to wrap the summer.


Although my coaching practice is skewed fairly heavily “male,” I feel privileged to work with the women I do. Their backgrounds and careers vary widely, but I find many encounter consistent issues with managing their career: negotiating as fiercely for themselves as they do for others; managing “the balance” of life/work; and imagining a more creative career path that suits their talents and interests—which can mean embracing (gasp!) deviance.

Here’s this year’s round up on my recommendations for women on these issues:

  • Creative Career Planning Specifically for Women: Tara Mohr’s work is something I stumbled upon this year. She is from a new generation of young women boldly designing the lives they want to lead. As a Stanford MBA, Tara specifically focuses on women’s leadership and offers virtual Women’s Leadership Programs that come from a creative, poetic and artistic place (reflecting her own leadership style). For her work more generally, see her website. Also see her excellent, pithy blog entry on HBR on the “good student habits” women should drop immediately.

All of this is not to say that men don’t also struggle with similar issues of speaking up for themselves (or speaking up at all!), balancing their lives, and designing their career paths. They do. It’s just that the particular mental patterns that keep them from doing so can be slightly different, reflecting, for example, behavioral styles (introversion), technical knowledge and assumptions about its dominance over relationship building and political savvy, cultural values, or the fear of being vulnerable (see post below), perceived as weak, or not providing well for those they love. These issues may also haunt women, but there’s something particular about gender that also comes into play for them as they wrestle their way to a fulfilling career–these resources address those gender-based issues head on.


My favorite research when I’m helping clients develop “Executive Presence” comes from Amy Cuddy (social psychologist at Harvard Business School). Amy focuses on the non-verbal aspects of presence and impression setting. Happily, the crux of her most recent research is now presented in an engaging 20 minute TED Talk, so you don’t even have to read her articles (though her work is fascinating and her life story is truly inspiring). See her TED Talk here.

Cuddy’s research is helpful for those of us who are not usually the Alphas in the room and/or are routinely dealing with social settings where someone else holds most of the power–e.g. when presenting to a large, more senior group that has evaluative role; when job interviewing; when pitching an idea to an unknown client. Even if you consider yourself a huge alpha in almost any setting, think of Prof Cuddy’s research as something you can share with those who work with or for you to help them develop their own confidence and “presence.” (I use it w/ my daughters too, but you’re on your own there…)

Watch the talk and give power posing a try for two minutes to see how it changes you.

Brené Brown has written extensively on shame and vulnerability. Shame keeps us small—keeps us listening to the critic inside who tells us to play it safe, to ask for guarantees, to try to predict and control our lives and relationships, to never let them see us sweat, and—for God’s sake—to never, ever look weak (this is a particularly potent and pernicious shame-based motivator for men). Embracing our vulnerability—courageously leaning into it—is the antidote to shame and the pathway to full lives and powerful leadership. There is, simply, no chance of creativity, innovation, passion, change, or authentic, inspired leadership without some vulnerability being involved (For a quick orientation to Brené Brown’s research, view her extremely popular TED talks here and here.  I highly recommend them; she is funny, authentic and wise).

Brené has entitled her newest book Daring Greatly, after Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote, one that I love as well:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

What puts us in the arena? Certainly, it’s not only the warrior-like acts of valor conjured up by Roosevelt’s language. It can also be those daily, small acts of daring greatly, which include anything that requires us to change or that makes us feel vulnerable. These are the things that “the critic” desperately wants to talk us out of because they hold no guarantees. I count every single one of my clients as being squarely in the arena. Coaching and intentional development demands vulnerability (see the previous post). Here are a few ways my clients dare greatly all the time: making the call, asking for feedback, apologizing and promising to do better, speaking up, shutting up and listening, signing up for the class, having the difficult conversation, writing the proposal,  formulating a new vision, asking for the raise, giving the talk, renegotiating boundaries, quitting the job, taking the  job, or simply learning to just “be” with themselves, without technology tethers to the office.

So, today, let’s praise those in the arena—those willing to risk looking hard at themselves to discover what it is they really want out of their lives, relationships and careers; those willing to be seen fully by telling their story; those brave souls who enrich their lives, communities, families and organizations by extending themselves or trying new things even when they may fail. The courageous and vulnerable (for the two are inexorably linked) make the world a much more interesting place by running loose in it. So, today, here’s to the women and men in the arena!