Habits Make All the Difference

The promise was books that rocked my coaching practice that are off the beaten path. OK, so maybe this one isn’t that original, and I must have stumbled on  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey in Barnes and Noble because I can’t remember who recommended it.   But I have to say that from the day I read this book, I changed some habits that utterly altered the trajectory of my life.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that when I started doing what  Covey said (and let’s be clear, not everything, just a few things made a huge difference) my business took off, my household became more orderly and calm and my quality of life shot up.  I developed a reputation for being freakishly productive.  I feel that almost every other “self-help” book that came after this one simply fleshed out some of the good ideas that were here in the first place.  

In the section called Put First Things First, the 4 box quadrant probably made the biggest impact on me.  The idea is that we all can put every single thing we do into one of the four quadrants. 

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important QUADRANT I
crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects
prevention, Principle Centered  activities, relationship building, recognizing and leveraging new opportunities, planning the future, recreation
Not important QUADRANT III
interruptions, some calls, some mail, some reports, some meetings, popular activities
trivia, busy work, some mail, some  phone calls time wasters, pleasant activities

The ones who spend the bulk of their time doing things in the “important” quadrants are simply going to have a much higher life satisfaction quotient.   This very concrete model gave me the courage to say no to things that did not fall into the Quadrants I or II.  Today, I let people assume I am extremely busy (everybody does) and if pressed I will admit that I am no busier than anyone else, just extremely focused on what is most important to me and ferociously choosy about what I focus on.  Don’t tell anyone.

Learn to Love Chaos

The second book in my series on books that knocked my socks off and made an appreciable impact on my coaching practice:  Leadership and The New Science

In the early 90’s I was having lunch with a friend and mentor Alex Caillet and I asked him what one book would make the biggest difference for me and he recommended Meg Wheatley’s Leadership and The New Science.  One of the things I had noticed working with clients is that they were desperate for answers.  The right answers.  Of course, as a coach, it was not my job to be the truth dispenser with all of the right answers.  But I did feel an obligation to help clients articulate a set of internal values that they could use to make decisions no matter what the situation.  But I was still at a loss for a set of Universal Laws that were consistent, were not beholden to any particular world view or religious law.  I kept coming back to quantum physics – there had been a recent splash in the news about complexity theory and I had been noodling on how to apply those laws to regular life and work for my clients.  Well – Meg beat me to it, and what an amazing job she did.  Her breakthrough book made a huge impact on me and in the business world at the time, but as happens with many great books, it has fallen out of circulation.  I say, it is time to bring it back.  Some of the earth shaking concepts:

  • Order will naturally emerge out of chaos.  You have to be patient and order will come naturally from within.  Good leaders accept occasional chaos as a revitalizing and renewing step.
  • Relationships are the only things that matter- it is critical to develop a diversity of relationships.
  • Information is the organizing force in the universe; it is the life blood of any system.  If it is not flowing freely, the system will not self organize properly.
  • Vision is an invisible field and it is the leader’s job to hold this field.

Is that all?  Isn’t that enough?  Going back to re-read this book to create this blog post, it has once again rocked my world. 

Click here for a terrific, oldie but goodie interview with Meg Wheatley

PS I think it is important to give credit to whomever introduces us to great books.  The person who introduced me to the Angeles Arrien book mentioned in the previous post is an old, dear friend Belle Linda Halpern, founding partner of The Ariel Group.

Unexpected Inspiration

In my mentoring of coaches and coaching practitioners in organizations I am often asked what my influences have been, so I thought it would be fun to do a short series about the books that have rocked my world as a coach.  Not the obvious ones, the books that are not necessarily on the beaten paths and the coaching school reading lists.  Over the next few weeks I will share some of my favorite books with a short review of their key messages. 

