How to Coach Leaders to Really Change

Posted 03.19.2012

There was a great article in the New York Times on Sunday called “Helping Managers Find, and Fix, Their Flaws.” It details the seminal work of Harvard’s Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey and how they’ve leveraged their research to help leaders make lasting changes that make them more effective. My guess is a lot of leadership coaches soaked up that article because Kegan and Lahey’s books are go-to resources for just about anyone who’s a serious player in the coaching industry.

One of their big ideas is that leaders often have competing commitments. For instance, I might be committed to leading at a more strategic, big-picture level. At the same time, I might have a commitment to making sure that everything that comes out of my shop is absolutely perfect (i.e. done exactly the way that I would do it myself).

How can leaders overcome those competing commitments and move on to whatever their next level is? I’ll share two ideas that my colleagues and I teach in the “Flow of Coaching” segment of the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Certificate Program. Both of these are consistent with the approach that Kegan and Lahey use with their clients.

The first idea is what we call a Self Observation Exercise. The second is what we call a Behavioral Practice. The first often sets up the second.

  • In a Self Observation Exercise, you do what the name suggests. You observe yourself. For the exercise to be useful, you need to observe yourself in a situation that is impeding your progress. For instance, you could observe how you react when a member of your team produces work that is different than the way you would you have done the same thing. In this example, you’d want to take note of your reactions in these situations and start looking for the patterns in what you seem to always do.
  • Once you’ve identified the patterns, you’re ready for a Behavioral Practice. For example, if you notice that you always take the work back when it’s not done your way, you might establish the practice of asking yourself, “What’s good about the way they did it?” before jumping in to re-do it your way. If you stop yourself two or three out of five times, that’s progress. Do that often enough and you end up changing yourself.

There’s a lot of great research behind all of this, but you can really track it all back to two of my  favorite quotes. When it comes to Self Observation Exercises, Socrates summed it up by saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Aristotle captured the value of Behavioral Practices when he said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

How about you? Have you had any success with your own Self Observation Exercises or Behavioral Practices? What difference did they make? What tips do you have to share with the rest of us?