Sense of Agency, not Urgency

“Simply giving employees a sense of agency- a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

How often do you hear a leader claim, “We need people to have a sense of urgency?”  I have heard this as a matter of routine throughout my career in organizational and executive development.  Most of the time this statement is emanating from the anxiety of the person making the claim.  Essentially, what one is saying is “I need everyone else to be as anxious as I am.”

A sense of urgency can be defined as the sense that prompt and decisive action is warranted, without delay.  This is appropriate if there is a fire, a medical emergency or you are being chased by a tiger.  However, in situations that require a deeper understanding of multiple variables, with multiple options that will impact outcomes in multiple ways, a sense of urgency reduces depth of thought and leads to emotionally-based reactive decisions/actions.

A troubling dimension of an urgency mindset is that leaders operating this way create a “double bind” for those they lead.  They demand that people take greater ownership of decisions and actions, yet their own anxiety drives them toward telling people what to do.  They themselves become the biggest impediment to the very thing they want.  Leaders who operate out of a sense of urgency (anxiety) are more likely to be intrusive and get in the way of people doing their jobs.  In the end, the attempt to promote greater responsibility has the effect of promoting the opposite. The outcome: talented, motivated people leave, and others become more passive.

Is there a way out of this predicament? I believe there is.

A tenet of great cooking is “find the best ingredients and don’t mess them up.”  In other words, allow the essence and qualities of the ingredients to be expressed without covering up those qualities with over-seasoning and too much fat, etc.

In organizations, talented people are akin to the best ingredients and a leader’s intrusiveness, fueled by his/her own anxiety reduction needs, are the over-seasoning and too much fat.  As with many improvement efforts, the path here begins with taking a look at oneself and learning to regulate one’s own anxious reactions.

But what else can a leader do?  Better said, if you are going to stop telling people what to do, what do you do? What are the conditions which when present, have the effect of promoting a sense of AGENCY, not just a sense of urgency?

Conditions I have consistently observed across many systems that have the most proactive, responsible level of workforce engagement include:

  • Clear goals: All employees can articulate the most important strategic goals for the organization, including the short and long term more tactical goals for their own functional areas and their own individual performance
  • Clear connection to goals: All employees can articulate why the goals are important and how what they do every day contributes to the accomplishment of strategic and tactical goals
  • Clear feedback: All employees know how progress is being assessed and have access to real-time data that shows how the organization, their functional area and they themselves are doing
  • Engagement in adaptive thinking: All employees are engaged in assessing progress based on real-time data and have an opportunity to provide input into improvement plans, especially when decisions made will affect how they do their jobs
  • Learning culture: The primary focus is on learning over punishment when something is not working.  Data is used for learning and learning is translated into new actions in the form of refined goals, plans and processes
  • Clearly defined culture: There are clear expectations for how people in the organization collaborate, integrate functionally and respond to challenges and problems, with courageous leaders who uphold the expectations in BOTH words and actions
  • Regulated leadership: Leaders continuously work on their own capacity to contain their anxiousness in favor of delivering higher-value coaching and mentoring, discerning when it’s time to observe and when it’s time to step in and be more directive

For anyone wishing their workforce was more proactively engaged in addressing challenges, one place to begin is to get a gauge on how well his/her organization lines up with the above conditions and cultural characteristics. This can be done formally through surveys, but there is also no replacement for just getting out there and talking to people informally.

The final question here is: Do you REALLY want to know how your employees would assess their experience against the above criteria?  If so, how will you get that information?

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The Nature of Anxiety, Stress and Tension

Looking back on my experience working with several thousands of people over the past 20 years, I am struck by how much of human (and therefore leadership) behavior is driven by anxiety.  It is as if anxiety, operating mostly below conscious awareness, hijacks the thinking system in the brain, directing the content and focus of thinking.  The result is that most of one’s intellectual capacity is directed toward the short term effort to reduce anxiety rather than long term strategic goals.  Of course, there are a multitude of tricky ways people convince themselves their actions are rational.  But one usually doesn’t have to dig too deeply to discover just how suspect most rationalizations are.

