Effective leaders master the C-suite competencies: setting strategic direction; communicating an inspiring mission; understanding financial data; planning and coordinating resources; and ensuring that processes, systems and people achieve results.
Most leadership-development efforts focus on these responsibilities, but they’re ultimately insufficient. Great leaders must address the inner game of leadership.
The inner game consists of character traits like honesty, passion, vision, risk-taking, compassion, courage, authenticity, collaboration, self-awareness, humility, intuition and wisdom. The concept first became popular 15 to 20 years ago. Sports coach and consultant Tim Gallwey coined the term in The Inner Game of Golf, The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Work, and his ideas have proved to be timeless.
Inner Mastery Required
The results that we produce in the outer world are driven by what goes on inside our heads. The mental models we create for ourselves are based on our own limited experiences, often-erroneous beliefs and even fears.
When we learn to change our thinking by improving our inner game, we modify our behaviors and the results we achieve.
A fear of failure, for example, interferes with your ability to take risks. You may wait until you have enough data to assure certainty. But in today’s business world, waiting for certainty may mean missing the boat. When you avoid risk and play it too safe, you fall victim to missed opportunities.
Coaching the Right Stuff
Professional leadership coaching is the most effective way to approach leadership development, coupled with robust assessments and feedback surveys.
Even the most conservative estimates show a 500%–700% return on investment from leadership coaching (Price Waterhouse, ICF study). But coaching success depends on the relationship between leader and coach. The coaching relationship must provide a secure environment to explore character strengths and beliefs.
Whether applied to sports or work, the inner game is where we begin to understand ourselves and make key changes. The concept is neither new nor particularly revolutionary, but based on a profound concept: focusing attention without judgment. When you learn to observe behavior (your own and others’) without criticism, you’ll start to see where change is possible.
The Coach as Nonjudgmental Partner
Some communication skills, like listening and observing, are automatic and unconscious. Everyone knows how to do them. Yet, we don’t always listen and observe well, without judgment—a requirement for achieving desirable outcomes from conversations.
Leaders experience ineffective conversations all the time. When people don’t respond to their suggestions as delivered, they’re repeated louder or with different words. The outcome is resistance.
Few people enjoy being told what to do, especially when the boss is critical or judgmental. As a leader with authority, you’ll be perceived as controlling and dictatorial. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned you may be.
Battle of the Two Selves
In his books on the inner game, Gallwey introduces the idea of Self 1 and Self 2. These “selves” exist in everyone, whether we’re giving or receiving a message. Self 1 is the “big ego”: the know-it-all. Self 1 is judgmental, concerned with winning, being right and showing off.
Self 2 is the wise one—the real human being with inherent potential, including the ability to learn, grow and enjoy life.
When we act from Self 2, we are receptive and neutral. We observe and listen without any preconceived ideas. We are relaxed, focused, and able to take in and use information. We trust ourselves to make appropriate decisions. We extend trust to others because we act from a place of security and safety.
Self 1 doesn’t trust. It acts from a place of insecurity and fear because it’s always judging itself and others, while focusing on being right and winning. Self 1 uses pressure and high standards to get the most out of itself and others. Because Self 1 doesn’t trust natural abilities, it’s critical and stressed.
Guess which Self interferes with high performance? In everything from sports and music to work and relationships, Self 1’s stress and anxiety prevent high-performance results. With worry and lost confidence, we think about too many things at once, we tighten up, and we hit the ball into the net.
It’s a vicious cycle—one that the inner game urges us to circumvent. Doing so involves nothing more than observing nonjudgmentally. Don’t change anything for a while. Just observe yourself talking, listening and doing. Become acutely aware of feelings and responses. Nothing more. Just watch and learn.
The Growth Mindset of an Effective Leader
Some leaders focus almost exclusively on performance. Others emphasize growth and learning, as well as results. In a horse race, put your money on the leader who defines both learning and performance goals.
Learning goals include:
Performance goals are, of course, necessary for achieving bottom-line results. But keep in mind that the bar is constantly being raised. How do you keep increasing your capacity to perform? If you cannot improve your capabilities, you’re unable to keep up.
Performance vs. Learning Goals
Ask yourself these questions to refine your goals:
Follow these steps to expand your inner game:
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