The Grown-Ups Are Not Alright: Sounding the Call for ‘Grace’

It’s never been like this. In the 20+ years that I’ve been coaching leaders, every client’s goal has been unique and specific to his/her/their aspirations and context. But then the pandemic hit and the world changed. Overnight, individualized coaching plans evaporated and a universal coaching plan arose: how to lead in my corner of a worldwide pandemic.

Since mid-March, my coaching conversations in any given week have been strikingly similar across clients, with the content evolving in step with the forces and pressures. So far, the narrative has unfolded something like this:

  • Week 1: Are we, am I, going to be OK? How do we transform our operations overnight?
  • Week 3: I feel like we’re getting a handle on this. We’re inventing new ways of doing business and connecting. It’s actually kind of exciting.
  • Week 6: I’m tired. It’s really been a push.
  • Week 7-9: It’s exhausting to be on zoom all day. I work more hours now than I did in the office. Work and life are all happening to me at the same time, 24/7.
  • Week 10: In addition to handling the COVID mess, how do I respond, as a person and a leader, to the murder of George Floyd? This is huge and I feel … unprepared / enraged / depressed / shocked / frayed / terrified…
  • Week 16 and counting: Oh my gosh, we’re going to be in this forever. Can we open up or not? We’ve held conversations about race, but what now? What really changes? I don’t know from one day to the next what the fall looks like for my kids. I’m scared if they go back to school and scared if they don’t.”

Leaders haven’t been able to offload one crisis as the next one comes. The challenges accumulate, each one persisting as the next piles on. This is HARD. I think it helps just to name the truth of that, even if it comes as no surprise.

What has surprised me is that, amidst this pile-up of new and incessant demands, leaders seem to be holding themselves to the same standards of productivity and awesomeness to which they’ve always held themselves. I hear them say things like, “I feel like I should be doing more; I should be having a bigger impact.” “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to concentrate.” “I can’t believe that I snapped at my kid/spouse/parent at dinner.” “I’m not as tough as I thought I was.”

As if somehow this shouldn’t be taking a toll.

If your child were a competitive runner and the world dumped a backpack of bricks on her back, would you expect her to clock the same times? No. You’d help her understand that she’s running a different race now, that ‘doing her best’ means something very different now. You’d overhaul her goals, training and recovery strategy, equipment, nutritional plan, and support structure. You’d understand if she got testy as she struggled to adapt to the added weight.

Right now, this world is stuffing a grit-storm of bricks into your backpacks. In March, most of us thought that this would be a sprint.  We’d gut this COVID thing out for a few months and return to normal. But in the U.S., not only is this sprint turning out to be a marathon, but the American cultural meltdown keeps adding even more bricks as we go.

If you’re going to remain sound for the journey, you’ll need to change your run. And in a grit-show like this, that means amping up the grace toward yourself.

I’m not naive. You may feel very lucky to have this really hard job right now, and it’s not like you can just stop being a parent to your children. It’s not like you’re going to spend a day at the spa (which isn’t open anyway) or take a leave of absence. You may not even be able to take a vacation. But I do know that grit needs grace; challenge needs support. You can gut things out for a while, but it is difficult to keep hauling if you don’t also heal. To quote spiritual teacher Lama Rod Owens, “You have to drink as you pour.”

What about you?

Could you:

  • remind yourself that this is objectively difficult?
  • take a few minutes each day to note any signs of stress or distress?
  • honor those signs as calls for care?
  • adjust your expectations to mirror the race you’re running now, as you would for your son or daughter newly competing with a brick backpack?
  • let some stuff drop to the ground?
  • do a project to a ‘good enough’ standard?
  • notice beauty?
  • return to that spiritual or physical practice?
  • forgive yourself for snapping at someone, and see your irritation as an internal call for care?
  • try not to panic if your marriage is feeling the strain?
  • go outside for a few minutes, just to feel the sun on your face and witness the beauty of a tree?
  • intentionally set aside some time for yourself, even if it’s just 15 minutes here and there?
  • do a small technology fast?
  • ask for help?

If this content resonates with you and you want to explore having me on your support team,

Happy Interdependence Day

July 4th: the day America celebrates its independence from England. Independence is one of our culture’s most cherished values. Individually and collectively, it is burnished into who we are.