I have spent much time trying to make a number of clear distinctions in my own thinking, in an ongoing effort to better understand anxiety and its impact on functioning, both individually and in organizations.  Important points that have helped me better observe and regulate my own functioning follow.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an automatic fear response to anything that is perceived as a threat/potential threat.  The threat does not have to be real.  The central and peripheral nervous system does not seem to know the difference between a real and an imagined experience.  The perception that what is happening or might happen could in some way harm me produces an automatic, practically instantaneous (we are talking about milliseconds here) internal response.

Anxiety can be acute or chronic.  Acute anxiety is a short-term response to a current stimulus.  My flight gets cancelled and I have a psychological and physiological reaction to the cancellation.  Chronic anxiety is a prolonged state of fear, which varies in intensity over time and among individuals.  Operating with a non-conscious or semi-conscious sense that at any moment, something harmful might happen produces a chronic state of anxiety.

I have come to make a few distinctions in types of fear responses based on perception of threats.

Existential Threats:  Perceived threat to one’s survival.  This could kill me

Social Threats: Perceived threat to social stability, acceptance in important      relationships or groups, approval and social harmony.  This could result in my being cut-off, rejected, isolated, kicked-out

Threats to Conceptual Self: Threats to belief structures, values, principles and conceptual extensions of self, such as attachments to outside entities or others that provide a “borrowed” sense of self.  Any threat to something important to me is the same as a threat to me.

At lower levels of maturity, there is a greater tendency to perceive mere challenges as serious threats.  It is as if minor conceptual threats carry the same weight as existential threats.  Insulting someone’s favorite football team gets treated like a threat to one’s survival.

What is the relationship between anxiety and stress?

Anxiety is the fear response that kicks into high gear a set of physiological and psychological processes designed to deal with the “threat.”  There are a host of hormonal and other physiological responses that collectively can be termed “The Stress Response.”  These responses influence practically every aspect of one’s functioning, including energy, ability to think clearly, ability to self-regulate, sexual/reproductive functioning, immune function, digestive functioning, neuro-muscular functioning, etc.  The basic short term function of the stress response is to deliver blood and oxygen to working muscles to deal with a threat.  If you are running for your life, it’s no time to worry about immune function.  That can come later.  The problem we humans have is that most of the things we perceive as threats are experiences like cancelled flights, noisy neighbors, conflict at work, traffic jams and fear of speaking in public, none of which require physically demanding action and all of which are practically continuous experiences.  None of these represent real existential threats to survival, but we are stuck with the build up of energy and shut down of other important functions mentioned above as if it is a survival threat.

What is the long-term result of chronic anxiety and stress?

The result of chronic anxiety and corresponding stress is an accumulation of tension in oneself and in relationships.  This tension can be thought of as a strain on the system.  Individually, it could manifest as chronically tight muscles, a hormonal response in a perpetual state of preparation for fight or flight or a range of other ways tension can manifest.  It’s like driving down the highway in 1st gear, red-lining your engine.  The tension develops within individuals and between individuals as well.  The result of prolonged tension will be some type of symptom development.  Red-line your car engine long enough and it will breakdown.

What does this have to do with leadership?

Organizations operating under chronic anxiety, stress and tension develop symptoms just as individuals will.  Chronic stress results in the “taking off line” of long-term functions.  In organizations that means long-term projects such as values clarification, strategic planning, relationship building, people development, cultural leadership, learning, quality improvement and many other examples fall by the wayside.  Resources are diverted to short-term, “whack-a-mole” problem solving activities.  Also, in an effort to solve the problem de jour, thinking tends to shift to a more linear, cause-effect paradigm, resulting in a wide range of important variables going unnoticed.

What can be done about it?

