Communicating with grit and grace

“I know what I want to say, but HOW do I say it without getting ignored or killed?” In my experience as an executive coach, this question stymies leaders, especially women leaders, as much as any other issue.  Why?  Because organizations often require women to operate within a painfully narrow stylistic range: nice, but not TOO nice; strong, but not TOO strong.  How on earth do you navigate this?

Here’s what doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work to dilute your message, minimize your strength, or chip away at your authenticity so much that you disappear.  Nor does it work to “damn the torpedoes,” and blow your listener away.

You do not have to choose between “zipping it” or “letting it rip.” Effective communication, whether at work or at home, is often both tough and tender. Whether you tend to communicate directly (“grit”) or with soft edges (“grace”), the greatest potential lies in blending the best aspects of both. This blended form of communication can turn a conflict into a moment that transforms a relationship.  It can turn a supportive encounter into a catalyst for action.

How do you achieve this kind of balance? The most powerful communication guidance I’ve found comes not from the worlds of business or communication, but from Buddhist teachings.  The principle is called “wise speech.”  Wise speech is any message that meets four essential criteria:

  • Truthful – clear, direct and authentic
  • Useful – actionable, relevant and intended to be of service to the other person and the situation
  • Unifying – acknowledges all perspectives, so that everyone’s view has a “place” in the conversation
  • Kind – respects the dignity, aspirations and frailties of all parties.

‘Truthful’ and ‘useful’ are the grit side of the equation; they make a message clear and actionable.  But directness can intimidate some, and cause them to shut down. ’Unifying’ and ‘kind’ are the grace elements; they cultivate respect and trust within the conversation.  But too much softness can obscure your message, appear inauthentic, or create stagnation in a relationship. The greatest power is in the blend. Holding your communication to the standards of wise speech is no easy task, but the payoffs can be great.

What about you?

Most of us tend to emphasize just one or two of the wise speech criteria, especially when the message is difficult. Which one(s) do you tend to default to?  What are the strengths and limitations of that?  (Don’t think about this in the abstract – examine this through the lens of real life situations.)

Which criteria are the most ‘foreign’ to you, or are the ones you most quickly sacrifice when the chips are down?  Again, what are the implications of that?

For the next two weeks, try holding your important communications to the four standards of wise speech.  Make mental or written notes of what you try, how it works and what you’re learning.  And let us know how it goes!

Grit and Grace…On Behalf of What?

I usually steer away from philosophy in this blog, focusing more on practical leadership topics. But from time to time, I think it’s important to step back from the ‘how to’ of leading with grit & grace and look more deeply at the ‘why.’  On behalf of what does this work exist?

The underlying purpose of Leading With Grit & Grace™ is to help individuals and institutions address what I call the ‘tyranny of success.’ On one hand, it is critically important to establish what we’re good at. This forms the very foundation of our effectiveness. For example, a leader discovers that she gets great results by being understanding with her people, so she adopts a compassionate leadership style. A company sees a spike in profits by downsizing, and develops a core ethos of ‘doing more with less.’ In other words: we take an action; we like the result. So we “rinse and repeat” a few times, and pretty soon, we’ve got a bona fide formula for success.  Great, right?

Not necessarily. We humans tend to fall truly, madly and deeply in love with what works for us, and this can become a problem. Over time, we may stop paying attention to whatever falls outside our loving gaze, and our attentions and actions become imbalanced without our knowing it. Seemingly out of nowhere, our once-reliable strategy for success starts to wreak havoc: not because it’s the wrong strategy, but because it’s built on a partial set of values that we believe to be complete. Sure, it’s great to be good to your people.  But at some point, too much kindness will tank your efficacy.  It’s great to maximize efficiency. But continually stressing your people and resources will ultimately exact a heavy price.

The tyranny of success occurs when we lean on one set of values (and their resulting behaviors) and neglect their necessary opposites: kindness to the neglect of firmness; profits to the neglect of sustainability; ambition to the neglect of service; growth to the neglect of recovery and stabilization.  It is in the forgetting of these necessary opposites that our strengths become liabilities and can begin to do real harm.  It is from this forgetting that burn-out, abuse, complacency, greed, exploitation, and demoralization arise.

