Appreciative Leadership

ai vs prob

The problem with becoming known as a good “problem solver” is that you get really good at looking at situations as, well, problems!   Your focus is on what has failed.   Your goal is to correct, save, or restore a broken system to a state where it will again provide acceptable results.  You get a reputation as the “fixer,” and are dispatched again and again to solve different problems.  Where is the fun in that?

There is a better way to contribute to organizations.

David Cooperrider invented Appreciative Inquiry when he was a graduate student studying Organizational Development at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1980’s.  You can read all about him, and the AI Movement, at  (The work he began with Professor Suresh Srivastva transformed me and my leadership research.  I cited their initial work in my 1990 dissertation when I posited that having dialogue rather than debate can help groups work together to come to better decisions.)

I have continued to follow AI in the ensuing 25 years, and unabashedly say the reason coaching works is because the inquiry of the coach uncovers the wisdom in the leader.  Appreciative Inquiry is the underpinning of Positive Psychology, a theoretical foundation in the Coaching Profession, and is essential in understanding the impact of language in the field of Neuroscience.

Here is why Appreciative Inquiry matters for leaders:

  • Appreciative Inquiry has a positive core:  it focuses on the strengths and peak experiences in an organization.  AI focuses on the best of what is, and then stretches further to imagine the ideal future state.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is co-creative:  Rather than one “Mr. Fixit,” with AI everyone can be involved in the discovery, the dream, the design, and the destiny of the ideal state of the organization.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is generative:  with a focus on “what works,” a leader is aligned towards new possibilities for the organization.

You don’t have to wait for an AI intervention in your organization to benefit from this approach.  Simply shifting your focus from seeking problems to seeking what works well has an immediate, positive, and generative effect:  on you, on your group, and on your effectiveness.  Have at it!



May is a great month.  Here in New England, winter’s grip is finally loosened and spring bursts forth.  The earth is resplendent with trees budding and flowers blooming.  Bears emerge from hibernation, and songbirds return.  Adding to these natural festivities (at least in this college town) are college commencements.  Graduations are achieved after the sheer determination and hard work of 8 or more semesters.

When I was younger, I always thought “commencement” was such an odd word.  My sense was we were celebrating what has (finally) been completed!  Commencement, of course, means to begin.  This focus on moving forward is essential.  No successful person is “done learning” when she or he graduates.  Understanding that learning is a life-long commitment is a powerful differentiator among people.  To value learning is to cultivate it at every opportunity.  To value learning means your life is enriched, and you enrich the lives of others, too.

One person who holds learning as one of his core values is Ken Blanchard.  Today, we celebrate Ken’s 75th birthday.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY KEN!  Thank you for your example of life-long learning.  Your curiosity, coupled with your interest in sharing your learnings, has truly unleashed “the greater good” in hundreds of thousands of leaders all over the world.

It is a happy concurrence to have Ken’s birthday during “commencement season.”  We can pause to recall our past opportunities for learning, and be grateful for all of them.  Moreover, we can assess the ways in which we continue to learn.  Mostly, today we can commit to ways we can increase these learning opportunities:  for ourselves, and for others.

Happy Commencement!

Managerial Courage



What does it take to be able to say what needs to be said, when it needs to be said, and to whom it must be said? Managerial Courage. This leadership competency is an essential topic for leadership development programs, and is a central focus for many executive coaching initiatives.

I’ve recently been coaching two leaders who’ve been identified as possessing “high potential” for advancement in their organization. In assessing which leadership competencies they must develop, each leader, along with their respective bosses, has aligned on the topic Managerial Courage. But that is where the similarities end! When asked, each leader defines the stuff of managerial courage differently. And each of their bosses do, too.

Listening to each, I hear assorted aspects of what is to be achieved through our coaching:

  • To respond more swiftly in real time (because they are over-thinking and staying silent)
  • To trust they will be listened to when speaking (because they are accustomed to NOT talking)
  • To believe their contributions are “legitimate” (because they over-value others, and under-value their own contributions)
  • To learn to be uncomfortable, and more visible (because they have become too comfortable in familiar spaces)
  • To behave more authentically (because they hide behind their positions and titles)

Discomfort abounds when a leader has to “get out of a comfort zone,” and that’s ok. However, anxieties increase when leaders fear “managerial courage” means they have to change their essence. I assure them they do NOT have to trade their stripes for spots! Their essence is who they are—and our coaching is to have them increase their own knowledge of who they are, what matters to them, why, and why that should matter to the people in their workplace. Courage begets courage—and the etymology of the word says it all—it comes from the heart.