Independence is the spark of the American spirit that created a nation, launched a bold social experiment, ignited countless breakthrough technologies and industries, and told each of us that hard work can give us a living dream. Today we pay homage to that uniquely American blend of self-reliance, courage and pluck. We celebrate the abundant fruit of that.

But today is also a painful reminder of what happens when we prize independence and neglect our connectedness. Independence (like any quality on the grit-grace continuum) cannot stand apart from its opposite and remain a healthy force. Unmediated, it becomes toxic.

And it has. Let me count (some of) the ways.

We are a nation of people who are conditioned not to ask for help, and to denigrate those who request or need it. While the winners take all, more people are separated from family, community and opportunity. We live more segregated by thought, class and race than ever before, and we fear those across the divide. We have built organizational cultures that foster vicious competition and drain people’s joy and imagination. Too many corporations make decisions that harm the very people, communities and environments that make the enterprise possible; our government supports them in doing so. We have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, from our allies and from the world. The ‘me above we’ mentality takes a wrecking ball to our hopes for unity and compassion.

This is a country gasping for grace as it glorifies grit. 

A larger idea is calling

Our stance of independence is neither sustainable nor practical in this world. Look around and see the harm that it’s doing. It is time to claim both our self-reliance and our connectedness. Interdependence is the only stance that can advance us now, and we should claim it as our next bold aspiration.

And do it, like, today. So Happy Interdependence Day. Let’s get going.

What about you/us?

Independence was this country’s and culture’s first bodacious and beautiful aspiration. What if we claimed interdependence as the next frontier?

  • What would it feel like if you lived life more aware of the people, systems, and ecologies on which your comfort and possibilities depend?
  • What would it feel like if you remembered the people, systems and ecologies that are affected by your actions and decisions?  How would that change what you do?
  • What would your community need to shift in order to make high-quality resources equally accessible to every resident? What would it take for all public spaces to feel welcoming to all members of the public?
  • How would your organization change if its leaders understood that they were as dependent on their employees as the employees are on them?
  • How would our companies change if they treated their community and environment as true stakeholders on whom their success depended?
  • What would shift in this country if we embraced, philosophically and practically, ‘interdependence’ as our bold new value and promise?

Contact Leslie Willams

“Bulldog,” Not “Bitch.” Elizabeth Warren’s Master Class For Powerful Women

Relax, this isn’t a political post. Just a lesson from a political person about women’s exhibiting strength in a way that works.

I’ve heard a lot of women say that they can’t be strong at work without being branded as bitchy or aggressive. I get where they’re coming from. Organizations can be pretty punishing to women with a direct or forceful communication style. In addition, organizations often allow men to exhibit much more intensity than they would ever tolerate from women.

And yet… I have also observed powerful women leaders who do not get labeled, judged or ‘killed’ for their strength. What do they have in common, and what are they doing differently from the rest? They seem to be the leaders who have the best stylistic blend of grit and grace, wielding influence with neither apology nor intimidation. As a result, they’re able to exercise power in a way that commands respect and sways opinion.

One of the best examples of this kind of woman leader is Massachusetts Senator and Democratic candidate for President, Elizabeth Warren. I’m not addressing her political views or prospects here. But stylistically, she exhibits a remarkable balance of what I call “grit and grace.” That blend of styles allows her to advocate fiercely for the issues she cares about, without being dismissed as a bitch. Even as her campaign for President mounts in strength, she’s managed largely to elude that critique.

How does she DO that?  

A video clip of  an early Senate Banking Committee Hearing on Bank Money Laundering is Warren’s master class on power that blends grit and grace. Watch and learn.

Based just on this video clip, Senator Warren exemplifies several key principles that we can apply in our own contexts.