So regardless of the scale or context in which we are working, the work we do at Leading With Grit & Grace™ is always about helping people and institutions to transcend the tyranny of their success, and to develop a more balanced and sustainable form of thought, action and impact. It is on behalf of this intention that we exist.

What about you?

What are your (or your institution’s) formulas for success?

What values are at the core of your formula?

What do those values make possible for you and others?

What are the positive opposites of those values?  Which of these positive opposites might you be overlooking or undervaluing?

How might you integrate some of those neglected values more fully to support your success?

Would It Kill You To Say “Thank You?”

It’s coming up on Thanksgiving.  So naturally, I’m thinking about gratitude as a leadership competency.  I’m thinking specifically about the grit-based leaders I know who hate saying thank you – like it violates some deeply-held value. Few people actually come out and admit that they resist thanks-giving.  Their hesitance usually sounds more like this: “Why should I thank someone who’s just doing the job I’m paying them to do?” or “Hey – nobody coddled me; I don’t see why I should coddle anyone else,” or “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to get the job done.”

Awesome.  Can I come work for you?

Giving thanks at work isn’t about etiquette, it’s about effectiveness. Purely and simply, you should thank people because it’s one of the most sure-fire ways to get them to replicate behavior you want to see more of.

Most women who fall on the “grit” side of the equation tend to be logical, objective, fair and tough-minded. Often, their way of contributing to quality is to point out what’s wrong or missing.  They’re not trying to tear things down – they’re actually trying to build them up by pointing out what can be better.   But it can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of that, to keep hearing only the ways in which one has fallen short of the mark.   Not only is that a downer for others, but it’s also risky for you.  By staying silent about all the things that went right on this latest project, you are leaving it COMPLETELY TO CHANCE whether those things will be repeated next time.  No feedback, no learning.

The best praise is the most specific. “Good job” really doesn’t tell me much. But how about something like… “Good job on that briefing.  It was well organized, stayed within the time limits, and concentrated only on the really important points.  Your delivery was relaxed but well-paced, and you answered all the questions directly.”  Not wimpy or coddling.  Informative.  And I know what to aim for next time.

The great thing about being on the ‘grit’ side is that it takes very little positive feedback to make a huge impact. Coming from you, praise means so much. So give it a try between now and the end of the year.  Try pointing out some things that you like – even if it’s what someone’s already being paid to do.  I guess you could be the first person ever to die from giving praise.  But just maybe, you’ll help people better understand what you’re looking for.   Knowing that, they’ll be more likely to do it again.   And maybe they’ll even be more motivated to try.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Authenticity 2.0

Authenticity at work: is that an oxymoron? A pipedream? Most of us long to be more authentic at work, yet in most organizations, authenticity is in short supply.

Here’s a quick exercise that illustrates why that might be so. Identify a current work situation that you think is being badly handled but that you haven’t confronted.  If you had a free pass to react authentically – with no threat of repercussion –  what would you do?  Now… if you actually did or said that, what do you think would happen? For many of us, that much honesty could constitute career suicide.

This is the double bind of authenticity.  We long for it, but it’s risky.   So we resign ourselves to the belief that being who we really are is only possible in ‘enlightened’ organizations – which is certainly not where WE work.

Part of our problem is that we define authenticity in a very limiting way.  Many people equate it with ‘full transparency.’ But this can easily slide into spewing our thoughts, feelings and judgments onto others, all in the name of being true to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. Sharp honesty has its place; it can clear the air and let people know where you stand. But simply letting it all hang out backfires a lot: escalating conflict and misunderstanding, eroding trust, and damaging reputations. You’re smart to be wary of that.

So what are our choices? ‘Let it rip’ or ‘zip it?’ Ugh.

A new option has to begin with a new perspective.  Rather than defining authenticity as ‘full transparency,’ what if we see it as ‘speech and actions that arise from our deepest values?’  That’s a very different proposition. This requires discipline, restraint, clarity and skill. It allows us to be true to ourselves and to connect meaningfully with others, without doing harm or selling ourselves out.

