Contingency and Leader Action

The Practical Effects of Contingency

There is no universal guidance for how to be a good leader except that you must meet the leadership needs of the persons, presenting situation, and challenges of the moment. It is for those who lead to figure out the rest, day by day, moment by moment. Leaders must appraise and respond to this action imperative, often without having all the time and information they would like. Indeed, that is where the notion of contingency comes in. “Stuff” happens and leaders must act.

Let me distinguish my point here from two common elements in leadership training: First, I am not talking about "situational leadership" or some other model of leadership that provides a typology of needs and responses. Theory and models are useful, but they're not as immediately relevant to the scene of action I have in mind. Much of the time, leaders are required to act in the moment from intuitively guided judgment, more affected by their state of mind and facts on the ground than a model or theory.

Second, I am not suggesting that leaders act contrary to the goals, strategies, and operating plans they’ve formulated in management meetings. But, if the reality is that leaders must often act under time constraints that make intuitive judgment unavoidable, the task of internalizing and “metabolizing” these plans is even more crucial. It makes a difference whether such plans are in the desk drawer or active as purposive guidance in the background of our mind. In either case, however, leaders will act.

Leadership as Identity Work

Given these considerations, I believe we must recognize the vital importance of leader identity. After all, a leader’s mental state and personal presence are an expression of his/her identity. And the appraisal and response to presenting situations, the persons involved, and the business aims they share are mediated by how they are processed in the leader’s mind and discussed and acted upon through his or her overt actions and interactions with others.

Human beings are highly adaptive creatures, and emerging leaders are often rather driven, highly action oriented people. Thus, their ongoing adult identity development is frequently shaped by an unrelenting appetite for challenge and the adaptive development required to succeed and thrive in those initiatives. The steeper the challenge (complexity, scope, time pressures, etc.) of the task, the more learning and strain there will be.

When the duration of strain and struggle is extended, and the results of the leader’s efforts fall short, the leader may begin to question him/herself. Coping resources – cognitive, emotional, and social – can be exhausted, leaving the leader feeling depleted and at risk of failure. Unless appropriate coaching support for this leader has been provided, this escalating pattern of exhaustion and anxiety may also induce the leader to retreat in an attempt to conceal his or her failure and not be “found out.”

Implications for Leader Development

The live, everyday practice of leadership makes regular demands on leaders to make decisions and take effective action based on intuitive judgment. This judgement concerns prudential issues of consequence to financial performance and stakeholder interests, as well as cultural and organizational matters affecting human performance (execution and engagement), capacity building, and sustainability.

Ultimately, we must trust our leaders’ capacities to exercise this kind of judgment, and to quickly learn from mistakes along the way. To the extent they can do so, we are able to count on them to run the business without a great deal of supervision. It is this kind of leader development, reaching down into the lower and middle levels of management, that ensures an ample supply of senior leaders in the future, and the capacity to function faster and more effectively in a flatter, globally dispersed organization.

So, how should we approach this kind of development for emerging leaders (cultivating individual capacities for leadership) in order to ensure we are building our enterprise-wide leadership capacity?

1. A Scalable Approach to Assessment-Based Coaching. The development approach that is best suited to this situation and purpose begins with the use of multi-rater (360) feedback of a specific kind. We must assess personal qualities and relational tendencies that shape our identity and that are particularly relevant to leadership and adaptive adult development. Emerging leaders must have a grasp of who they are and how they exemplify these characteristics today, and how their work as leaders indicates a need to further cultivate and apply these kinds of behavior prospectively.

2. Highly Individualized Development and Group Learning. Assessment of individuals must be situated within the unique context of their lives, roles, and operating environments. This context is social and is defined by roles, goals, processes, and relationships. It is in and through this constellation of factors that leaders discover their challenges, resources, and opportunities to experiment with more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. The curriculum may not directly address key technical-functional skills and knowledge, but it does enable leaders to use such "hard" resources more effectively.

3. Sustained Practice and Growth. Intensive use of strategies #1 and #2 gets action-oriented emerging leaders off to a quick start (90-120 days). We do this by engaging them in action learning, applying their insights and developmental action strategies to real, high-value work. However, to prevent them from being totally consumed by a task focus and neglecting attention to enabling patterns of behavior (thinking, relating, doing), follow-up measures and feedback specific to the leader’s work and role are deployed. They are placed in the driver’s seat, integrating and validating their gains - it's quite reinforcing.

Holism is the Key

Openness to taking a fresh look at yourself in the context of a stretch assignment or new position, and sharing what you see with someone else requires humility and courage, patience and persistence. Your mind is the primary tool that you have as a leader, and it encompasses thought, feeling, and action tendencies. We all have acquired habits of mind that govern how we see things – self, others, relationships, and situations. These habits are engraved in well-worn neural pathways that have generally served us well up to now.

However, when we choose to take on the role of leadership, just as with taking on the role of parenting, we may find that change is needed. It requires active learning that will blaze new neural pathways and trigger additional synaptic connections. Some of the learning affects our rational-analytical left hemisphere, which thrives on logic and the stuff of semantic memory (facts, knowledge, ideas). Some of it affects the right-brain functions, which sharpen attentional focus and transmit intuitive data from subcortical regions upward to influence judgment, while also enhancing emotional self-management and our abilities to moderate reactive tendencies.

