Dear Congress…

You are the best example of why I do the work I do. And that is not a compliment.

Beyond all the rhetoric, positions and posturing, what I see unfolding is the destructive potential of grit-only leadership, which, at its worst, is a bully’s stance. The beauty of grit lies in its potential for strength, focus, and resolve. But when grit becomes divorced from grace’s capacity for collaboration and compassion, leadership devolves into what I call “growl” mode.

With its ‘my way or the highway’ and ‘winner take all’ mentality, growl leadership isn’t strong; it’s brittle. It doesn’t move things forward; it fractures them. It isn’t grounded, it’s stuck in cement shoes, taking everyone down with it. Growl doesn’t create sustainable growth; it fuels the kind of greed that torpedoes countries, economies and ecosystems. It shuts down governments.

It’s only downhill from here if we can’t learn to stand for our principles while flexing our positions… if we can’t encourage both accountability and kindness and craft policies that do the same. I know this kind of blended leadership is possible. I’ve seen it, and it’s productive and transformative. And it’s necessary now – from you.

Congress, please do this work. Learn to stand and bend at the same time, in service to the principles and ideals that we all share deep down. Stop striving for the perfect answer or the big win. Please aim higher than that. Show us the true power of firmness and compassion braided together for the greater good, not for the next election. You have shown us the worst of ourselves. Now show us the best.

Profiles in Grit & Grace: Diana Nyad

Participants in Leading With Grit & Grace® workshops often ask me to name women who are examples of grit and grace in balance. I usually mention women in classic leadership roles: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee of Liberia.

But the next time a course participant asks me to name a ‘grit and grace’ role model, I will name Diana Nyad. This weekend, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage. She is 64 years old, and this was her fifth (and only successful) attempt.

First, let’s talk about Ms. Nyad’s obvious ‘grit.’ A key aspect of grit is persistence, and Nyad is the personification of that. She created a wild vision and has applied herself tirelessly toward it. In fact, she’s wanted to swim between Cuba and Florida since she was 8 years old. Can you imagine dedicating yourself to a herculean goal (or any goal for that matter) for 56 years? Can you imagine persevering at it through four failed attempts? Diana Nyad shows us the beauty of grit at its best: the audacity to dream an outrageous dream, the willingness to commit to it fully, and the drive to work tirelessly toward it. As Ms. Nyad told ABC news after her successful swim:

“We should never ever give up; you’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

Many athletes – and leaders in all domains – share Nyad’s remarkable persistence. But that can come at a price. We all know those grit-ful leaders who descend into a ruthless competitiveness (a style which I call ‘growl’). These are the leaders who will mow another down for their own advancement… who will bankrupt workers, investors and environments for their own obscene profit… who will threaten to kill a tennis court line judge over a disputed call.

Far fewer are the leaders who balance their strong goal orientation with the humility, compassion and generosity of ‘grace.’ The blog, “Women You Should Know” (, quoted a close friend of Nyad’s as saying:

“More than the athletic feat, she [Nyad] wants to send a message of peace, love, friendship and happiness … between the people of the United States and Cuba.”

This statement reveals Ms. Nyad’s elegant ability to blend her drive for personal accomplishment with her yearning to contribute to a more unified world. Through the integration of grit and grace within herself, Ms. Nyad has turned an impressive achievement into an act of true inspiration.

What about you?

Who are the people, men and women alike, in your own life who exemplify the transformative power of grit and grace in balance?

What happens when that person brings that balance forward in his/her actions? What does that blended power make possible that grit or grace alone cannot?

Where are you being invited to grow with respect to your own blend of grit and grace?

What’s the next step in your journey toward greater integration?





When ‘Grace’ Deals a Disservice

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Thanks to a Swiss store clerk who made a fateful decision about Oprah Winfrey, I’ve decided to write it now.

Recently, Oprah was shopping for purses in Zurich, Switzerland. She was well-dressed and shopping alone. She asked the store clerk to show her a high-end purse which was displayed beyond reach. Obviously not knowing that this was Oprah, the clerk refused the request, apparently because she felt this customer wouldn’t be able to afford the $39,000 bag. Despite Oprah’s repeated requests to see this particular purse, the clerk steered her only toward less expensive options. Oprah finally left the store, taking her business – and her considerable cash – elsewhere.

From all appearances, this is an interesting story about race. But it is a story that is being widely and ably covered in the media. I want to explore a different angle here: the story of ‘grace’ gone awry.