 To get us off to a brilliant start for 2012, I will tell you a little about The Four Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary by Angeles Arrien.  Arrien is an anthropologist who travelled and lived among indigenous peoples and studied change agents – all of whom draw on the power and wisdom of the 4 archetypes in the title.  What she found was that no matter what their culture – peace loving or warlike,  maternal vs. patriarchal, agrarian or nomadic – all of the effective leaders follow roughly the same four principles which comprise the Four Fold Way. 

  1. Show up and choose to be present (Warrior)
  2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning (Healer)
  3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment (Visionary)
  4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome (Teacher)

I have been using these principles personally as a self leader, and experimenting with them with clients for over 15 years.  They have proved to have astonishing staying power and have supported those who wish to build personal power, be more effective with groups, and increase their coaching skill.  Most fine leaders are not as well rounded as they might be, and find very little inspiration in competency models to articulate their gaps and create a real plan to close them.  This model provides another angle and I have found that the principles work regardless of religious conviction or cultural background.

Have Some Fun in 2012

I posted this in 2009 and guess what?  I am still having more fun than most people I know.   So cheers to all of us.

At the last turn of the decade I made three resolutions:

1. I don’t stand in line

2. I only drink very good champagne

3. I only fly Business Class

12 years later, I haven’t done too badly. I have stayed pretty focused on avoiding things I hate (lines, cheap booze headaches and being smooshed in with strangers), thereby increasing my quality of life substantially. Resolutions #1 and 3 required a long term plan involving joining every frequent flyer program known to man, replacing all of my credit cards with ones that collect airline miles and sweet talking clients into paying for my folly. And the more special the airlines deem you, the fewer lines you have to stand in. If I have to stand in line to check my coat, I keep it on. There is always another bathroom in the airport – one with no line. I conveniently grew a little long in the tooth for nightclubs. I grocery shop in the morning. I do all my postal stuff online. I have to admit in fact that the internet has been a substantial help in my line standing boycott. The economy has messed with my grand Business Class plan, but although I still stand in the occasional line and often still fly coach, I can pretty much guarantee that in 10 more years I will not be. That’s the problem with New Year’s Resolutions – we’re aiming way too low. We tend to go for the things we think we should want, not the things we really want. Here is the way to win at New Year’s Resolutions: 1. Set a goal that will make you blissfully, stupidly happy if you get even close to it. I may not fly Business Class every time (only when the client will pay or I can upgrade with miles), but I can tell you that I appreciate every moment when I do. 2. Make it a goal that doesn’t require you to work too hard, give up something you love or magically wake up with a personality transplant. This is a sure path to failure. 3. Reach for something fun, indulgent, extravagant. Let it feel a little absurd – why not? Just want it with all you heart. Don’t judge your heart’s desire as being shallow and selfish – if it will make you happy you’ll be a nicer person. I don’t have the research to back up that statement, but you have to admit it sounds right. 4. Set your big yummy goal – don’t limit it to a year – and then plan for it. Do something small every day or once a week. I had a client who put every five dollar bill that came to her in a can for her a trip to Fiji. She was mercilessly mocked by her friends. She also played the air miles credit card game. It took a really long time, but she made it. I still have the postcard. Here is the way to lose at New Years Resolutions: 1. Resolve to do something you have already failed at several times. Change nothing about your previous approach, just state that you will have more will power this time. 2. Resolve to do something that fills you with dread or terror. Or worse: boredom. 3. Resolve to do something that you have no idea how to do and then don’t get any support or direction from anyone.

Make life fun again in 2012 – really, why not?

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About Change

There are probably six excellent change theories and models, and hundreds of books.   Here are a couple of little factoids about the human brain that just cuts to the chase on this topic:

  1.    People can only really focus on one big goal at a time.  Setting another goal will most likely cancel out the original goal (Rock).


2. Change is hard for everyone and really really hard for some, because it literally sets off alarm bells in the brain (Rock and Schwartz).  When navigating a change, take more time than you think should be needed, set up systems for people to have conversations about the change to process it. People need time and coaching to relate, repeat and reframe (Deutschman) their thinking about the changes expected of them.  Be ready to be talking about the change long after you have become bored to death with it.

As Peter Senge so advises: 

  • Start small
  • Grow steadily
  • Don’t plan everything and
  • Expect challenges.

Image by Paul Brentnall

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders – 7

Many people have an intuitive sense about how sensitive people are to their own and others’ status.  Some are oblivious. BUT…it is critical that you be mindful of your people’s status.  People need to know where they stand, and will respond well when treated appropriately in terms of their status (Rock) (Zinc et al). 

People who feel that their status has not been fully recognized will also feel a damaging sense of unfairness which  will negatively impact how they feel about their work environment far beyond what might seem rational (Tabibnia).  When people act like lunatics, before you judge them,  check first to see if someones’ place in the hierarchy has been threatened.  Don’t upset the cupcakes, unless you mean to.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About False Consensus

You will vastly overestimate what people know, for example, your take on the current context or your reasoning for a specific course of action,   assuming that others know what you know and see what you see; this is called False Consensus (Ross et al).  Remember this when explaining the nuts and bolts of your vision, strategy and goals.  Become accustomed to seeing the world differently from others, and defining reality as you see it regularly, more than you think you should need to (Senge).

Stan Slap once said “Most leaders would just get where they’re going by themselves and send a postcard if they could.”  Don’t try it, it won’t work.  Stand at the front, hold the map aloft and keep explaining again and again.  Long past the point when you are bored.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders About Feedback

Feedback:  The never ending mystery! Here is yet another installment in the series on what we have to learn about Leadership from the study of neuroscience.


  1. Hire for Feedback Orientation. Individuals, who have feedback orientation like feedback, believe it has value, seek it regularly, have the wherewithal to process feedback with and without help, are sensitive to others’ view of themselves and generally feel accountable to act on feedback (London and Smither).  Ask yourself about your own feedback orientation?  Are you a role model for asking for and receiving feedback?

2.   Build a culture in which feedback is natural and given in the moment.   A culture of feedback is :

“…one where individuals continuously receive, solicit, and use formal and informal feedback to improve their job performance.  This may be linked to effective policies and programs for performance management, continuous learning and career development. The individual’s feedback orientation depends in part on the support and climate for learning.  The more frequent the feedback and the closer it follows the behavior in question, the more likely it is to be accepted.  The more support [from you the leader] for learning and development, including the availability of behaviorally-oriented feedback, the more the individual is likely to develop a positive orientation toward feedback. ” (London and Smither)

3. People who have sustained a great deal of trauma are going to have a very hard time distinguishing a real threat from a potential one (Rock).  This means that workers who go through rounds of layoffs and are not given new information to raise their levels of certainty will most probably become less and less able to receive any critical feedback.  Only people working in an environment where they feel safe will be open to learning, be more likely to have insights and be generally more creative and productive (Gordon).


Image from Grant Cochrane

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders 4

A new installment in the series on what we have to learn about leadership from the study of neuroscience.

Fear is bad for Business:

Well, it’s true.  We suspected that it was, but now we know for sure.  No one gets smarter when they are afraid.  Living in an environment of constant threat erodes creativity and cognitive ability (Phelps) (Gordon).


Expectations have real power.  The disappointment of expectations feels much worse to people than simply not liking events or policies when something happens.  If an employee has an expectation of a reward or promotion that is not met, the brain feels just terrible.   It is critical to manage expectations carefully to avoid people feeling awful and taking it out on each other or even more likely, your customers (Rock).

Image from IdeaGo

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders 3

1.  The division between thoughts and feelings is in fact an artificial one. From a brain standpoint they are  indistinguishable (Phelps). The best ways to understand what you are thinking and feeling is to make time to reflect upon them, (Ochsner et al) and use language to label them (Lieberman et al). This means you will need a trusted advisor who will listen to you, e.g.: get a coach if you don’t already have one.

 2.  Habits are driven by the unconscious.  Some are useful, some are not.  It serves you well to notice your habits, examine each one and choose whether or not you want to allow it to continue (Rock).