  1. She balances passion and reason. There’s no doubt that she cares about what she’s saying. Her voice is animated, her body is leaning in, and her questioning is pointed. Yet her content is factual and her arguments are well-reasoned.
  2. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed over, but she never goes on the attack. She came to this hearing with one central question: “How big of a crime does a financial institution have to commit before it faces getting shut down or before someone actually goes to jail?” In response, the panelists weave, dodge, obfuscate and redirect. But she returns, over and over, to her central question. And she does so with grace-laced language: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you. But I’m not hearing your opinion on this.”
  3. She’s passionate but doesn’t get emotionally hooked. Two male panelists did something that a lot of women have experienced – the men assumed a paternalistic tone toward Warren, and tried to explain “the way it works.” It’s a classic move to imply a lack of competence and understanding on Warren’s part. Each time, she replied clearly but without defensiveness. She quickly dismissed the implied slight: “Sir, I understand the limits of your organization’s authority, and I have read your full testimony.” And then returned, with an even keel, to her inquiry. “But are you saying that you have no opinion on how much drug money a bank can launder before it should be shut down?”
  4. She’s fighting for something greater than her own interests. Whether or not you agree with Senator Warren’s positions, she seems like a values-based leader, not driven by ideology or personal interests. Part of why Warren’s grit works is that it seems to arise from authenticity rather than gamesmanship.
  5. She’s humble. In an interview just this week, she was asked why she continues to stay after rallies for hours to take selfies with every single person who wants one. Her reply was simple: “It’s true that I stayed for four hours after the rally in New York City. So did the last guy in line.”

What about you?

Can you recall a situation where you “brought the grit” but neglected the grace?

  • Which of the five principles above – 1) blending passion with reason, 2) staying rooted without going on the attack, 3) not getting emotionally hooked, 4) fighting for something greater than yourself, or 5) humility – did you not bring to bear in that interaction?
  • How did that feel inside? How were you received by others?
  • How might you have worked with any of the five principles to bring a more blended and effective form of power in that situation?

Conversely, recall an interaction when you felt that you expressed yourself in a way that was both grit-full and grace-full.

  • What was your impact there? How did it differ from your impact when you only brought grit forward?
  • What reminders, images or practices can help you balance grit and grace when you want to express yourself in a powerful way?

Are You Kindling Others’ Courage?

Happy National Encouragement Day! Yes, apparently that’s a thing, and it’s today, September 12th. The reason I know this is that Sammi Brown, my local representative to the WV House of Delegates, announced it on social media this morning. Delegate Brown is the very embodiment of encouragement, so she’s the perfect person to get me thinking about the importance it plays in leadership.

I think we’ve lost the power of ‘encouragement’ as a word and an act in organizational life. We tend to see it as a mere compliment or pep-talk. Actually, encouragement is badass. At its root is courage, and courage’s linguistic root is the word for heart. To encourage (en-courage) someone is to kindle her brave heart. If that’s not the definition of leadership, I don’t know what is. It’s one of those leadership acts that requires as much grit as it does grace, so in my view, it’s one of the higher-order leadership skills.

To encourage (en-courage) someone is to kindle her brave heart. If that’s not the definition of leadership, I don’t know what is.

Encouragement takes many forms.  One is a leader’s own example. Delegate Brown is my avatar for en-couragement. She’s a generous, compassionate public servant with a warrior’s spirit. She goes to the mat for teachers, workers, victims of sexual assault, people of color, government transparency and the environment – in a state where these causes are often all but lost. With a kind heart and a sharp mind, she fights hard in the hard fights. Although we’ve never met, Delegate Brown’s own courage en-courages me every day.  ( – site coming soon)

Another form of encouragement is to provide challenge that is rooted in hope. We all know leaders who challenge people, but in a demoralizing, tightening-of-the-screws way. They’re the ones who gloss over the positive feedback and zoom in on what could be better. They take success for granted and use it mainly as a reason to raise the bar again. Maybe you find that kind of leadership encouraging; I don’t. The most encouraging leaders I’ve had are those who have seen more in me than I saw in myself. They didn’t push me to make themselves look good. They envisioned my best, helped me see it, and supported me to bring my potential into potent reality. Delegate Brown did just that this morning, encouraging everyday people of principle to run for office, and offering her direct support of those who choose to do so.

A third form of leadership encouragement is a consistent commitment to others’ learning. One of the great wasted opportunities in organizational life is the feedback conversation. Those conversations tend to be either complimentary or so-called constructive. They may produce feelings (good or bad), but rarely lead to insight or learning. But learning is what en-courages. It motivates and equips us to do better. So what if your feedback conversations were…

  • grounded in a commitment to the person’s (vs. your own) success?
  • tied to his or her aspirations and potential?
  • specific and objective, whether you’re giving praise or critique?
  • collaborative (maybe you’ll learn something too!)?
  • clear about what comes next? Don’t assume they will magically intuit what to continue or change based on your feedback. Forge specific agreements.