We cannot know this clerk’s heart or the content of her character. So for the sake of this post, I’m choosing to take her at her word. In an interview after the fact, the clerk said that her underlying intent was to spare Oprah from embarrassment. In other words, the clerk had made an independent assessment about Oprah’s CAPACITY (to pay for the purse), and took action to protect Oprah from the (assumed) humiliation from her (assumed) lack of wealth. Yet under the guise of an intent to help, the clerk took actions that inflicted real harm: a personal insult to a very public customer, a significant hit to the store’s reputation and revenue, and a world-wide PR nightmare for the Swiss government.

As this example shows, actions rooted in grace do not always have beneficial consequences, and this clerk is not alone in creating compassionate harm. I see this often among my grace-based coaching clients, in a wide range of situations, not at all limited to race. They make a private assessment of what would be difficult for someone else, and manage ‘down’ to that assessment in an attempt to avoid creating discomfort for the other person.

Here’s how that can go:

“Fred has been working so hard – I can’t bear to give him one more task. I’ll just stay late and do it myself.” Or…
“I decided to give that presentation to Emily, because Susan is so uncomfortable with public speaking.” Or…
“I know that Jim comes in late alot, but he’s got so much stress at home. I think it’s amazing that he gets here at all.”

There is a foundation of ‘grace-ful’ compassion in all these scenarios. To be sure, the ability to see or imagine the world from someone else’s point of view is a lovely and useful one. The problem comes when there’s an absence of accompanying grit, which contributes clarity, objectivity, and the impetus for direct engagement. Without grit to keep our actions grounded in fact and explicit agreement, our empathy can morph into private and pitying conclusions about what someone can or cannot do. It’s downhill from there, as those conclusions drive us to take actions that actually limit the other’s opportunities: to grow…to exceed expectations…to choose his own path…to make a purchase she can easily afford.

This is how an imbalance of ‘grace’ can give rise to its own special brand of disservice, disrespect and disempowerment.

So what’s a grace-ster to do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Become aware of the line between empathy and projection. Balanced empathy creates curiosity on our part – like “Gee, if I were he, I might feel…” Curiosity tends to cause us to engage, to find out what’s really happening. But projection causes us to impose our unverified conclusions on others, often causing us to limit people when we think we’re protecting them. “She’s too shy to make that presentation.” “That would just create too much stress for him.” So ask yourself whether your empathy is opening up curiosity and dialogue, or causing you to draw and impose your own reality about someone onto him or her.

2. Check your intentions behind your kind actions. If you’re like a lot of grace-sters, cowardice often masquerades as kindness. If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, ask yourself – “Am I avoiding this because it will harm the other person, or because it will be uncomfortable for me?” You may still choose not to confront that person, but at least you’ll be clear about who you’re really trying to protect.

3. Whatever your empathy is picking up about someone, check it out directly with the person before you act. “Susan, you’ve talked often about how nervous presentations make you. My first instinct is to want to minimize your anxiety and steer presentations to other people. I don’t want to stress you out, but I also think you’d benefit from gaining visibility with upper management, and presentations are one of the best ways to do that. Given your career goals, what’s your sense of the right way to go?”

I’d love to hear your comments, questions and reactions.



Give Marissa Mayer a Break!

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is tasked with reinvigorating a stagnant company.  She must look for every possible lever to boost Yahoo’s innovation. One of her strategies: bring people back to work. Stimulate creativity by bringing people back into direct face-to-face collaboration. No more telecommuting.


Actually, I get the fury.  If I were telecommuting, I would hate this policy reversal. I might have to scramble to find new child care arrangements that I didn’t used to need and I can’t easily afford. It might actually make it impossible for me to stay in my job because I depended on being able to be home to care for family members. Or I might have to sit in horrendous Silicon Valley traffic for hours a day.  Or it might just take away the treasured convenience of working in my bunny slippers and changing loads of laundry while I work. Whether the impact is dire or just inconvenient to the folks at Yahoo, it’s real and it matters.

But I have problems with the criticisms that Mayer is getting.

  1. She has deprived employees of an inalienable right. Telecommuting is a corporate strategy, not an entitlement. If a company’s practice doesn’t support a company’s current circumstances or goals, it should be changed. If creativity is a strategic imperative for Yahoo now, and if Mayer thinks that face-to-face collaboration will accomplish or support that imperative, then she should try it. 
  2. She has betrayed ‘her kind’. One of the odd narratives arising is that, as a working mother, she owes it to other working mothers to let them work from home. After all, she is ‘one of us;’ she should know better. I find this puzzling and offensive. First of all, Mayer is a wealthy working mother; I question the assessment that she really is ‘one of us.’ She may actually not be as in touch with the financial and logistical impacts of the telecommuting ban as we think she should be. But it’s also possible that as a mother, she understands, as few CEOs do, exactly the sacrifice she’s asking working mothers to make. It’s possible that innovation is THAT important right now.

