The Perfection of Imperfection – A Lesson from Japan

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Cover picture of book by James and Sandra Crowley

It seems as though in the USA we want everything to be perfect. We do this in part to feel good about our work or person. However, the perfect home, body, project, and relationship is impossible in the real world.

Everything has its flaws and that fact alone can potentially enhance the quality of our lives.

The perfection of imperfection came to mind as I recently was introduced to the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi.

The Japanese people have a preference and penchant for things imperfect.

Take the celebration of the full moon. Instead of the ceremony being on the day of the actual full moon, it is held three days before the full moon appears. Authors James and Sandra Crowley, in their book on Wabi Sabi writes of the Japanese

“They find the imperfect not only more alluring but also more poignant. The Japanese believe that the evocative shapes of emerging buds have more ability to touch peoples’ hearts than the glory of the spring tree in full bloom.”

 And,

 “Wabi Sabi is not found in nature’s moments of grandeur or majesty. It is found in meekness.”

 The adoption of the Japanese appreciation of imperfection can teach us top,

  1. Lower our disappointment level

When my son was a toddler, he refused to accept a cookie if it was broken in any way. Now while we may accept such an behavior in a small child, in the adult world perfection is a creation of our mind. We always fall short of our ideal. As we aim at excellence we need to factor in imperfection. This helps us recalibrate our life when barriers and problems arise. It is the old “when life presents you with lemons, make lemonade”.. When we see imperfection as the norm, it sets the stage for our,

  1. Imagination to be stimulated

An incomplete moon can remind us that life presents us with partial knowledge. And incompleteness presents the possibility of new vistas ahead. As the Crowleys write,

“The perfection of the full moon leaves no room for the imagination”

The ambiguity of saying “I don’t know” is a more honest response than a person, in their arrogance, claiming complete knowledge. This “not knowing” is not a failure on our part. Rather, it presents the potential for us to push ahead into new territory. It could be the beginning of us

  • Making an honest statement about the limitations of our knowledge
  • Recognizing the mystery contained in the “big” questions we encounter
  • Experiencing the true nature of humility
  • Knowing the power of the “what if’s” in life.

At the point of admitting partial knowledge, we could be experiencing the ultimate paradox in life where,

 The end of our knowing may be the beginning of new creative adventures.

  1. Find inner peace

Wabi sabi also helps us not freak out when we have everything from a less than perfect body to business plan. We have all experienced the inner turmoil when things did not turn out as expected. But finding beauty and meaning in incompleteness can be the path of peace.

The Crowleys write,

“Wabi sabi is for those who are at peace with themselves and want to feel the peace of the natural world around them at all times.”

The Japanese aesthetic of the perfection of imperfection has the potential of restoring harmony, balance, peace, and our experience of the true nature of beauty. We also learn that these experiences cannot be fully explained but can be totally experienced. It also teaches us about the value of asymmetry rather than living with the illusion that we have “all our ducks in a row”. In other words

We discover the liberation of not having to be in control

 Question

 How could you find Wabi sabi helpful in your world?

 

 

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Aim for Imperfection – A Letter to a Perfectionist

 

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Dear (name of perfectionist)

This is a tough letter for me to write because we have talked about your perfectionism so many times. However, I want to start on a compassionate note. I sense how difficult it is for you to accept anything less than perfection in your life. I also know how you grew up in a very punitive family where you came to believe that unless you were perfect you would be severely criticized. However, in your present situation you,

Have difficulty in meeting deadlines due to the fact that you seek to have 100% of the data before you make a decision. 

o Are so hard on yourself like when you forgot to attend an important meeting. I continually heard you say things like “How could I be so stupid to miss that meeting?”

The advice I have often given like “Get it done and not perfect” and “see yourself as breaking glass (a messy process)” seems to have fallen on deaf ears. However, things have reached the point where your boss is at his wits end with your missed deadlines and your life-partner throws up his hands in frustration.

I want to share some resources that I, a recovering perfectionist, have found to be useful.