The first step to increase managerial courage isn’t to “just do” the things I’ve bulleted above.  The first step to increase managerial courage calls on the leader to examine his or her heart, and see what really matters. The second step is to share it.  Heart speaks to heart.

Get Your Needs Met

What is the benefit in the need to pretend that one has no needs? Huh? The energy spent in pretending we have no needs is astonishing. But, sadly, it can be seen every day at work and at home. Let’s just cut to the core of the matter:

  • All humans have needs (ask Abraham Maslow if you don’t believe me)
  • The idea of being called “needy” is terrifying to most adults
  •  Many of us were raised to be embarrassed by our needs, so therefore we may deny their very existence
  •  Even if we have denied the needs, our unconscious will drive our behavior to get them met…and this wreaks havoc—on us, and those around us
  •  Guess what? Everyone else can see our needs anyway!
  •  It’s “cleaner” to identify each need and get it met appropriately, than to deny it

Since we were little, all of us have had encounters with rude, whiny, and demanding people. Our parents and teachers have pronounced that these folks are SELFISH. The lesson? “I don’t want to ever be talked about like that.” So, we proceed through life, ignoring, denying and dismissing our needs.
The punch line, though, is the needs do not go away. Psychologist Linda Berens notes that when needs are not met, an “individual is drained of energy and suffers dissatisfaction or stress.”  Taking the responsibility to get one’s own needs identified and then satisfied is the opposite of being needy!  It will renew your energy and remove your stress.

Here’s just such an example:
I coached a vice president of sales who had been enjoying great success in attaining her sales goals, but found herself feeling increasingly fussy and uninspired. Her frustrations were spilling out in work meetings and around her kitchen table, too. In questioning her about her activities, I learned that she is a master gardener. However, over the years, she had pruned back her time in the garden because of the demands from work. A-ha! In our coaching work, we were able to identify her unmet needs: to create beauty, order, and to be a master. She realized that returning to the garden would meet those needs in a more satisfactory way than expecting her sales force or children to meet them for her. Within weeks, her team noted that she was less prickly and more developmental in her leadership.
Returning to the garden suitably met a number of her needs…but she deserved to have ALL of her needs met. I asked her to consider where else her need for order could be satisfied. So, she decided to institute a family calendar in the kitchen, and the children chose their own color for the markers which would signify their disparate activities. She also concluded that the need to be a master is more graciously attained in the garden than in her book club.

How about you?
Think about a recent time when you found yourself behaving in a way you really can’t explain or disregard. Now, grab your pencil and start answering the following questions:

  • What was your behavior?
  • What need was not getting met?
  • What did it cost you in the eyes of others?
  • If this need were met, how would you conduct yourself?
  • Who can help you to get this need met?


ImageI cancelled my cable service a few weeks ago—I just don’t watch much TV and it was silly to continue this monthly expense. 

I was asked “Why?” when I called the cable provider to cancel.  I was asked “Why?” when I drove to the service center to return my cable box.  I was asked “Why?” again via a customer service automated phone survey two days after my trip to the service center.

Today, I was phoned by a real person employed by a survey company hired by my former cable provider to again answer the question “Why?” did I cancel my cable.  Now, in every instance I was asked additional questions beyond the initial “Why?”  While in my first encounter I was asked only about five questions, by today the interview script had swelled to at least 20 questions.  Although the repetitiveness of the “Why?” question remained, it ceased to be the predominant reason for the surveys.  Instead, “what was your experience with the [most recent] service representative?” had become the real focus.    

Now, of course it is a pretense to be asked about my (non)use of a service as a guise to collect feedback on a customer service representative interaction.  But this was getting silly—every time they engaged me, they had to re-engage me to inquire about my most recent experience with them!

So, all you customer service folks who value the collection of feedback for your representatives, PLEASE consider what it does to the customers whom you’ve ensnared in a Mobius loop!