In other words, what if you entered a feedback conversation in the role of a learning partner vs. a pleased or disappointed judge? Might that be more encouraging… for both of you?

Before we wrap up this exploration of encouraging leadership, let’s remember that encouragement goes both ways. In challenging, risky times, we need to encourage our leaders. Many of my executive clients feel frustrated, defeated, or overwhelmed. This is a hard time to lead, so maybe there’s a leader who needs your encouragement today, who needs you to lift them up or call them forward.

What about you? 

  • When you focus on the ‘courage’ part of encouragement, how does that shift your view of encouragement as a leadership act?
  • Where are you demonstrating the brave heart that will en-courage others?
  • Where or how might you kindle others’ courage by being more courageous yourself?
  • Who around you may not see the potential in themselves that you see in them? How might you show that potential to them in an encouraging, inspiring way?
  • By holding feedback as a learning conversation, what opens up for you? What might that open up for the receiver?
  • What action can you take today to encourage a leader in your world? Who needs to be called to something more? Who needs to be appreciated – not just in a vague, atta-girl way, but in a way that shows her that she’s making a real difference to you?


Calling Each Other Out and Calling Each Other In: The Grit & Grace of Accountability

“We’re good at calling each other out. But can we call each other in?” That was the question someone posed in a recent webinar I attended on the #metoo movement.

On that webinar, I heard wonderful men of all races and ages say that they genuinely want to become more aware and skillful in gender relations, but they withdraw because it feels too dangerous. I also heard women who want to express support for men, but stay silent to avoid being excommunicated for being anti-feminist. And I heard women who are just so frustrated that they read men the riot act or walk away in peeved silence.

How can we bridge this gap if we’re hiding in our corners or taking each other’s heads off?

We long for a higher standard in our behavior toward each other, and I think there’s something healthy and hopeful about this new call to accountability. But our way of holding each other to that higher standard is so limited. Calling each other out – through shame and blame – seems to be our grit-laced go-to for accountability.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many situations where unequivocal public call-outs and fierce corrections are the right response. Harvey Weinstein (who is being arraigned as I write this) and Matt Lauer come to mind. These aren’t well-intentioned guys who are fumbling to get it right. They are drunk on power and heedless of the pain they cause. And while these are very public figures, we’ve known (or known of) those guys in our own lives. Behavior like theirs should be met with righteous grit: unambiguous line-drawing, public outcry, and no-kidding consequences. The act of “calling out” belongs here and I’m all for it.

But as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “There is a difference between malice and a mistake.” Much of the sexist behavior I’ve encountered hasn’t come from a malicious dominating intent, but rather from a lack of inner and outer awareness. I’m going to call this ‘garden variety’ sexism. You know: the offhand remark, the interruptions and mansplaining, the feedback about your ‘tone’ (that your male counterparts never receive).

When we encounter garden-variety sexism, we have a choice to make. Do we call him out, pushing him into the cold light of blame, or do we call him in to a deeper conversation? A lot depends on the context, and those options are the opposite poles in a much wider range of responses.

Calling each other in is for situations where decent but flawed people mess up, and where we see (or hope) that a more respectful relationship is possible.

But what does “calling someone in“ even mean? What does it look like?

  • It means speaking up on behalf of a stronger relationship, not from a place of blame.
  • It means asking for permission to confront. “Bill, you said something in that meeting yesterday that’s still not sitting right with me. Would you be willing to talk it over?” It’s a simple and powerful alignment move that we often overlook.
  • It means preparing for the conversation about intent vs. impact. What’s tricky about garden-variety ‘ism’ behavior is that it’s often done unconsciously and without intent. But a lack of intent doesn’t erase the impact. Talking this distinction through can be a real opportunity for two people to understand each other and true up their actions.
  • It means being humble, knowing that most of us have injured or marginalized someone who was different from us. I may have a legitimate sexist beef with you, but as someone who is white, straight and cis-gendered, I have to remember that I’ve got no high horse to sit on.
  • It also means keeping it real. Calling someone in doesn’t require you to swathe your message in hearts and flowers. Be factual about what happened. Be clear about how it affected you. And after you’ve heard each other out, be specific about what you want to happen differently going forward.

What about you?

Think of a time when you said or did something that someone else experienced as hurtful or demeaning. How would you have wanted him or her to address that with you?