1.  Explore the roots of your perfectionism

I found it very helpful to gain deeper insights about my own condition to consult with an experienced psychotherapist. She did not judge me, fully understood my feelings, and gave me a safe environment to explore some of my own painful memories of the past. I came to see that the “script” given to me by my family and culture (e.g. you are not loveable if you are not perfect”) had absolutely nothing to do with what I really was. This discovery of the nature of the true self enabled me to slowly,

2.  Use the perceived failures as learning trials 

I know of a person who struggled with shyness and who avoided social situations. He was challenged to try the following at his next dance. “Go to the dance and ask at least 20 women to dance before you give up and leave.” Person number 16 accepted his invitation to dance and disproved his belief “nobody wants to dance with me”. It is always important not to have an “all or nothing” perspective on change. In regards to accepting failure as a part of life it is important to see that,

3.  Not everything you do has to be a magnum opus

I remember the time when you rally freaked out when you could not get an important memo to your boss exactly right. Do you think that she really cared that you dotted every i and crossed every t? Perfectionists have to learn not to catastrophize every perceived shortcoming. Now if you were developing a new parachute of course you would want no errors in your design. People’s lives would be at stake. Knowing when to be perfect and when to do it “good enough for government work” is a key point of wisdom we all need to acquire.

4.  Back off and regroup when progress is frustrated

I love what Maya Angelou said, “If there is pain in the path ahead of you and pain in the path behind you, change paths”. The act of finding a detour in the face of obstacles is not quitting but finding other options. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is a compulsive attitude of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” It keeps driving ahead even though the behavior may be counter productive.

There are no magic formulas, quick fixes, or easy ways out of your perfectionistic torture chamber. But rest assured, changes are possible.

All the best,

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Practice Makes Perfect?

Recently I sat next to a surgeon on the plane who asked me what I did. When I told him I worked as an executive coach and consultant he proclaimed, “I could do that easily”.

I must confess I had to suppress an impulse to say to the surgeon, “I can carve a turkey at Thanksgiving. I will assist in your next organ transplant”

It takes training, talent, and many hours of practice to master any complex skill like learning a language, improving one’s empathy, or becoming proficient in a profession. That fact alone should divest us of any instant credentialing hopes or sudden expert status.

Back to the need for practice. We have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”. But that is not really true.

Practice only makes permanent.

It depends what we practice.

We could be repeating the same mistakes over and over and all that happens is that the error becomes hardwired into our muscle memory.

Most leadership skills come from deliberate practice and seldom just from any innate talent or skill. Even though there are natural in-born talents like a great speaking voice or intellectual capabilities these also need to be nurtured and developed with training.

Here are the principles that line the route to excellence.

 Principle #1

Practice success.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement” and “You may be repeating the wrong moves”. Hence, you need to identify the best practices for the skill you seek to develop and make them an integral part of your learning.

 Lesson: Learn best practices for the skill you want to develop and practice them over and over.

Principle #2

The enemy of practice is a lack of humility.

 “To practice isn’t to declare I’m bad. To practice is to declare, I can be better.” – Doug Lemov.

The key to humility is recognizing that we did not devise the best practice ourselves. Our success usually stands on the shoulders of others.

 Lesson:  Discover the teachable spirit of the true student.

Principle #3

Practice the two or three things that will produce the greatest change.

A golf professional told a friend of mine after watching him practice for 30 minutes, “There are dozens of things I could tell you to do but I will coach you on two of them that will produce a significant change in your game”.

 Lesson: Try the 80/20 rule. 20% of your effort should produce an 80% improvement in your skill.

Principle #4

Practice success until it becomes second nature.

Repeat the success based behaviors over and over until they become encoded in your muscle memory. Eventually they become second nature for you to perform at a higher level.

Studies of players who miss shots under pressure and in a clutch demonstrate that they over think their shots. They need to let their encoded memories do the work.

Lesson: Get your mind out of the way.

Principle #5

Learning is best when it occurs in steady small steps.

It is too demoralizing to aim at 100% success right away. It is also important not to stop practicing when you feel you know your skill. This is how we all make the shift from being good at something to being great.

 Lesson: Become a lifelong learner.

So go ahead and reach for excellence. However, realize that it takes many hours of focused practice to become an overnight success.

And with that we say to the surgeon on my plane,

 “Dream on but stick to what you know!”