First, it is important for leaders to learn how to regulate their own level of tension.  Anxiety in life is inevitable and therefore, the stress that goes with it is inevitable as well.  However, with conscious effort, it is possible to downgrade one’s level of tension, or strain on one’s own system.  I believe each person must find the means that work best for self, but for anyone, the effort must begin with  moving toward conscious awareness of tension in oneself.  Key markers may include:

  • Tight muscles
  • Chronic digestive problems
  • Chronic, recurring illnesses (colds, etc.)
  • Polarized functioning (too much or too little sleeping, eating, unintended weight gain/loss, too much/too little libido, etc.)
  • Loss of focus/concentration
  • Hyper-focused on problems
  • Difficulty seeing humor in situations
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • _______________ (add your own self-observations)

Tension results from chronic stress that impedes long-term “projects.”  It then follows that turning one’s focus to long-term projects when under stress offers a viable antidote.  The more I notice markers of tension in myself, the more I turn my attention to activities like reflection, meditation, exercise, nutrition management, sleep hygiene, planning and other forms of clarifying and rejuvenating activity.

In considering what makes for effective leadership, a tense leader cannot lead an organization through and out of a tense state of being.  The leader must first get a handle on his/her own tension.  Once under control for oneself, attention should be turned toward the same long-term organizational functions, paying careful attention to making sure there is time for clarifying and rejuvenating organizational activities.

Simply stated, the more leaders observe tension in their organizations and teams, the more they should be paying attention to all the long-term activities mentioned above.

Try spending the next 30 days getting better at noticing tension in yourself.  When you notice signs of tension, make time for clarifying and rejuvenating activities and then observe what happens within you and in your ability to relate to others.Share On:


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Integrating Meaningful Connection and Emotional Separateness


“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man[woman] is he[she] who
in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness
the independence of solitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Bowen Family Systems Theory, through the research and pioneering work of Dr. Murray Bowen, includes a “Scale of Differentiation,” or scale of emotional maturity.  This scale makes it possible to think about all people on one continuum of functioning, ranging from the highest level of maturity to the lowest.

One of the major features of people at the higher end of the scale is the capacity for flexibility in how they deal with relationships.  Bowen states in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice that “high-scale people are free to engage in goal-directed activity, or to lose “self” in the intimacy of a close relationship…”  At first pass, this may seem like a relatively simple idea.  On deeper reflection, there are nuances that are hard to discern and even harder to put into practice.

All people must respond to the competing internal drives to be an individual, thinking and acting for oneself, juxtaposed against the drive to fit in, to be accepted and to be a member in good standing in any important group, such as a family or an organization.  One simple way of thinking about the juxtaposition of these inherent internal drives is to position each at opposite ends of a continuum, with the idea being to “strike a balance” between the two, as depicted below.

Being an individual      Being part of the group

I believe the idea of merely finding a balance here is missing the mark.  Balance implies that there is some kind of relative range of equilibrium between the amount of time and energy spent in each mode of functioning.  I don’t see it or experience it that way.  My own effort to move toward higher maturity has led me toward integration, where there is no individuality outside of the group, and no meaningful connection without the independent functioning of individuality.  This can be depicted by the following modification to the continuum:

Less Mature                         More Mature                                                               
Polarized individualism                                        Distinct individual
(functionally isolated)                                           While
Or                                                                                    Meaningfully Connected
Polarized Togetherness
(lack of independent functioning)

Polarized individualism is characterized by one who, in order to think and act for oneself, has to distance from others with a rugged “go it alone” kind of mentality.  With this type of functioning, one becomes disconnected from others, mistaking the distance for true autonomy or separateness.

Polarized togetherness is characterized by one who, in order to fit in and gain acceptance, gives up what s/he really believes and goes along with the group, being directed in life by the need for harmony and acceptance.  With this type of functioning, one gives up his/her autonomy, mistaking artificial harmony for true meaningful connection.

At the higher end of maturity, one integrates the capacity to think and act for self while remaining meaningfully connected with others.  There are many nuances and skill sets that make this kind of integration possible.