And let’s put this whole issue in a larger perspective. We still have an unemployment rate of 8%. We have hundreds of thousands of Federal workers facing furloughs and even termination. For the millions of people who are now or soon to be unemployed or underemployed, having to go into an office would be a pretty good problem to have.

I doubt this policy change would be news if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates were making it. It’s news because Melissa is making it. Because she’s a working mom, we expect her to be nice to other working moms. We expect her status as a working mother to soften the edges of her judgment, to let an assumed demographic affiliation trump the company’s need for innovation.

Really, 2013?


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?


McKinsey makes the case for women at the top

This is a very informative video summarizing McKinsey’s research on the bottom line impact of women in senior leadership.  I appreciate McKinsey’s initial research question: Does it actually matter to have women at the top?  Do women leaders make a difference to organizational effectiveness?  Their findings: yes. Women Matter | McKinsey & Company

The Four Pillars of True Power

Last year, a company hired me to present “Leading With Grit & Grace” to its senior women executives. When the sponsor asked me to describe the content of the presentation, I said, “It’s about how women can wield their power and influence more effectively.”  Their response?  “Whatever you do, don’t mention the word power in your presentation!

This client was giving voice to a common discomfort with the notion of power in our culture.  Women seem especially wary of it, as if power is something that we shouldn’t claim or own. I think the reason we resist owning – or even talking about – power is because of how we define it. Most of us think of power as an oppressive and constraining force, a tool of domination. And unfortunately, our past and present are riddled with examples of power used in this way.  So these are legitimate concerns.

But because we resist this ‘brute force’ aspect of power, we tend to send the whole topic underground, burying with it all of power’s positive potential.  As we dissociate from the more coercive aspects of power, we also disown our ability to unite and mobilize others for productive and compassionate ends. This positive, connective force is what Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, calls “true power.” Weston contends that true power is supported by four pillars of internal capacity: grounding, strength, focus, and flexibility.

Pillar 1: Grounding. Our personal power is not unlike electrical current. Ground it, and it’s productive and safe. But when ungrounded, it has the potential to do real harm, so true power has to begin there. It’s the establishment of a strong physical, spiritual, mental and emotional foundation from which to encounter life.  Grounding keeps us rooted in our bodies, beliefs and principles, and thus stable in the face of challenge.  According to Weston, “Grounding…leads to an unwavering self-confidence and conviction in what you do and believe.”

Pillar 2: Focus. According to Weston, there are two aspects to focus: “finding stillness in the chaos” and “giving direction to one’s efforts.”  Focus brings a calm, clear quality to your power.  It enables you to sort through all that’s happening in and around you, and make a clear choice about what to bring forward.  Focus concentrates your energy, enabling you to act and speak with intent and precision.  To focus is to take a definite shape, something that can be uncomfortable for women.  To help us move into that discomfort, we need the next pillar: strength.

Pillar 3: Strength. This is the aspect we usually associate with power, and without the other pillars, it can turn into the kind of brute force that we rightly resist. Here’s how Joe Weston describes strength: “The innate force of strength is expressed in two ways.  The first is the courage to move out of your safe space and into the unknown, and the second is the physical force to accomplish your goals.” Strength is often a real skill of grit-based leaders.  But when strength is not accompanied by grounding or flexibility, it can turn a woman from bold to bitchy.

Pillar 4: Flexibility. Weston believes that flexibility is the most elusive, challenging, yet potent of all the pillars.  He sums it up in a Taoist saying: “In a heavy monsoon, the mighty oak will snap like a twig, but the blade of grass will survive.”  Flexibility is the key to versatility, creativity and compassion.  This is often a strong pillar for grace-based leaders, yet they will tell you that flexibility without the support of other pillars can result in weakness.  A leader who is grounded, clear and strong – while also able to adapt and adjust – is a force to be reckoned with.

What about you?

Each of these four pillars is essential to ‘true power,’ but the real potential lies in achieving balance in all four.  Which of these pillars are most developed in you?  What do those strengths make possible for you and others?  What happens when you overuse those pillars to the neglect of the others?

Which of these pillars is least developed in you?  What impact does that have in your ability to express ‘true power?’  How will strengthening that pillar help you to accomplish something that really matters to you?

What one or two steps can you take right now to get started?



To find out more about Joe Weston’s work, go to


Challenge and Support: The Grit and Grace of People Development

Most leaders would agree that one of their main tasks is to develop their people.  Yet many would also agree that a) they don’t do enough of it and b) they don’t feel confident that they do it well.  As a result, there’s often an unfortunate lack of attention paid to this critical aspect of leadership.