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When Heroes Fall

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Hardly a day goes by without us hearing of some hero that crashed and burned. With the tsunami of sexual harassment stories in recent days my first response to the reported incidents about Senator Al Franken’s  was, “OMG, not him. How could that be?”

What do we do when our heroes fall?

Instead of descending into disillusionment and becoming cynical about people (or ourselves) how can we learn from such painful experiences?

One big lesson I have learned is to beware of idealizing others. Nobody can sustain perpetual success. Take any Linkedin bio and try and imagine these stellar people without failure. Such reality testing keeps us from myth making.

Why is it so important to recognize that even the greatest amongst us have warts? Maybe because we

Unconsciously refuse to see such people for what they really are

Cover up for personal flaws 

Want to escape into the world of superhero saviors? 

Fuel the myth about our heroes because we avoid looking at their and our  feet of clay.

 But what are we to do with our own lapses in good judgment?

We can start by

  • Embracing the ever-present shadow self

The ego will always rear its ugly head as it seeks self-centered gratification. However, instead of descending into despair when we act on the prompting of our shadow, we need to learn to respond with self-deprecating humor, mercy, and forgiveness. We also need to face the consequences of our irresponsible acts.

  • Refusing to get into “bad mind” thinking

Whenever we stumble and fall in our relationships and career we can listen to the bad mind that tells us that we “don’t have what it takes”. I remember a neighbor telling me two decades ago after my painful divorce that maybe I was not the “marrying type.“ If I had accepted that “truth” about myself I would have fallen into a mental trap that would have excluded me from the happiest years of my life.

  • Learning to tap into our own inner wisdom 

We all have a wise inner self that is not always audible during tough times. What I have learned is that this heart knowledge speaks in a very soft and sometimes inaudible voice. Finding silent places in our selves, nature, and solitude helps us access this wisdom that whispers life-affirming truths to us. This voice also speaks to the possibility of redemption. It is also the most powerful antidote to all the naysayers and doomsday-thinkers that repeat the word “impossible”  to us.

  • Finding a balance between trusting others and expecting them to be human

The quest for balance involves that we take our heroes and ourselves with a “pinch of salt”. We recognize that no one leader or group has all of the answers we need all the time. Everyone crashes and burns and has feet of clay. However, that reality should not make us abandon our ideals that spur us towards our continued pursuit of excellence and expecting the best from our leaders.

Heroes fall for many reasons. At times it of their own doing (e.g. doping in sports).  But, in the end, it is how they recover from the fall that counts.

Recently at the Olympics in the men’s 10,000 meter race, Great Britain’s Farah Mo tripped and fell near the middle of the race. He got up, shook off the accident, and with the encouragement of his friend went on to a stunning victory.

 

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The Power of Intention

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“You are what your deepest desire is. As is your desire, so is your intention” – Ancient Vedic Text The Upanishads

What is it that you intend more than anything else in your life right now? And what is the driving force behind that intention? Perhaps you have a difficult time articulating your intention; however, you find that you:

Cannot stop thinking about a particular idea

Have had an “aha” moment that keeps haunting you

Feel inspired by others who have traveled a similar path  

Want something so much that you can almost taste it

Have reached a tipping point where you are driven to act now

Whatever your intention, the driving force behind it may be very important, even life transforming. According to Deepak Chopra the goal of all goals with intention is “fulfillment at the spiritual level that we call happiness or joy or love”.

When our intentions are conceived at the core of the true self or soul, then a path reveals itself in ways that surprise everyone, including us. The universe also seems to conspire with us to make that intention a reality.

Let me use a personal story. Most of you know by now that we have moved our lives to Northern New Mexico. What drove such a move? Quite honestly, we really cannot say for sure. Though the explanations for major life changes typically go far deeper than surface explanations (such as seeking a lower cost of living or enjoying an excellent climate), they may not be immediately apparent.

The gestation period for our move took four years of vacationing in New Mexico and slowly falling in love with the stunning landscape. Having lived here two years now, we are still continuing to uncover how the move has deepened our experience of this period of our life.

For each step in our process, we had to ask ourselves tough questions:

1.  Intend – The persistent idea of moving to NM came in the form of a nagging question: “Why, as we end each vacation in New Mexico, do we drag our feet when it comes time to go home?”