Functioning with high maturity, in my view, demands being able to think through multiple variables and nuances in any given moment, in an effort to see a path forward.  Some examples for consideration include:

  • The specific role or relationship – What is meaningful in one relationship is different from what is meaningful in others
  • Goals – What one is working toward influences what is considered meaningful
  • Purpose – In any given interaction, knowing one’s purpose (i.e.- to challenge, to express empathy, to promote growth, to promote calmness, etc.) acts as a rudder
  • Beliefs, values and principles – Core guiding beliefs, values and principles act as a set of guideposts, helping one stay on course in life
  • Context – In addition to role and relationship, the context in any given moment influences what kind of interaction will be most meaningful

In addition to these examples, another level of connection is what I have come to refer to as “Meta-Connection.”  Meta-Connection refers to directly addressing each individual’s view of what would be meaningful.  In this kind of connection, individuals openly discuss:

  • What each considers meaningful
  • Points of thoughtful alignment (not superficial harmony)
  • Points of difference and how differences will be handled
  • The part that each individual plays in working toward the desired connection

There are two core capacities that one must cultivate in oneself that make the integration of connection and separateness possible.  One is the ability to clearly speak for self.  The other is a genuine curiosity about the other’s thinking.  Together, these two capacities produce the emerging ability to live what Emerson is pointing to in the quote above.  Specifically, this is the ability to function with autonomy and self-responsibility while affording others with the latitude to do the same, and engaging in a manner that promotes both connection and autonomy in the relationship.

While the ideas presented here are not that difficult to understand intellectually, the shifts that most people would need to make are not merely intellectual shifts.  Progress in this way of functioning really begins with a rigorous commitment to become more self-aware, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it may be to see oneself more accurately and objectively.

I will be expanding on a number of ideas presented here over the coming months.  I look forward to sharing my evolving thinking.

Stan Proffitt
 Shoshin Leadership, Inc.Share On:


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Mining the Depths of Aversion for Self-Development Gold

“The more factual data I get on my own functioning, the more it confirms that my subjective perception is not very reliable.  For instance, I frequently use a device called Muse, which measures brain waves during meditation.  There are plenty of times when I would subjectively report that I am calm and focused but the data from my brain does not support that.  There are other times when I “feel” restless, but the factual data lines up with a clear, focused brain.” – Stan Proffitt

This gap between facts and perception got me thinking about other ways I miss the mark on how I’m really doing.  My investigation into discrepancies in my self-awareness has brought me to a deeper understanding of the many ways aversion influences my functioning.    By aversion, I simply mean a reactive dislike or distaste for what is.  Here are some of the forms of aversion I have identified in myself:

Forms of Aversion

  • Anger
  • Arrogance
  • Insensitivity
  • Impatience
  • Irritability

These root emotional states lead to behaviors in me to which, ironically, I have a lot of aversion.  However, the behaviors are useful insofar as I can observe them and develop greater self-awareness.  So, what do I “watch” for in tracking my own aversion?

Observable Behaviors

  1. Acts of aggression – disrespectful, insensitive behavior, a readiness to attack another (not necessarily physically)
  2. Acts of invalidation – belittling the concerns, perspective and/or behavior of others
  3. Acts of avoidance – Moving away, distancing from the object of aversion

I have developed a simple process for working on understanding and regulating my own aversions.


When I notice an intense reaction in myself (aggression, invalidation, avoidance), I try to determine if there is any actual risk to my well-being or life functioning.  The first question to address is whether the situation is a potential growth-producing situation, a reality risk to be mitigated or just an unproductive use of time and energy.  Not every object of aversion should be approached.  For example, if one has an aversive reaction to cigarette smoke, I’m not implying that one should start smoking so as to become less reactive.

Gaining Clarity

Assuming I decide the situation could be potentially growth producing and not pose an unwise risk for harm, I try to name the form of aversion (anger, arrogance, etc.) and the ensuing automatic behaviors that it prompts in me.  For aversions that are focused on other people, my main antidote is to move toward them with the intent to better understand what makes them tick, so to speak.  I find it very hard to maintain anger and impatience when I come to a better understanding of what others are dealing with in life and in themselves.

Interrupting Reactivity

When the aversion I am experiencing does not involve other people, but just day to day life experiences, such as a day of hard rain when I planned an outdoor activity, my primary antidote is meditation.  Through the calmness I obtain through meditation, I can typically transcend the narrow thinking that is producing the resistance to what is.

Focusing on all the ways I judge and resist what life presents me with has proven to be an endless source of self-development opportunities.  In my experience, the lighter way I move through life when staying aware and on top of this aspect of my functioning is well worth the temporary discomfort associated with facing it.  What is the alternative?  One can keep pushing things and people away, but they are still there.  Eventually, the pile of triggers one is avoiding is too big to “fit under the rug.”

