I have recently spent several days with Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, filming a documentary about his life & legacy. I was invited along with a few other executive coaches to be an advisor on this movie, an exciting opportunity. Marshall, after all, has been recognized as the #1 leadership guru & executive coach in the world.
The documentary included participating in a 1 ½ day workshop with Marshall, where he shared “Best of Leadership” lessons. Those lessons were based on his rich experience spanning over several decades of coaching top leaders and Fortune 100 CEOs. Marshall was magical, inspiring us with his wisdom, laser focus and generosity; awing us with his unbounded energy and optimism. The audience consisted of an impressive mix of about 100 people from around the world — leadership experts, business & nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, a European PM, MG100 and 100coaches.
I have been thinking about one particular topic that Marshall discussed: “The Wheel of Change” – Making intentional choices about what we create, preserve, eliminate or accept in our lives. In my executive coaching practice, I coach leaders who are sometimes hijacked by negative emotions of some sorts. I am struck by the amount of time they spend fussing about things they have no control over. For instance, I have 2 clients from the same company who have been complaining repeatedly about their CEO’s decision to hire several senior people from his previous company. Those clients don’t have the power to make that hiring decision and their disapproval of their CEO’s decision consumes their time and energy. They are emotionally stuck, ruminating over the perceived unfairness and ill-advised nature of their CEO’s decision. This kind of rumination is not good for my clients and not good for their company.
Peter Drucker puts it simply: The person who has the power to make the decision will make the decision. Many people, however, don’t accept that.
How Do We Get Unstuck?
In my executive coaching practice I help leaders pay attention to what they pay attention to. Helping people become aware of what they pay attention to is fundamental to their ability to manage their thoughts, choose their focus, and choose their behavior. This is particularly important in the world we live today, shaped by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). There are enough external distractions in our world. The conditions in today’s world require us to be particularly diligent in remaining clear and focused inside, not diverted by internal distractions that can be caused by negative emotions.
Consider my earlier example. What would be considered as productive behaviors by my clients? The client may try to influence the CEO (the decision maker) to change his mind. If that doesn’t work, the client may accept the CEO’s decision; i.e., make peace with it. Or, the client may decide to leave the company if they consider the CEO’s decision too troubling. In choosing any of those options, the clients regain control over the situation by re-focusing their attention and not allowing their thoughts and emotions to spin out of control.
In order to get to a place where clients can intentionally choose their responses, I create the space for them to slow down and look inward so they can reflect on the triggering event. I ask them to notice what is happening as they tell their story (their physical sensations, feelings, thoughts); which narrative they were telling themselves; which emotional/social need(s) felt threatened. I often ask them to take a few deep breaths to help neutralize the impact of the triggering event. As they quiet their mental clutter and regulate their emotions, they are in a better position to consider creatively their response options.
Some events are beyond our control. Yet we always have the freedom to choose what to think, what to pay attention to, and how to respond. Sounds simple? Yes, in theory. This requires attention, intention and the discipline to follow through. Keeping focused attention and holding our emotions in check takes skill and self-control. It is a mindfulness muscle we can strengthen with continuous practice.