2.  Risk – Although we had been living part-time in Mexico, we eventually moved the remainder of our belongings from CA to Mexico with the intention of living there full-time. Consequently, we asked ourselves: “Is it wise to disrupt our lives and move again so quickly? 

3.  Act – Putting together a plan to move back to the States was straightforward because we had each made international moves before. And we found an ideal property for sale in New Mexico. But what about acting on that plan? We were stalled initially by questioning naysayers: “Houses here in Mexico take 2-4 years to sell. How on earth can you expect to sell your house here before you move back there?” In our case, we moved forward on our expectation while ignoring the statistics. And we did sell the Mexican house before the one in New Mexico closed.

Remember the ancient mariners who out of curiosity and a sense of adventure felt compelled to sail into the unknown (Intend)? They launched out on the journey despite the naysayers, as well as their own fears that the world was flat and they could fall off its edge! (Risk). Their dreams and intentions were so strong that they overcame their fears and moved forward with their vision. As they unfurled their sails (Act) and started the hard work of crossing the oceans, they were eventually rewarded with the discovery of new continents.

What is your soul-driven intention right now?

What would be the cost of not acting on this prompting?

What are your first action steps?

I will leave you with the words of the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint- Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Start with your inchoate and powerful yearning. Honor your inner prompting. Be courageous. Find a way to make it happen.

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Inspire Others? Yes You Can

What does a leader do to inspire others? And how can you, as a leader, awaken this positive and powerful source of human potential?

Inspiration is derived from two Latin words, in and spirare, translated as “to breathe in”. It is, perhaps, best described as a force that, when experienced or “breathed in”, changes the way we see the world and ourselves.

When inspiration strikes, we may experience the mundane or everyday as suddenly infused with possibilities. Ideas spill forth freely while obstacles seem to fall away. We feel empowered, exhilarated, and able to work long hours while remaining highly focused on our goals.

Inspiration is a highly positive force that can transform the lives of the inspired and, especially, those they touch. It can drive us to accomplish goals and reach levels of achievement we previously did not think possible.

Inspiration. Not Just for “Big” Personalities

Maybe to you, the capacity to become inspired by others ideas or accomplishments may seem like a real possibility while, at the same time, the ability to inspire others may seem very much out of reach. 

This discrepancy may be accounted for, in part, by a commonly held view that inspirational leaders are those rare individuals who use the power of their charismatic and compelling personalities to mobilize large audiences into action. Most of us do not see ourselves as having this gift.

However, though a positive, powerful personality may be very effective in inspiring others, it is not the only way.

The rest of us, leaders who may be more introverted and/or better at working in smaller groups, also have the power to inspire.

So, if the influence of a big personality is not the only way to cause people in an organization to say, “Yes! I will follow your lead. I am so excited by this new idea! I will do everything within my power to make this plan a success,” what is it?

The key ingredient to inspiring others is to tap into and awaken the inspirational source within each person. 

This is accomplished by learning to identify and engage five, typically latent, human sources that (individually or in combination) function to inspire us. These include,

  • Making a Contribution,
  • Tapping into Character
  • Engaging the Imagination
  • Demonstrating Empathy
  • Expecting the Best.

How then do you determine what another’s inspirational source actually is?

Actually the process is quite simple. It involves three steps.

  1. I ask a person to tell me a story about a leader that inspired them at some point in his/her life? As I probe a little deeper as the “why?” that person was inspiring it turns out, in some way or another, that the inspirational leader had one of the five characteristics mentioned above.
  2. The next step is to ask them “To you, what is a great day at work?” or “What are you the most proud of at work?” Answers to such questions will give you a sense of what is inspiring to that person.
  3. The final step in finding ways to inspire people at work is to match what inspires them with their actual work assignments.

All of us can help an individual identify his/her unique source and leverage it in the service of a team goal. Hence the beginnings of an engaged and inspired team.

In closing, we leave you with the words of Patanjali, an Indian sage and mystic from 3 B.C., who we think captured the experience of inspiration beautifully when he said:

When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds;

Your mind transcends limitations,

Your consciousness expands in every direction,

And you find yourself in a new, great
and wonderful world.

Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.

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The Profile of an Inspirational Leader

Written 8 years ago with my wife Kris MacKain, Ph.D.

So what does an inspirational leader look like?

As a leader, you have a vision of where you want your organization to go.

You know you need to inspire individuals to get them to follow you and make that vision a reality. But how do you do that? How do you connect with people in a way that fires them up, motivating them to commit to your vision and give you their best?

In our book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008) we explore what inspirational leaders do to bring out the best in others. Specifically, we discuss several important needs or behaviors that you, as a leader, will need to know in order to inspire your team to work together to realize the vision you have for your organization.

The needs we have identified have arisen out of our work in coaching and developing business leaders all over the world. Over the last decade, we often began our first coaching session by asking, “What inspires you?” The answers to this question were compelling in that they typically reflected an individual leader’s deeply held values or needs. We subsequently grouped these needs into five categories that we call The Five Sources of Inspiration.

These sources reflect specific human needs that, when met, can release powerful inspirational forces.

The Five Sources of Inspiration

The need to:

1. Make a contribution to benefit individuals or the world-at-large. (Contribution)

2. Work in alignment with one’s highest values. (Character)

3. Engage one’s creative potential, to imagine a better way. (Imagination)

4. Be interpersonally moved or emotionally engaged to work toward achieving team goals. (Empathy)

5. Be acknowledged and affirmed for one’s unique talents and strengths, and engage those skills in meeting work challenges. (Expecting the Best)

Once engaged, these needs drive individuals to perform and produce at levels they previously may not have thought possible. A leader’s first step in inspiring others is to identify which source(s) of inspiration drive a particular individual and then appeal to that source.

Now you know the basic theme of our book.

Describe the leader who inspires you and why

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Leading a “Barn Raising” – What’s Your Story?

What’s your story that grabs people emotionally and best describes your unique contribution to your organization or community?

I know of a Technology Executive who describes himself as a “breaker of glass”.What’s unique about this metaphor is that his organization needed someone to completely revamp its IT systems. He was the person for the job. He disrupted old ways of doing things, got rid of redundant staff, and set the course for a dynamic new organization that met customer needs. He is now seen as the glass-breaking innovator.

Stories (metaphors) are a way that we as individuals naturally organize our personal lives and communicate what and who we are. It is also the way we influence others at an emotional level to buy into our ideas and use our talents. We have to reach hearts as well as minds. Very few people are moved to action on our behalf by viewing a bar chart or a resume.

How then do you position yourself with a compelling image so that key decision makers say, “I want him/her on my team”?

Most people I work with are highly talented, have a stellar performance record, and sometimes wonder why they lose out on great new opportunities.

If you fall into the category of the “often ignored” you need a story that grabs people’s attention where they almost hire you on the spot,

The Making of a Story

There are two basic components in story-making. You use,

1. Stand out phrases from your resume

I was working with an executive that was writing his personal story. I asked him to isolate three phrases from his resume that best described his stellar leadership abilities. He came up with, “fix important problems, manage a large business successfully, and forge durable partnerships”. We then built on this discovery with a key picture.

2. Pictures from the past

Personal pictures capture your story in powerful ways. The above oil executive grew up in small town rural America. Survival on this frontier meant that the residents faced life’s challenges together. I asked him to come up with three photographs that captured his experience and essence both then and now. The standout photo for him was his community raising a barn together.

This picture meshed well with his resume capabilities. In his mind his story from that point onwards was a leader who inspired a collaborative effort to “raise barns.” He used this image in his last job-interview. Just that phase alone captured the interviewers’ imagination and led to a job offer.

Your Challenge

Use three key leadership descriptors from your resume and integrate those with a powerful image from your past,

What image best describes your unique contribution?

 

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Living with a Narcissist

Whether we admit it or not we all feel the hurtful impact of “me-first” people somewhere in our lives.

Maybe one of your parents or your partner or your boss was/is a narcissist. You never felt heard by him/her,  consistently had your own abilities diminished, and, if the narcissist was a boss,  you felt invisible in the organization.

Generally you have very hurtful memories from such “all about me” people.

How does this ubiquitous condition manifest itself?   And, how do you manage it?