The following reflective questions are offered as a set of thought stimulators.  I invite you to reflect on your own aversions and experiences.

Reflective questions:

  1. In what situations, relationships or circumstances do you notice yourself becoming most angry, frustrated or judgmental?
  2. What patterns or commonalities can you identify in those situations, relationships or circumstances?
  3. In what relationships could getting to a deeper understanding of the other person serve to tone down the intensity of your reactivity to that individual?
  4. What do you want to know about the individuals identified in questions 3? Produce three genuinely curious questions that you could ask for each.
  5. In what situations or circumstances not involving relationships do you also notice intense reactions in yourself?
  6. What do you think the reactions reveal about you?

Please share your reflections and thoughts on the ideas presented here in the comments sections below.

Stan ProffittShare On:


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Connecting in the “Now”

The name of my business is Shoshin Leadership, Inc.  Shoshin is a Japanese term that conveys the concept of a “fresh mind,” or “beginner’s mind.”  But what does that really mean?

One application is that by cultivating an attitude of beginner’s mind, one can approach each endeavor as if it is the first time one is experiencing it.  Consider, for example, how enthusiastic people are when starting a new job, a new relationship, a new project.  What happens to that enthusiasm one year later, when the exciting new job is not so new anymore?  What would you be able to accomplish if you approached your work with the same level of “freshness” you had when you began?

As valuable as that idea is, I propose a deeper, more profound meaning to Shoshin;  seeing into the truth of the present moment as all there is.  The implications of being able to experience the present moment with full awareness are not only profound, but influence every aspect of daily life.  One aspect profoundly influenced is relationship connection.

If the present moment is all there is, then connecting with someone in the present moment is the most meaningful type of connection I can imagine.  Who are you NOW?  Relinquishing my pre-conceived notions about you, giving up my judgments from past interactions, letting go of what I have liked about you and tried to hold onto, and merely being open to hearing and seeing you as you are right now, today, is the greatest gift I could give you.  To truly connect, one must give up all attachments and aversions to past interactions, as well as let go of all hopes and anxieties over future possibilities.

Try experimenting by:

  • Listening to your spouse or significant other as if you are just meeting him/her for the first time
  • Finding out what your teenage children really think about any subject
  • Talking with a “problem employee” as if you have just hired her/him

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How Well Do You Really Know Anyone?

Someone said to me not too long ago, “Do you have to over-think everything?”  I replied, “It’s possible I do over-think things.  It’s also possible I’m just thinking, which turns out to look like over-thinking to people who under-think everything.”

One of the topics I spend a lot of time thinking about is connecting with people in a meaningful way.  Of course, what is meaningful to me isn’t necessarily meaningful to another.  But even finding out what others would find a meaningful form of connection, is in itself meaningful.

I offer my thoughts on what I consider meaningful relationship connection to stimulate deeper thinking about it, not as a prescription for anyone else.  Spending time reflecting on what you consider meaningful would, in my view, be time well spent.  Below are a few points that describe where my own reflection has taken my thinking.

One-On-One:  In my experience, trying to have a deep, meaningful conversation in the midst of a group interaction, especially social gatherings with family and friends, is like trying to rake leaves in the wind.  If I want to connect with someone in a way that gets beyond superficial chit-chat like talking about sports, weather, pop culture and current events, I seek out one-on-one time with that individual.  In group settings, even if I can get a moment of one-on-one conversation, within about 7 seconds, someone else will be coming to find out what we are talking about.

Questions for reflection:

Who are the individuals with whom you desire a better connection?

How much one-on-one time do you have with each of them?

Meaningful Knowledge of Each Other:  During one-on-one interactions, I want to let the other know something about me and learn something about the other.  This is a major gauge for me in how well I handled myself.  Did I let the other in?  Did I let him/her know me beyond the superficial kind of information that can already be found on social media?  Did I show any curiosity in knowing something deeper about the other?  Below are points of interest that for me lead to a greater appreciation for the other, and the relationship.