What would that look like in practice?  Gwen, a client of mine, gave me a living example. She was a self-employed consultant, and had signed on as a subcontractor to a larger consulting firm.  She was about to undertake her first assignment for that firm, and had negotiated the rates and terms for the project. The day before the work was set to begin, her phone rang. It was the firm’s project manager. He said, “Gwen, I hate to tell you this, but we just got the final paperwork from our client today, and the approved budget is 30% less than they agreed to verbally. So although we promised you $X, we can only pay you 70% of that.”

Gwen was genuinely and legitimately furious. If she had defined authenticity simply as “full disclosure,” Gwen would likely have responded with some pretty unsavory words. But with the client expecting work to begin the next day, and with a new work relationship in the balance, Gwen had a lot at stake. She wanted to be truthful in her response, but she also wanted to be skillful. She called me to help her sort it out.

I asked her two questions; here’s how she worked with them.

  1. What deeply-held values do you want your response to reflect?  “This is my first engagement with this firm, so I want my actions to communicate that I’m not a doormat, that this is really not OK with me. Second, I believe that those who mismanaged the process should bear the largest burden of the mismanagement.  Third, I want my actions to communicate empathy and my commitment to this team. This has put us all in a tough position, and I care about both the client and my relationships at the consulting firm.
  2. What can you say or do that will successfully reflect those values?  “I want the project manager to understand where I’m coming from, so I’ll start by sharing the principles driving my response.  Then I’ll offer this proposal: I’ll carry on with the project, because I don’t want to leave the client in the lurch.  But I won’t agree to take a 30% cut in my rate.  But I will decrease my fees by 10% to acknowledge that I care about this relationship and that we’re all in this together.”

The result?  The firm gratefully agreed to Gwen’s terms. As a result of how she handled the situation, Gwen also gained the reputation as the ‘most ethical and principled’ of all the firm’s subcontractors. Her influence and political capital at the firm remained very high for the life of the working relationship.

Gwen had acted authentically. Identifying and acting on her deeper values had been the key. Had she responded simply with emotional transparency, the relationship would likely have ended in a firestorm of blame and resentment.  Gwen was true to her anger – not by spewing it, uncensored, but by using it to identify what really mattered to her and behave in a way that reflected that.

Could values-based authenticity work for you?  Take the situation you identified at the top of this article, and see what happens when you look at it through the lens of the two questions.  Does it show you something new about yourself, the situation, or how you might respond?  Let us know!

Resentment Is A Girl’s Best Friend

Those of you who tend to lead from the ‘grace’ side of the power spectrum, listen up.   One of your strengths is probably that you are very accommodating – a real team player.  I’ll bet you pitch in whenever needed.  I’ll bet you say ‘yes’ when everyone else says ‘no.’  And underneath your helpful and positive exterior, I’ll bet you’re just a little bit, well, pissed. More accurately, I’ll bet that you’re harboring some resentment.

Resentment is an erosive emotion and a disempowering stance from which to lead. It predominantly affects ‘grace-sters’, because they are more likely to bury their anger than to express it.   Whereas anger is a mobilizing energy, resentment will weigh you down like a pile of wet wool blankets.  Most women who experience resentment tend to disown it, because it’s not…nice.   Yet the minute you disown your resentment, it owns you.  It limits your choices, cuts off your angles, and distances you from your power.

But if you can acknowledge your resentment, it can become a potent ally, signaling that something’s off and needs your attention.  It’s telling you that a line has been crossed and that you were either asleep or complicit at the time.  Just like your best friend would do, it’s telling you that it’s time to set things right.

Try this. The next time you feel resentful, try these four steps:

  1. Own your resentment.  It may not be pretty, but it’s got your best interests at heart.  So say thank you and pay attention.
  2. Identify the line that’s been crossed.  What value, principle or boundary of yours has been transgressed?  What/when was the specific transgression?
  3. Take a stand, so you can push the situation ‘back behind the line.’  Renegotiate an agreement that doesn’t feel right.  Express your concern about something you may have stayed silent about.  This will probably feel uncomfortable.  Good – that means you’re on the right track.  Feel free to start small.
  4. Risk bitchiness. You may fear seeming selfish or demanding when you speak your mind.  But the chances are that others will just feel relieved that you’ve taken a clear position.

Are You Missing The “Potent Pixels” of Leadership?

