There’s a question I routinely ask potential clients because I want to understand what led them to seek out an executive coach: “Why are we speaking?”

“Well, apparently I’m an asshole.” This is an answer I have heard countless times, sometimes verbatim and sometimes couched in politer words. “Are you an asshole?” I inquire. We both laugh. “Yes, I suppose I can be.”

“Hey, me too. We all can. Here is your coaching: stop doing that.” Again, we both laugh.

We then get to work, exploring all that is occurring for the executive: the challenges of leading in a global marketplace; the politics playing out at the senior leadership level and the resulting lack of trust; engagement and specific results throughout their organisation.

And this is to say nothing of their personal life and its complexities, which might include raising children, caring for ageing parents or coping with divorce, illness and death.

“What is actually happening within you?”
The answers to this question vary greatly but the essence is always what is happening within each of us: our personal histories are impacting our present reality.

All the messages we received in childhood, the self-identity we solidified in young adulthood, the methods we developed to protect ourselves and now unconsciously rely upon to mask our insecurities, fears and limitations, these are all always playing out.

“I don’t suffer fools gladly.”
“Who are the fools?” I ask. We talk about the performance of people the executive needs to address. Perhaps they need to be fired or moved into another role, because they just won’t be successful and/or able to take the organisation where it needs to go.

My response here is to impress upon my client that the remaining people are “your people”; that the job at hand is to serve, grow and advance them. The executive must ensure they are successful and have every opportunity to do their best and highest work. They no longer get to think of any of them as fools.

Language matters. The language we received in childhood is often the language we use to speak to ourselves. It affects how we feel and behave daily and determines the results we can accomplish through others.

If we have never been gracious and encouraging with ourselves, we simply cannot offer this to other people. And we rarely foster exceptional relationships with, or inspire star performances from, those we think of as fools.

This leads to me asking: “How do you wish you could handle yourself and the challenges of your executive role? Who do you want to be?”

“I want to have greater self-control. I want to not get so frustrated and impatient. I feel angry much of the time and it impacts all my relationships. I am rude at work, I am short with my family. I don’t sleep well. I carry conversations in my head. I am rarely present. I wish I could lead with greater maturity, intelligence, quiet confidence and ease. I want to feel more peace, excitement and fulfilment. It would be incredible to enjoy my life more than I do.”

Research undertaken by the Leadership Circle of more than 60,000 C-suite and senior-level leaders in more than 10,000 organisations and 171 countries found that 70–75 per cent of top executives are highly reactive: critical, distant, arrogant, autocratic and overly driven.

This reactive orientation strongly correlates with leadership ineffectiveness and diminished business success; not to mention, it is simply a much less enjoyable way of life.

The road map for effective leadership involves maturing our reactive nature to higher-level expressions.

The road map for effective leadership involves maturing our reactive nature to higher-level expressions. This includes having a caring connection with co-workers and colleagues; a teacher, coach and mentor orientation with those we lead; greater interpersonal intelligence, composure and community concern; and a higher vision and purpose beyond ourselves.

Of these traits, having greater self-awareness of how we impact others is perhaps the key to better business success. Leaders who understand that not only what they do but that how they do it matters greatly outperform – in the most concrete business sense – those who fail to grasp this.

The truth is, being an asshole is easy. It takes nothing to judge, criticise or dismiss others. But this just isn’t leadership. It is assholeship.

Being a caring, self-aware, available and gracious mentor, teacher and coach to others is the real work of leadership. Of course, this takes maturity, patience, work and nothing short of our own personal development.

Each of us will either do our own work and excel or we will soon find ourselves irrelevant to what the world needs and wants now.