  • Highs and lows of one’s life experience
  • Current goals and aspirations
  • Current challenges and how one is handling them
  • Long term hopes and dreams
  • What each has been up against in life or had to overcome to get where s/he is
  • Situations that are currently fueling anxiety
  • Discussion about the kind of relationship that each of us would consider optimal
  • Beyond day-to-day events, how one is thinking about and responding to those events

Of course, not every relationship can or should have a “level 10” connection.  For each individual important to you, how clear are you on what level of connection you would consider optimal.  Though the breadth and depth of connection will vary from one relationship to the next, there is one thing I hold as a strong conviction.  If there is to be any progress toward meaningful connection, someone has to take the lead on it.  Improving connection can only be led by someone who is thinking about it.  Otherwise, the automatic tendency toward superficial, impersonal conversation supersedes.

Finally, if connecting with people on a deeper level takes such an effort, why bother?  Simply put, greater connection supports health and well-being.  It also affords one with greater influence in relationships.  For anyone seeking calmness and wellness in a relationship with a spouse/significant other, learning to connect is smart.  For any parent hoping to influence a teenage son or daughter, learning to connect is smart.  For any leader hoping to influence those s/he leads, learning to connect is smart.  For anyone hoping to be more effective with colleagues or bosses, learning to connect is smart.

To start:

  1. Select someone who is important enough to you to make an effort to better connect
  2. Jot down 6 or 7 bullets that would describe what you consider to be an optimal relationship
  3. Assess how well the way you have handled yourself with that person lines up with your bullets.  What if anything about yourself would you change?
  4. Check out with the other person how your idea of what is optimal lines up with his/her view of what would be optimal
  5. Take the risk to share something about your interactions with that person that you want to shift.
  6. After the conversation, reflect on how that conversation compares to the typical interactions you have with that person and observe how the interaction affected you.
  7. Repeat with others

Best wishes for a fruitful experience!Share On:


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Peak Performance: Conditions for Optimal Functioning

“I think it is possible to engineer peak performances; that being at one’s best is not just a fluke.”

                                                                                                                        -Stan Proffitt

How clear are you regarding the conditions under which you perform at your best?  Regardless of the arena, be it leadership, surgery, construction, engineering, sports, graphic design or any other endeavor, I think it is possible to identify the conditions that give rise to a peak performance.  I have been on a quest to discover these conditions for myself and take steps toward managing as many of the variables as possible.  Here are some guiding thoughts that have been helpful to me in making progress toward optimal functioning.

There is a perpetual cycle of reflecting, refining and implementation that I follow.  It can be depicted by the diagram below.

Planning Cycle

I start with looking at specific categories of factors that influence how well I am doing.  Many of these factors I can control or impact directly.  Examples of categories that have emerged as most influential for me include:

Personal Self-Care – Personal self-care involves three primary domains: physical, mental and spiritual.

  • Physical – Taking care of self physically involves managing three aspects of self-care. These include exercise or movement, nutrition (including use of substances such as caffeine and alcohol) and restoration/recovery.  Staying on a routine of physical exercise, good nutrition and proper rest are essential for me to be at my best.
  • Mental – Engaging in mentally stimulating activity across a broad range of interests promotes an integration of creative and analytical thinking. Integrating these seemingly opposed processes allows me to better see connections and promotes perspective.  Daily meditation also helps de-clutter my mind and promotes clearer thinking and the ability to focus.
  • Spiritual – Staying connected and focused on a larger sense of meaning and purpose, beyond the immediate situation, enables me to rise above the fray and operate out of a more thoughtful, less reactive position. Knowing my purpose anchors my actions.

Relationship Management – There are relationships that are important to me.  When these relationships are out of balance or there is tension, it is impossible to not be affected.  Attending to and cleaning up any relationship conflicts and misunderstandings is essential to performing at my best in every other interaction.  This involves looking at and taking responsibility for my own part in any relationship challenges.

Physical Environment – Simplicity in my physical environment is important.  As a manifestation of an uncluttered mind, an uncluttered physical environment promotes calmness and ordered functioning.  I can’t function well when my physical environment is unorganized.  This includes clothes and shoes, business files and paperwork, electronic files, vehicle and to the extent possible, the work environment I am in.

Preparation – There is no substitute for preparation.  If I have a presentation to give, by the time I am in the live interaction, I have worked through the presentation many times in my head, making connections and clarifying my message.  This means being self-disciplined enough to forego a popular or fun activity for the sake of being prepared.  But this involves more than just the day or night before an engagement.  Everything I do is in preparation for everything else I do.  I view all activities as connected and influential.

Regulation of Contact with Negative Influencers – While it may not be possible, or wise, to eliminate all variables that could have a negative influence on me, I pay a lot of attention to what happens to my motivation and energy level when in contact with people, places, events and other types of stimulation.  How much time will I spend watching news programs that seem to be designed to feed social anxiety?  News and information is important and useful, so how much exposure is helpful?  There are people whom I experience as very draining on my energy level.  It is a lot of work to try to stay engaged with another who is overly self-absorbed or negative.  I choose to spend as much of my interaction time with people with whom I have a reciprocal energizing relationship.  I try to make conscious choices about all of my engagements.  For example, when will I go along with a family dinner and when does taking time for solitude make more sense in the bigger picture.  The primary anchor for these decisions is what is in the interest of my ability to be at my best for clients and others.  What will most help me move toward my most important goals and purposes?

The ongoing cycle of managing the factors outlined here, observing how what I am doing is impacting my performance and continuously tweaking how I manage the various factors is the goal.  There is no end-point for me.  I keep my attention focused on the process, knowing that as I get clearer on the conditions that promote my optimal functioning, and better at managing those conditions, the performance will take care of itself.

Each one of these points deserves a deeper dive.  Additionally, how one talks to others about the choices one makes is important.  Skillful self-definition warrants yet another deeper dive.  For now, I invite you to experiment and share your observations.Share On:


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No Chasing Required

I recently met with a group of leaders who are struggling in the midst of abundance.  While business is going pretty well, most on the senior leadership team are not happy.  There are various relationship tangles that they are stuck in, alliances with some and distance or conflict with others.      Most are clear regarding their dissatisfaction with the CEO of the firm.  This was new information to the CEO, who has been working with some of these folks for many years.  Basically, all of the relationship patterns look to me like garden variety relationship problems that are not being discussed by the members of the group.  Typical.

What would help a group like this move forward?  While there are many strategies that could be helpful, I think the primary factor in the group making any shifts is the level of motivation for change.  As an executive coach and leadership teacher, establishing the “coachability” of a client (individual and group collectively) is, in my view, the first order of business.  In the past, I tried to help everyone, driven by the belief that everyone could benefit from some help growing themselves. What I realized is that in many cases, I was working much harder on someone’s development than they were.  There wasn’t much growth going on, I was getting frustrated and both of us were wasting time that could have been better spent doing something else.

Nowadays, my intent is to be clear with clients upfront that if I’m more invested in their growth than they are, working together isn’t going to be a good fit.  It’s not a judgment.  I truly believe that people have the right to opt in or out of working on their own functioning.  But I’m in the business of helping people work on themselves.  If one is not interested in doing so, I respect and accept that.  It just means that I’m probably not the guy they’re going to want to hang around with.

What does coachability” look like?

  • Pursuit of his/her own development (No chasing required)
  • Responsibility for scheduling engagements for his/her own development activity
  • Responsibility for the agenda (what he/she wants to work on in themselves)
  • Curiosity regarding unflattering feedback (solicited or unsolicited)
  • Open to being challenged
  • Self-reflective
  • Willingness to experiment with shifts in own functioning and observe other’s responses
  • Growth is a higher priority than emotional comfort

I spend a lot of time paying attention to and talking with clients (potential clients included) about how well their functioning lines up with the above characteristics.

For any leader trying to have a positive impact on the growth of others, take a step back and ask yourself, “Who is working harder on this person’s development, that person or me?”  I have come to the realization that before trying to be helpful to anyone, finding out whether or not they are motivated to change is not only important, but a responsible move on my part.  The individuals I want to spend my limited time with are those with whom there is no chasing required.Share On:


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Reframing “Forgiveness”


“Forgive Everyone”   Neem Karoli Baba

Steps eight and nine in a twelve-step program involve creating an inventory of one’s own wrongs and making an amends with those whom one has harmed.  I believe that is a valuable process for anyone, whether involved in a twelve-step program or not.

I also advocate for the “mirror opposite” of those steps.  Specifically, I’m talking about making a list of all those whom one views as having been hurtful or harmful toward oneself.  Then, one by one, working at “forgiving” that individual for whatever ways she or he has fallen short.  But I’m not talking about the superficial, conventional use of the word forgiveness.  The common use of forgiveness is rooted in blame of the other.  I “blame” the other and now I forgive him/her for what they did or failed to do.  I view that kind of forgiveness as cheap; not worth very much.  It keeps oneself in a role of victim and/or moral superiority.

The kind of forgiveness I’m talking about is more a by-product than an act; an outgrowth of developing greater compassion.  I’m talking about giving up the moral superiority that goes with thinking I have been wronged.  This process involves becoming more objective about the other, learning to see the other as one individual caught in the systems in which he or she works and lives.  When one makes an effort to really get to know, on a deeper level, those with whom one has had a problem, and learns about all the ways in which that other person struggles, suffers or is challenged, it becomes very difficult to maintain the anger and blame.

This does not mean people get a free pass, or are “off the hook” for self-responsibility.  The process of reframing I am talking about has the potential to free one of anger and blame that has held one in its grip for a long time.  The amount of lightness and energy that is freed up through this process can be profound.

  1. Make a list of those who you have viewed as hurtful/harmful toward you.
  2. Wherever possible, make contact, not to “have it out,” but rather to get to know more about that person’s perspective, challenges, what s/he is or has been up against in life.
  3. When contact is not possible, practical or wise, try to view the other in a broader context and envision what his/her challenges must be (have been) in life.

In summary, this is about much more than simply forgiving others for being less than they should have been or I wanted them to be.  It is about learning to truly see people differently, including myself.  It involves seeing others through the lens of compassion.  In doing so, the way I experience the other shifts.  It doesn’t mean I continue to put myself in harms way.  It is a deeply personal shift “in” me, that ultimately, benefits me, the one doing the forgiving.


Stan ProffittShare On:


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Observing Self and Others – A Way Out of Reacting

What does it take to be able to remain in the midst of turmoil and observe what is going on, without being “caught up in what is going on? 

Observing and reacting are functionally incompatible.  The more one reacts, the harder it is to observe.  The better one can observe, the easier it becomes to contain reactivity.  Dr. Murray Bowen referred to “observational blindness,” or the inability to see what is right in front us.  I find having a framework for observation helps me become a better observer.  What follows is a framework that helps me take the idea of observing to a level of practical application.

Observing Self:

  • What do I see myself doing right now?
  • What am I thinking?  Feeling?
  • What do I really want?  What are my goals for this given interaction?
  • How does my behavior right now line up with those goals?
  • What factors are influencing my behavior right now?
  • How responsible for myself am I acting?

Observing Others:

  • What do I observe others doing right now?
  • What conflicts and alliances do I observe between others (and myself)?
  • How responsible for self is each individual right now?
  • Who is over-functioning, who is under-functioning?
  • What forms of reactivity can I observe in others (conflict, distancing, giving in, etc.)?

Observing What Goes On Between Self and Others:

  • Where do I see myself getting caught up in a conflict between two others?
  • Who am I most reactive toward?
  • Who am I most and least connected with?
  • With whom am I over or under-functioning?
  • How are others responding to more or less reactivity on my part?

Ironically, making a priority of observing one’s own reactivity has the effect of reducing the intensity of the reactivity.  Armed with a few key questions, it is possible to remain in the midst of “the fray” without being “taken out” by it.  Additionally, working at being a better observer during relatively calm interactions makes it easier to observe tense interactions.  Only working to be a better observer during tense periods is like trying to learn skills needed for skydiving as you are jumping out of a plane.

With conscious practice, one can increase his/her observational skills.  It is astounding to see what has been in front of us all the while, though we never noticed.Share On:


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