Can you recall sexist situations in which you responded either more wimpily or fiercely than the situation required? What did you learn from that?

How do you make the distinction between when to call someone out and when to call him in?

What does each mode invite you to attend to, summon, or manage in yourself?


Interested in developing your own or your team’s capacity in this area? Contact me today!

Grit Gone Wild: Armed and Dangerous

Normally this blog focuses on ways that individual leaders can blend grit and grace for maximum positive impact.  But the grit-grace imbalance that we often see in the workplace takes place in a larger context and at a larger scale. One person’s leadership sits within a corporate culture… which sits within a larger regional/national culture… which sits within the global context.

This is a time when events in the U.S. and around the world demand the larger view.  We’re being forced to examine leadership at every level: not only in our teams and organizations, but also in our lives, our communities and our countries. Everywhere I look, it seems to me that ‘grit’ seems to have so many leaders – and followers – by the throat.

Grit is the part of our brain and psyche that differentiates, delineates and strives, while grace is the part of us that unifies, connects and accepts. Both elements are useful and necessary. But for both to contribute their best, they each need to be in partnership with the other. Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up what happens when they become disjointed:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It seems as though “power without love” is the dominant and rising force in so much of the world. The perspective of “I and mine” is overtaking the mindset of “all of us and all of our’s.” Collectively it seems we’ve muted our compassion, curiosity and gentility, and we can see the reckless and painful results. Ask the residents of Newtown, Parkland and Charleston. Ask African Americans; ask the police. Ask conservatives and liberals. Ask LGBTQ persons; ask Muslims and immigrants. Ask the people of Puerto Rico and Syria. Ask the poor and the working poor. Ask the oceans, forests and air.

This is grit gone wild: a radical swing to one side of the psyche’s pendulum, divorced from the mediating aspects of grace that could restore grit to its healthy best. This imbalance isn’t a new phenomenon. We move in and out of balance, from one side of the pendulum to the other. What does seem new in this gritty time is the level to which we are separating and armed at the boundaries.

As we turn against each other, we have so many weapons with which to assert our positions and silence the other. Here are just a few:

  • Systemic privilege
  • Misused positional power
  • Public shame and bullying
  • Destructive technologies
  • Self-righteousness
  • Xenophobia and nationalism
  • Prioritization of individual rights over the communal good

It’s as if we’re stuck in the sinister version of Thelma and Louise, grit-riding ourselves over a cliff.  As long as we keep flooring the pedal of self-interest and righteousness, we’ll hurl ourselves to the movie’s inevitable conclusion – a soaring demise … without the fun ride, the gorgeous sunset or the liberation.

We don’t need to abandon the productive engine of grit. But there’s also a serious imperative to to engage the forces of kindness, connection and care if we’re going to get the outcomes we really want.

The questions for leaders are clear. How are we complicit in grit’s reckless ride?  How will we usher love back in?







Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.



Uber Reveals the Perils of Grit Gone Wild

Set bold goals. Drive for results. Accelerate growth. Foster competition. Push people to excel.

This is the ‘grit’ side of business success, and it’s become a favored playbook in the start-up world. This formula has produced dizzying growth and investor bonanzas for countless new companies. So what’s not to love about a strategy like this? Ask Uber’s investors and its CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber’s strategy and corporate culture were overwhelmingly grit-centric:  which is to say that Uber has faltered – seriously and predictably – because of the absence of the grace aspect of the enterprise. What was missing in Kalanick’s Uber? Fairness; compassion; care for employees’ welfare; collaboration. You know – that touchy-feely stuff that, in the right amount, actually makes organizations sing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bodacious goals and an aggressive stance to productivity. But, if left to its own devices, grit’s aggressive ambition will ultimately bring a company down. Like a tall tree with shallow roots, like a field farmed year after year, like an engine run too hot for too long, a leader who leans on the grit and ignores the grace has followed a recipe for failure.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber’s obsession with results at all costs – unmediated by attention to workplace equality, safety, civility and due process – has fostered some very unhealthy dynamics:

  • a hyper-competitive atmosphere which pits employees against each other and against management
  • inappropriate workplace conduct among high-performers has gone unchecked, condoned and even modeled from the top
  • incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination have continued to mount

As a result, Uber’s “bro” culture became a broken culture. Customers, employees and investors are in revolt and the company is in chaos.