The Roots of Narcissism

Narcissism is deeply rooted in our society. It,

  1. Arises from a deep sense of self-loathing – many sense that there is a fatal flaw in them that requires overcompensation with personal boasting and bluster. We are scared and so shout louder about ourselves.
  2. Deeply impairs relationships. A person so deeply focused on the self cannot attune to others. As a result they remain inaccessible to deep and authentic relationships. They are an accident waiting to happen on work teams. Because when they don’t have their needs met it,
  3. Leads to a narcissistic rage response when the narcissist senses that you are not meeting his/her needs. A typical response from a narcissist is that when you push back they punch back ten times harder.
  4. Shows itself in grandiosity. It overestimates its real abilities, exaggerates its talents, and boasts about small accomplishments as if they were something akin to the Nobel prize.
  5. Constantly craves attention and in so doing attempts to choreograph everyone around to dish up praise.
  6. Treats sycophants well and abuses those who see them as the “emperor without clothes” (often their own family members).
  7. Wants to keep us as infants dependent on them. Narcissists never want us to grow up and think for ourselves and challenge them.
  8. Manifests as an  incredible tension between their inflated self-image and what they actually are (fragile and vulnerable). One writer puts it this way“We like to see ourselves as strong and in control but we are more like a fragile eggshell that is easily broken – This makes use feel deeply vulnerable and not in a good way.” Dzigar Kongtrul

How then does one live and work with a narcissist?

 Managing Narcissism

There are certain insights and actions needed to live more successfully with narcissists. These include the recognition that,

  1. We all have elements of narcissism in our lives. The smaller the dose the less miserable we make others and ourselves. The key here is self-awareness and then self-regulation.
  1. We should not confuse it with the self-confidence found in so many successful people. That confidence is often wedded with a deep humility.
  1. When we detect narcissism in ourselves and others we should never become judgmental. We need to always forgive. Self and other-loathing is not the solution for narcissism.
  1. Self-deprecating humor is often a good antidote, e.g. “please join me on my pedestal!”
  1. In cases where the narcissism of the other is intractable we need to defend ourselves and break off or severely limit major contact with themManagers need to arrange that narcissists work mostly alone and not have them on teams

We don’t have to put all narcissists in the same category since there are different degrees of severity with the condition. Mild cases are easier to manage. Severe cases may have to be managed out. But we cannot just wait for the problem to fix itself. We need to proactively deal with it or it will pull us and our organization under.

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See You At The Top – Qualifiers for an Executive Position

Today I asked a senior executive whether one of his direct reports “had the right stuff” to become an executive. He answered, “While he is great at what he does right now, I don’t see him as one of our future executives.”

“How do you know he won’t make it to the C-Suite?” I asked.

His answer was somewhat perplexing and needed elaboration. He said,

“Do you know the saying, if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, you are a duck? This person just does not look and behave like an executive. None of my peers would promote him to the C-Suite.”

Was it the way this person dressed?

Did it have to do with his weak communication skills?

Or did it have to do with the fact that although he had excellent tactical skills, he did not have a strategic bone in his body?

I have coached numerous mid-level leaders who had such leadership gaps. Many overcame their challenge and became senior leaders.

How then does one evaluate for executive level abilities?

Putting aside the domain expertise and credibility that one would need to fill C-Level shoes, the best way to assess whether one could make it to the top is to compare one’s current leadership skills with typical success criteria for that particular position. The above leader presented me with a few of the criteria for success used to evaluate him for his current position. The CEO and Board of Directors wanted to know whether he had the

Ability to build trust with senior leaders across functions and geographies

“Fire his belly” to succeed

Capacity to present a vision of the future for the enterprise

Drive for results in the face of big challenges

Capability to bring novel solutions to the table for the business and influence others to buy into the strategy

Global mindset and knew the levers to pull to improve the business 

Skill to build teams and get the job done through others

Ability to communicate with clarity and credibility

Emotional intelligence to make a good “fit” with the culture of the Organization

Capability to influence people to follow him

In the end, he had received the highest rating in all of the above and was chosen for his position.

How would you rate yourself against such criteria?

Question for Current Executives

What leadership success criteria would you add to the above list to assess whether a person has executive capabilities?

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