The results? Leaders find themselves stuck in the ‘doing trap.’  Their people can’t seem to get the job done without them, so they can’t extract themselves from the tasks of day- to-day delivery.  But this is a vicious cycle – as the leader stays involved in task execution, her people don’t grow, which then prevents her from letting go of her involvement in the task. The leader is so busy ‘doing’ that she can’t find time to attend to strategy, process, people and systems – the very things that could elevate her team’s performance to the next level.

The only way out of the ‘doing trap’ is for a leader to actively attend to the growth and development of her staff.  Unfortunately, most leaders have not been taught how to think about how to grow people, much less how to do it.

Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and researcher at Harvard, has discovered that people grow with a combination of two essential ingredients: challenge and support. It’s a simple but profound construct.  Challenge is the ‘grit’ side of the equation.  Challenge – in the forms of corrective feedback, a stretch assignment, an increase in responsibility, a new topic area – is what causes us to change. Just like lifting weights strengthens us by applying productive stress to our muscles, so an appropriate challenge can strengthen our performance at work.

Because challenge is a ‘grit’ action, grit-based leaders tend to be naturals at providing it.  But too much challenge can throw someone into a state of panic, where unproductive fear takes over and learning stops.  It’s like asking someone to go from bench-pressing 50 lbs. to 150 lbs. in one session.  Failure and a setback in confidence are the likely results.

So challenge must be balanced with support, which is the ‘grace’ side of the equation. Support comes in many forms: a doable stretch, positive feedback, delegation with built-in safety nets, mentoring and instruction, clear guidelines, etc.  It provides enough safety for the employee to stay out of the panic zone and inhabit a more productive ‘stretch’ zone that maximizes learning.

Grace-based leaders have a natural tendency to provide support.  But beware!  Too much support can make life so comfortable for employees that they don’t grow.  This is as serious a leadership error as inflicting too much challenge; it can just as easily stop development in its tracks.

The magic lies in the blend. But how do you know whether you’ve got the ‘right’ blend of challenge and support? The answer lies in the result.  Pay attention to what mixture seems to result in the best quality work and strongest motivation in each person.  Some employees will light up and produce like crazy like in the face of a challenge.  Others will wilt.  For some, the smallest praise will spur them to new heights, while others will see praise as the ‘fluffy stuff’ that comes before the ‘real’ feedback.

Here’s the catch.  It’s impossible to bring this balance of challenge and support to your employees if you haven’t developed a good balance of grit and grace within yourself.  This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of developing others – that it requires us to first develop in ourselves the versatility and range to bring each employee exactly what he or she needs in order to grow.

What about you?

Are you naturally more grit-based or grace-based?

How does that preference impact the way you develop your people?  Do you tend to grow your people more with challenge or support?

With whom does that seem to work?  With whom are you missing the mark?

Think of one person for whom your balance of challenge and support doesn’t seem to be the best fit.  Identify which aspect you think they need more of from you.  Shift your approach in that direction and see what happens.  And let us know!



Betty Ford: A Profile in Grit and Grace

Betty Ford did not have the title, training or experience that authorized her to lead.   Her leadership authority rested in the power of who she was.  She had a unique combination of ferocity and vulnerability that shifted the hearts, minds and habits of millions.  As such, Betty Ford’s influence style was an examplar of grit and grace in balance.

On the ‘grit’ side, she worked tirelessly for what she believed.  Time Magazine dubbed her the “Fighting First Lady.”  She was not afraid to take unpopular stands. She brought taboo topics such as cancer, mental health and drug addiction out into the open.   She got people thinking in new ways about everything from women’s rights to gun control.  She was not afraid to make people uncomfortable – so much so that some conservative politicians called for her to “resign” as the first lady.  Betty Ford was tough in the ways that we still long for our leaders to be.

Yet she balanced that toughness with great vulnerability, daring to reveal her most personal struggles in an era where that simply “wasn’t done.”   By talking about her own breast cancer, she motivated millions of women to engage in breast self-examination.  By talking about her struggles with drug addiction, she encouraged people around the world to confront and address their own addiction.

Betty Ford blended the force of her convictions and the frailty of her humanity in a way that left a lasting and positive legacy on American culture, consciousness and behavior.  That is leadership.

What about you?

As a leader at work, at home, or in your community…

  • Are you surfacing the undiscussable issues?
  • Are you ‘calling it like you see it?’
  • Are you willing to take unpopular stands for what you believe is right and fair?
  • Where do you need to bring more grit to increase your impact?

At the same time…

  • Are you approachable?
  • Do you make it safe for others to tell the truth to you?
  • How vulnerable are you willing to be, in service to those you lead?
  • Where could you offer more kindness and humanity to increase your effectiveness?

Commit to make one courageous shift in yourself to make things better for others.  And let me know how it goes!