I’ve noticed that leaders often have very interesting notions of what constitutes ‘leadership.’  Some managers view leadership as something that exists outside and apart from them. They think of leaders as only those who make the grand speeches and set sweeping agendas. So, often, when my clients’ jobs don’t require this sort of large-scale thought and action, they dismiss the reality of their role and squander their potential for impact. If you asked them, they’d say that they are being appropriately modest. But I’d say they are missing the boat.

On the other hand, some of my clients are the speech-makers and agenda-setters. They have their eye on the far horizon and the big picture. They identify themselves as leaders, but don’t see their small actions as having anything to do with the task of leading.  By focusing on the large perspective and the grand act, they’d say that they are maintaining necessary focus. But in the process, they are overlooking the potential for impact that’s right under their noses.

What’s the limitation of both these points of view: either that we are too ‘small’ to have real impact or too important to worry about the impact of small things? Both perspectives overlook what I call the “potent pixels” of leadership. Potent pixels are the small details of behavior and demeanor that your followers are watching like hawks. They are the undramatic, often unconscious gestures upon which others determine your character, form your reputation and decide whether or not to trust you with their loyalty. Whether or not you’re paying attention to the pixels, they are absolutely forming the picture of your leadership.

What are some examples of potent pixels that you may not be leaning (and leading) into? It’s what you do (or don’t do) once you’ve made a commitment, however insignificant.  How you respond (or don’t) to the distress on a colleague’s face. Taking the risk to surface the unspoken tension that’s arising around the table. The small move you make in a meeting to make it safe to bring a wild idea. A passing smile in a hallway.  The consistent reiteration of an important goal; the consistent applications of standards of performance. The sincerity and specificity of your praise. The questions you ask and the spirit in which you ask them. The energy and engagement with which you listen. What you do – and how you do it – when someone pops their head into your doorway and asks, “Do you have a minute?”

It is in the pixels, at least as much as in the grand speeches, where your leadership legacy gets laid down.  But most managers never see these moments come or go.  As a result, fail to capitalize on the most powerful leadership moment they have: the one that’s happening right now, right here, with this person.

You don’t have to create leadership pixels; you don’t have to schedule them into your already-crammed schedule.  They’re already sitting right in front of you, and they are there for the leveraging. The question is whether you are observant enough to see them and engaged enough to make the most of them.


“Political and economic might” – Is this the definition of ‘power’ we want?

Forbes has just published its annual list of the world’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

I applaud these women for their amazing impact and success, and I applaud Forbes for recognizing them. Yet it makes me wonder. Do Forbes’ more traditional criteria for power – “political and economic might” – seem broad enough? These are good and valid measures of power.  I just don’t think they’re broad enough, because I don’t think they help us rethink power in the ways that power needs to be rethought.

I’d like to see a list of the most powerful peacemakers; the most effective educators; the most inspiring role models; the greatest champions for those without a voice.  Whether or not you will ever hear about them, these are women of power as well. Forbes won’t be heralding them, but someone should. Over the coming months, I’ll be working with InPower Women to establish an annual award to recognize women who demonstrate an expanded, more current form of power: measured not by the size of title or income, but rather by the quality of their impact and character.  Stay tuned!



The Secret to Compassion? Boundaries!

I recently watched a talk given by Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned social scientist whose work centers on understanding the phenomenon of shame. In her extensive research (over 7,000 people interviewed), she started to notice that a small subset of her subjects stood out as being particularly compassionate, filled with a capacity for natural and strings-free generosity. When the main thrust of her research was done, she resolved to go back to determine what attributes or mindsets the truly compassionate shared in common. What she found surprised her, surprises me, and gives us all something to think about.

Dr. Brown found that the people who were the most compassionate were the ones who established and held the clearest boundaries! Why? Because, as she says, when you take care of yourself, you can care more skillfully and whole-heartedly for others. Conversely, when you abandon yourself on behalf of others, your giving can carry an undertone of resentment, manipulation or powerlessness.

Let’s look at this from a ‘grit and grace’ perspective. If you are someone with a ‘grace’ preference, giving to others is probably very natural. Yet is your giving  compassionate? When giving is not balanced with boundary-setting, it can become a form of self-protection, geared more to our own well-being than to others’.  Take Sarah, a grace-based leader who believed that she had no choice but to say ‘yes’ to every request that came her way. With every ‘yes,’ she told herself that she was being a good team player, that she was caring for others. Yet she was exhausted and seething with resentment. How compassionate was that? It wasn’t until she started setting limits on her giving that her performance ratings at work and her relationships at home improved. While it may sound counterintuitive, stronger boundaries enabled Sarah to be a more truly giving and kind person.