But that is just an aside…the purpose of this blog is to tell you what happened after I talked to the person today.  She was actually amazed that I had taken the call (between bites of my lunch, but she didn’t know that).  After the twentieth question, she summed up with:  “Would you mind responding to one more call?  My supervisor may call you to be sure that I actually had conducted this interview.”

Wow.  Ken Blanchard has built his company espousing the value of catching people doing things right.  This was exactly the opposite!

So here are some questions I offer for your consideration:

  • In your communications, are you treating the other person as a data mine? 
  • How would it differ if you treated her or him as a real person? 
  • Are you clear in what you are seeking?
  • Are you focused on what is working well? 
  • Are you building trust, or playing “gothcha!” with your questions? 
  • Are you truly sharing feedback, or are you manipulating one circumstance to justify questions for another circumstance? 
  • Do you mean it when you say “thank you” to the other?

And trust me, I won’t have your supervisor follow up on whether you answered the above questions or not!

You have all the answers

The reality about coaching is that the client does the work.   A great coach creates an environment that illuminates truth for the person being coached, and a really great coach “stays out of the way” by caring enough to state what is observed and by avoiding judgment.   The coach doesn’t create the solution.  The answer emerges from the client because it was there all along!

Have you ever yearned to find a blog that answers and affirms the quest you are on?  Let’s treat this blog post as just such.

Sincerely ask yourself the following questions, and give yourself the time to allow the answers to emerge:

  • What is the resolution you seek?
  • What change is required on your part?
  • What do you have to stop doing?
  • What must you begin doing, or do differently?
  • Who is involved?
  • Who can support you in this?
  • How will you know you’ve completely addressed this?
  • How will you honor the fact that you’ve completely handled this?

Congratulations on creating your own caring environment to get to the heart of what matters.


Left Behind


People leave. In the past few weeks, I’ve said farewell to a wonderful family in our neighborhood who has moved across the country for a work opportunity. I’ve packed up and kissed goodbye my Collegian as she sets up in an apartment in the Hub. I came to work one day to learn a close colleague had left our company. And, I’ve been visiting as much as I can my beloved sister-in-law as she endures the final stage of her terminal illness.

Coaching is about “purposeful action.” However, I am feeling like things are happening to me, or in spite of me—not because I have chosen these departures. It is hard to be left behind!

The purpose of this blog is to examine that truth: it is hard to be left behind. There is sadness, there is hurt. There of course can be happiness, especially when someone is launching out in the fulfillment of their dreams, but the one “left behind” feels the departure differently. And when there is abrupt change, or imminent death, there is grief.

The coaching opportunity for the one left behind is to take care. I need to seek out and fortify my environment with caring others. I need to identify and respect my feelings in the wake of all these departures. I need to allow time to assist me–instead of me “squeezing” everything I can out of time!

A coach approach afforded me the realization that because it is this hard for me, it is likely hard for others who are left behind, too. Therefore, I need to be more gentle, and more attentive, to others too.  That is the purposeful action which is required when one is left behind:  care.



What is the most important element for success?  Good leadership from your boss?  The right resources?  Direction?  Support?  Autonomy?  Intrinsic motivation?  Optimism? Resilience?

All of the above matter, of course.  However, research  psychologist Roy Baumeister unequivocally answers that the most important element for success is  self-control.  Self-control is what keeps us on track.  Self-control reminds us that we have choices.  Self-control is something we are told to learn in childhood and many of us continue to work on every day!

Basically, self-control is what helps us look beyond immediate frustration or perceived loss, and look to the future benefit.  This keeps us “on track” to achieve success.

Our brains are wired to react to perceived danger.  (You can read more on neuroscience in earlier Coaching Source blogs by Madeleine Blanchard.)  Self-control can allow us to “wait out” the immediate reaction to danger and its corresponding focus on loss, pain and blame.  With self control, we can influence our mind to determine a better result.  How?  By asking what positive attributes are in this circumstance?

Most importantly, when you shift your mind’s focus from negative to positive, you shift your physical and emotional state, too.   Focusing on the benefits of any circumstance, creating images of hope and possibility are not just important for your success—they are critical for your team, too!   Helping others to focus on what can be (instead of what cannot happen) can influence  your team to shift to a “possibilities” focus.