  • The company’s brand and profits have taken a huge hit; Kalanick’s been forced to step aside.
  • Uber’s valuation has dropped from $68B to $50B, while its customers flock to competitor, Lyft.
  • Uber is mired in lawsuits brought by employees and competitors.
  • The company will need to devote untold resources and time to rehabilitate its culture, management practices and brand.

Our experience tell us, and research confirms, that the leaders who are effective over the long term are the ones who blend grit and grace. Maybe not in perfect halves, but at least in dynamic combination. Their actions promote productivity as well as harmony, and foster competition and collaboration in healthy measure. Why? Because the blend is what gets the best results over time.

The Uber story, like the 2009 real estate crisis and Enron before that, was predictable and avoidable, because grit alone (like grace alone) can’t deliver sustainable success. So if you’re a grit-leaning leader who wants to shoot the moon without the crash-and-burn, go get your grace on.



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When Grace Gets Kicked To The Curb

The election of Donald Trump reflects a longing in many Americans for a “grittier” form of national leadership. His supporters see him as someone who will kick some butt and get stuff done; who tells it like it is, whether you like it or not; who breaks convention in pursuit of a goal; who draws clear distinctions between “us” and “them;” who won’t back down from a fight.

Fair enough. Grit is a critical component of leadership. It brings needed clarity, urgency and momentum. It sets ambitious goals and fosters bold innovation. It’s unafraid to break things in order to build them.

Here’s the catch. Neither grit nor grace can stand on its own. Each element needs the other to be a positive, productive force. From that perspective, one of Trump’s greatest leadership vulnerabilities is his over reliance on grit as the sole lever for influence.

He is hardly alone in that. Of all the challenges that thwart my clients’ effectiveness, grit-dependency is easily the most common. Crippled by a one-note strategy for influence, the leader’s impact is predictable: directness becomes intimidation, accountability becomes weapon, and reinvention becomes chaos. And what happens when leaders intimidate, punish and destabilize? Followers check out, in-fight or rebel – which will slow, halt or reverse the very momentum that the grit leader is trying to create. What was once a strength becomes a weakness and begets dysfunction.

When grit-based leaders embrace elements of grace, such as compassion, humility and deep listening, their grit is restored to health. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s about results. When leaders right the blend of grit and grace, their effectiveness soars, morale increases and results improve. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.

So by all means, strive for results.  But whether you’re leading a country, a corporation, a team or a household – and want to do it well – don’t kick grace to the curb.

My Beef With Goldilocks

Recently, I was talking with a colleague about my work in coaching women to lead with grit and grace in tandem. The colleague replied, “Oh! I know exactly what you mean. I use the “Goldilocks” metaphor to describe that. You know: not too hard, not too soft. Just right.” To which I replied, “That’s exactly NOT what I mean.”

I’ve heard of the Goldilocks principle before, and it rankles me. I hate the idea that women leaders should strive for a tepid compromise between directness and sensitivity. That is too confining. It offers too little potential for impact. And it’s too wimpy an approach for the problems we face.

The most effective and impactful leaders I’ve worked with do not lead from the cautious, skinny middle. They fully inhabit the whole stylistic range. Rather than expressing a weak dilution of drive and compassion, they express both at full-throttle and in the same moment. They can kick butt with great kindness, and can lend you a hand without letting you off the hook. When leaders braid the robust strands of grit and grace within themselves, their outer impact is precise, skillful and potent.

People often ask me for examples of full-strength grit&grace leaders. I’ve profiled a few: first ladies Michelle Obama and Betty Ford; long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad; author, professor and TV host Melissa Harris-Perry; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are high on my list of profiles to write.

Make no mistake, Goldilocks. You can’t hold a candle to any of them.

What about you?

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to know one of those rare leaders who has integrated a strong spine and open heart. It could be a man or woman, a public figure or private citizen.

  1. Who in your experience models that full-spectrum brand of influence?
  2. What does that leader inspire, ignite or accomplish that others don’t, can’t, or won’t?
  3. In what specific ways does her/his blend of grit and grace contribute to those kinds of results?
  4. What can you learn from his or her example that you could apply into your own way of influencing and leading others?

I’d love to hear about your role models for grit&grace leadership. So comment and let me know who they are and how they have affected you and the world around them.