From the grit side of the equation, boundary-setting is likely to come naturally to you. You can probably resist raising your hand when your organization is looking for volunteers, so you’re not as likely to get overwhelmed by giving you can’t sustain. You may be comfortable saying ‘no’ to requests that don’t line up with your own or your team’s priorities, which protects folks from overcommitment. Not getting yourself or your staff in over your heads is an act of compassion. Yet with boundaries firmly in place, the invitation to you may be to soften up those boundaries a bit and offer up more of the resources and knowledge that reside within your purview.

What about you?

What does giving from a place of choicelessness or obligation feel like?  How can you tell when your giving is coming from this place?

What does giving from a place of true compassion feel like?  How is it different from self-serving giving?

How could boundaries increase your capacity to be more compassionate?


How is your ‘rest life?’

“I’m exhausted… like ‘end-of-my-rope’ exhausted. But I feel guilty taking time off.”

My clients, especially women, say this to me a lot. It comes from a deeply embedded cultural value that work is good, and non-work is non-good.  If you’re running from dawn to midnight, you must matter. If you’re well-rested, then you must be expendable.

Many of us take better care of our cars than we do of ourselves.  We understand that it’s necessary and advisable to get the car checked regularly, because routine maintenance may prevent us from getting stranded at the worst possible time. We know we shouldn’t wait till the car’s broken down to change the oil. We don’t see the car as somehow flawed because it requires regular care.  But when it comes to ourselves, this is EXACTLY how we tend to think – that we can only afford to attend to ourselves when we’re completely spent or hair-on-fire stressed out. We tend to view cultivating our ‘rest life’ as something we do only when the outside world has stopped making demands of us.  As if.  

I firmly believe that personal renewal is foundational to our effectiveness. I know the territory of burnout, and it’s very hard to come back from. I now understand that a rest life – in the form of quiet, solitude, reflection and engaging in the things that feed us – is essential, especially if we want to be effective in our work, family and community lives. Yet everything around us is calling us away from rest, toward overwork and its accompanying stress.

I’ve come to see stress as an addiction, as potentially dangerous as any other.   So does Patrick Lencioni, author of an excellent article on executives’ addiction to adrenaline.   Stress is addictive for several reasons.  First, the chemicals that our bodies generate in response to stress produce an emotional and physiological “high.”  For better and for worse, stress is kind of a rush. If we go into stress mode more often and for longer times, our adrenal glands pump out those high-inducing hormones around the clock. This makes you restless 24/7, which can make time-outs very uncomfortable.  So you keep trucking, even though that’s drawing down your body’s reserves.

Stress is addictive also because our culture values heroics. We get kudos for pulling off that monster proposal, for solving that problem that no one else could solve, for being the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave. Women have also internalized an expectation that they should ‘do it all’ and ‘have it all.’ But even if we could reach that standard (and that’s debatable), it doesn’t mean we should. 

You’re in luck.  April is National Stress Awareness Month. It’s a nationally-mandated excuse to become more aware of the stress in your life and its effects on you. With this awareness, you’re equipped to take action toward more balance and resilience. It’s a great excuse to move your ‘rest life’ further up the list of priorities, and watch how that affects the other parts of your life for the better.

Questions to guide your inquiry

On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 being best), how well do you currently attend to your rest life?
What are the pros and cons of attending to your personal care and renewal at that level?  How does your current level of care benefit you?  What is it costing you?
What rating would you like to be able to give yourself?
What would that make possible for yourself and for others?
What two concrete, doable steps can you take in April to move toward that level of self-care?



It’s getting better for women – AND we’re not ‘done’ yet

Here’s a very interesting article in this week’s The Glass Hammer.  It’s emarkable that antiquated and biased attitudes toward women are still alive and well in the national discourse.    Kudos to the Catalyst organization, who is finding new ways to move the dialogue forward.  Importantly, they are actively working to integrate men into the conversation about women: