The Coach: Why Good Leaders Are Self-Aware

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The Coach: Why Good Leaders Are Self-Aware

Words by Mr David Waters

28 August 2019

I never actually met Steve, my client of six months. Our coaching sessions were held over Skype, linking his minimal monochrome office in Silicon Valley, California, with my colourful and rather less smart office-cum-studio in New York City.

Steve is a senior executive at a billion-dollar fintech company. He thrives in the digital world. Aged just 37, he had rapidly scaled the slippery corporate-technology ladder to land a plum new role a year before we connected. Yet he was a man not wholly up to speed with what leading a team of 35 smart executives entailed. In fact, he felt all at sea – drowning rather than waving, despite the deceptive neatness of his office.

“I shouted some pretty foul expletives at Lynn, my number two, yesterday,” he confessed during our second call. The exasperation in his voice was clear.

“She didn’t have the figures I needed for my meeting with our CFO. She’d had a week to get them together. I feel like she’s deliberately trying to trip me up. I was so angry – and I still am. I had to totally wing it; she made me look like such an idiot.”

It was impressive that he could name his anger. Many men struggle to accurately name their feelings, especially anger, sadness and envy, all of which carry a degree of social stigma. Luckily, Steve had some self-awareness.

Yet his regular anger-fuelled meltdowns were putting everyone on edge. Two members of his team had resigned in the past month alone. Things were coming to a head.

“I never used to be like this. I’m not sure what’s happened, but something’s off. What the hell is it?” Sure, he’d landed a stressful new job which came with expectations bigger than anything he’d known before; but there was something more at play and we both knew it.

“Tell me about your dad’s work,” I asked him. “What does he do and how do you feel about it?” We can all harbour hidden ideas about our careers that are formed by our parents’ relationship to work. I thought Steve’s dad might help throw some light on his son’s struggles.

It turned out his dad had always loved his job, and this had inspired Steve to be industrious and look for meaning in his own career choices. But his dad had recently retired and this, instead of giving him freedom and a chance to relax, had made him “bored, listless and probably depressed”, according to Steve. He and his father were very close.

This felt important. Around the same time that Steve had landed this demanding role, his hard-working father was struggling with retirement. Could these things be related?

“You’re striving for success in the same way your father did, so perhaps you’re angry – and deep-down, scared – that in 30 years’ time you may retire and feel just as bored and listless as he is?”

“Wow,” said Steve. “I’d never thought of that.” He seemed genuinely taken aback.

Rutgers University psychologist Dr Daniel Goleman, who led studies into what makes a great business leader, places self-awareness as the first skill in developing emotional intelligence. Without it, says Dr Goleman, “A person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

Over the following weeks Steve and I explored this more deeply. We talked about his ambition and drive – and how he used them to impress his dad. As we uncovered Steve’s relationship to both work and his father, his leadership style began to shift. “I feel more present and patient,” he said during one of our final sessions. “I know there’s pressure to lead my team and achieve great results, but I’m no longer being that dick boss who’s angry all the time.”

The more we reflected on his frustration, anger and fear, the calmer Steve became. He was transforming into a leader his team actually liked and wanted to follow.

“Of course, if I had to work in your messy office, Dave, I’d still be flying off the handle all the time – self-awareness or not!” said Steve, grinning from ear to ear. And with that we said our final heartfelt goodbye.

Illustration by Mr Julien Pacaud