“You always have a choice about where you put your focus.  Learning to use that choice is part of leadership development.”  (p 139,Care to Dare, Kohlrieser, Goldsworthy and Coombe, 2012.)

Work that “choice muscle” and you will remain on the path to success!


In work and at home, we can plan well, we can try our best, and still the unforeseen may arise.  This blog isn’t about that.

No, instead, I’d like you to get honest, and examine any recurring negative circumstances you’ve been experiencing lately.  Perhaps some of these fit your bill:

  • Not prepared for a meeting you KNEW about?
  • Didn’t allocate enough time to arrive at a venue?
  • Didn’t exercise, even though you said you would?
  • Run out of ink, then paper, for your home printer?
  • Not enough gas in your car?
  • No milk, AGAIN?

I consider these “whack-a-mole” troubles.  You whack one trouble and another one pops up.  And then another!  Troubles become your focus, not your real plan.  Whack-a-mole is a fun game at an arcade, or on your tablet, but living it day in and day out is exhausting!  It keeps you from addressing what really matters and distracts you with urgent annoyance.

As a carpenter would say, “measure twice, cut once.”  Follow the sage advice!  Dedicating time to review your calendar, assess your resources, and honestly measure your hours in the day will prevent whack-a-mole troubles from popping up.

Save whack-a-mole for entertainment, not stress!

Spring Cleaning

Everyone has incomplete projects.  Perhaps it is sorting the recycling from last year.  Cleaning the storage area.  Fixing the bicycle. Submitting the expense report.  The question is:  is there a reason it is incomplete, (i.e. you have scheduled time to do it, with a plan for an end date) or is it just not done?

In addition to projects, it is normal to have unresolved matters, too.  Relationships require both give and take from both parties.  But…well, you know what I am going to ask.  Have you done what YOU can do regarding the unresolved situation?  Or are you just walking around it, wishing it would go away, or holding your breath that the “issue” at least stays dormant until you get somewhere else?

Carrying around old, unresolved matters and incomplete projects takes a lot of your energy.  I contend that it takes much more than you’ve allowed yourself to realize!  Imagine an old resentment as a 5 lb bag of flour you are carrying around.  And the unpainted hallway, the phone calls you owe, the un-filed taxes, the clothes strewn across the floor are each a 5 lb sack to carry, too.  Imagine all your other “incompletions” too, and how each is an additional 5 lb bag.  Envision how you have to maneuver with these bags. Perhaps you need to tie them together, hoist them from one arm to the other. You need to repair some if you’ve dragged them on the ground for a long time, since they are starting to tear. You’re carrying a lot…do you need to get a wagon?  You have to stop to rest, frequently, from the weariness of the weight, but invariably, you still keep adding more bags.  Ugh.

You can develop the skills to clean it all up, completely.  The ultimate goal is to be clean and clear, so that you may fully handle new situations as they occur.  Don’t you want the benefit of more time, more space and more energy?

Make a list of all your incompletions…from home, from work, and in your relationships, too.  Consider your environments (house, car, office):  what is undone?  What’s incomplete in your activities (membership dues?  Car pool schedule?)  Think about your well-being (how new is that toothbrush?  When was the last time you had a checkup?)

One concept that completely captivated me when I began my coach training over a dozen years ago is the distinction between doing something 95% and doing it 100%. The extra oomph is significant!  The satisfaction of completely handling a project or an issue is worth reveling in.  Try it yourself.  Rather than attempting to do a little bit of some of the things on your incompletion list, do one COMPLETELY.

  • Be thorough.  Imagine what it would take to not only complete the task, but to ensure it won’t recur for a long time.  What is required?
  • Delight yourself.  Sometimes, to be sure, “done is better than not done.”  But for this exercise, do it to delight yourself!  If you’re sorting your vintage collection of vinyl records, what order would delight YOU? Alpha, or by artist?  By year, or by genre?  Go ahead, completely delight yourself!
  • Make it permanent.  Is what you’re doing to clean up this past unresolved issue a “quick fix,” or can it be repeated and systematized?  Choose to create a system of success!