On Leadership and Coaching

For eight years, I had the privilege of working with undergraduates at Rice University on the development of skills related to leadership.  I never believed I…or anyone else…could teach people to be leaders.  Seems to me leadership happens at the intersection of passion, opportunity and capacity.  We can’t foment passion in others, although we can get out of the way when it appears.  We can’t create future opportunity, but we can develop some capacities that seem to facilitate leadership.

I came to believe that the most important skills I could teach were not very grand.  I suspect the university administration sometimes thought our program was not sufficiently “academic.”  I stated out worrying about being scholarly, but in time, I came to believe that there were lots of places for these college students to learn scholarship.  What we could teach that would help them grow into leaders was something much harder to find in the university. Here is what I think are the most important things we aimed to teach:

  1. Woody Allen was right when he said showing up is 80% of success.  Show up, show up on time, show up prepared, engage with others and you are already ahead of the game
  2. Know how to run a meeting.  Understand that the most important time in the meeting is almost always BEFORE the meeting occurs.
  3. Make sure people know why they are meeting and what is expected. Send out an agenda in advance. Touch base with people you expect to present.  Be prepared.  Arrange the space to facilitate the conversation.  Start and end on time.  Be skillful in parking distracting comments in a “parking lot”  for future discussion.
  4. Write down expectations, promises and commitments.  If it isn’t written down, it not likely to continue to exist.
  5. Only make promises you intend to keep.  George Martinez taught the class every year the importance of only promising things you expect to complete, being clear about the intended outcome and committing to a deadline.  Don’t say yes if you don’t intend to follow through on the action to which you are agreeing.  There are, of course, breakdowns all the time.  When there is a breakdown that gets in the way of keeping a promise, deal with it immediately and effectively.  Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
  6. How do you get centered inside yourself?  If we stand on one leg, it is easy to knock us off balance.  If we are confident, grounded, breathing in and out, it is still possible to knock us down but much harder.  I hoped I could help my students could learn not to be intimidated by others, not intimidated by finding themselves in unfamiliar circumstances or without answers.  We tried to help them become as comfortable living in questions as answers.
  7. People cannot read our minds.  We communicate with body language, written words and spoken words.  Learn to write and speaking effectively.  Appreciate the power of stories. Understand that people draw conclusions, which may or may not be true, by how we look and move.  Video yourself.  Watch and listen.  Then do it more effectively.
  8. Listen.  Really listen with interest and curiosity.  Listen without thinking about how you will respond.  Listen as if you believe the other person, no matter his or her background, has something of use to give you.  If that person seems nuts, ask yourself how you would have to think or feel to speak his words.
  9. Whatever you do, make sure you would be comfortable if it showed up on the front page of morning’s newspaper.  Think about whether if the same principle you are applying were to be applied to you, your partner or your children in a different context, you would consider it just.

Sure, we taught leadership theory.  We encouraged our students to take an accounting course.  We taught teamwork. We talked about being ahead of the curve, about followership, about courage and about being grounded in fact.  We started classes in entrepreneurship and creativity. We organized summer mentorships. We emphasized that you couldn’t be a leader any more than you could be an athlete.  You have to be an athlete in particular sports and you have to be a leader in something of content. That means you need to know some facts as well as having general capacities.  Ignorance is not a good basis for leadership in any sector.

I don’t know what happens in the program today, but I continue to believe that these seven simple things go a long way towards helping people move their visions forward and encouraging others to join them. I believed then and I still believe it is more useful to learn these seven principles than to try to emulate whoever is the leader du jour.

In coaching work, I came to believe that my greatest utility was helping clients uncover and articulate the assumptions that led them to act in certain ways.  We could focus on actions but until people came to grips with what led then to act in ways that made them less effective, the actions seldom stuck.

I loved coaching with people who really wanted to do the work and grow.  It was less satisfying when clients were sent by employers and did not begin our work thinking it could be of value. Sometimes, we made progress, but it was always harder.

It is really a privilege when competent, capable people trust you with their fears and hopes and want to struggle with you to grow more fully into their best selves.  Sometimes that is not the self the employer wants and it is useful to understand and appreciate the divergence, even if one is not able, in the moment, to change his or her situation.