In closing, let's keep a few simple points in mind. First, all of who we are and what we become depends importantly on what we want in life and what we value. These considerations authored by us have a great deal of influence on the re-wiring of our brain. Second, as I like to remind leaders, positions with core leadership responsibilities are usually a choice, elective, even a privilege in most firms. Fortunately, so is your capacity to learn, grow, and develop. Finally, just as you did not become who you are on your own as a child, you will not do it as a leader either. Indeed, becoming a great leader involves learning this lesson and paying it forward.

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.

The Paradoxical Effect of Enlightened Self-Reliance

A Tale with Two Perspectives on Middle Management

Today flatter, faster, global is less often the hyperbole of some promised future state and more often the familiar trajectory of change, or a well-worn, if not optimized, mode of running the business. And sandwiched between senior management and the ground-level agents of execution, those who actually deal with customers, is a lean pool of increasingly stretched middle managers. Many are members of the so-called Millennial Generation, a demographic most firms are struggling to “understand”.

Of course, understanding implies perspective taking. After all, facts, feelings, and the interpretation of both arise from a point of view, which is nested in a social-organizational context. When we see people as a segment of the population, in aggregate, we look for and usually find their shared qualities as a demographic group. We attribute objectivity to this understanding. We hope to find ways to keep them engaged, make them productive, and retain the “best”. Understandable aims.

But there are two vantage points from which to view the situation in which achievement-oriented, mid-level managers find themselves today. First, there is the corporate standpoint from which they’re seen as a resource, input to the “talent pipeline”. From this view they’re also an expensive resource that must be leveraged for maximum return. The second perspective is from the subjectively lived experience of a middle manager, how it looks, feels, and unfolds for them as unique persons with a life outside of work.

Even the most benevolent and humane of corporate strategies – those that place a premium on human resource development – will ultimately regard middle managers somewhat impersonally, as assets and a significant expense item in the operating budget. When times are tough and the prevailing judgment is that we can and must run leaner – remember 2008 – the more aspirational and contingent nature of such strategy commitments becomes very obvious quite quickly.

If that strikes you as negative or cynical, please consider this. Just as upper management generally believes their middle managers are empowered to act, and to overcome or mitigate potential barriers to performance objectives, I believe it is equally plausible to assume that management has more choices available to them than layoffs when financial shortfalls occur. In my opinion, there is little excuse for either party to play the victim when they find themselves in the face of daunting challenges.

That said, my aim in this article is to address the middle manager personally, individually, and directly. For them, I believe that macroeconomic conditions and organizational norms must viewed as relatively fixed factors to which they must adaptively respond and accommodate. When they take this approach, we come upon the paradoxical effect I allude to in the title, i.e., a certain kind of “enlightened” self-reliance, which turns out to yield win-win results for middle managers and their management.

I shall only briefly highlight the main threads of this thesis here. The full body of theory, principles, and the ways in which both are translated into an innovative development strategy for those in the middle will be addressed in a forthcoming book that I am presently working on.

Self-Empowerment, Not Life on an Island

Those in supervisory and middle manager roles in today’s world of business represent about 25 million people, about 16% of the U.S. workforce. Most are Millennials, but I will not dwell on their characteristics as a demographic group; we’ll leave that to those in workforce planning. What I have to say to the career-oriented, Gen Y manager is less about their generation and more about the social-organizational reality they face as persons and how best to navigate it.

To briefly make the context of challenge clear, I enumerate below ten “thesis points”, all or most of which are supported by research. My purpose here is not academic, so what I offer is a point of view that I believe the you can intuitively evaluate for descriptive accuracy and plausibility. In sum, I hope these thoughts provide at least the suggestion of a mindset and approach for how aspiring Millennials might take charge of their career-oriented personal development.

Thesis Points Concerning the Context for Middle Managers:

1. The transition from being an individual contributor to managing and leading others is a big change, it requires a level of adaptive development similar to life’s other milestone events, e.g., parenting.

2. There is a difference between learning technical-instrumental skills and leader development. The former concerns doing, the latter affects our capacity to function in and through relationships.

3. Leading others is largely dependent on our capacity to form, shape, and sustain trust in our relations with others. Abiding trust is required for a robust sense of personal and interpersonal security to form.

4. Identifying “high potential” candidates for development is an imperfect “science”. “False negatives” and “false positives” occur. Management usually catches the latter but often misses the former.

5. The felt contingency of a firm’s commitment to us induces a felt sense of insecurity. Each of us also have our own personality-based sources of insecurity. We must manage both sources of insecurity.

6. A major mistake we make when lacking security is overpromising and taking imprudent risks. It is often an unnecessary act of desperation, overcompensation, not evidence of realistic confidence.

7. Life can’t be divided neatly between demands we face at work and at home. We are one. Rewards and stresses from all directions intermingle and affect us in all directions, often unconsciously.

8. A mature sense of security is required to adaptively self-manage risk-taking and self-advocacy, and to correct for the asymmetry of power between the individual and the organization.

9. Unless our sense of security is sufficiently strong, we will disempower ourselves. Our confidence in taking the realistic risks associated with stretching and growing will be adversely impacted.

10. The mature sense of security needed to promote career-oriented development in an organizational context will most reliably arise in a high-trust, professionally competent relationships.

Relationally-based personal development does not come without significant effort. That’s because when we attempt to revise long-standing habits of mind, emotion, action, and interaction that block adoption of the new habits we need as organizational leaders today, we are essentially faced with “rewiring” our brain. Through focused reflection and dialogue, we jointly explore our self and situation, figuring out what helps/hinders forward progress, what needs to change, and then daring, with a mix of supportive encouragement and “tough love”, to do things differently even when it feels uncomfortable at first.

It requires that we obtain a deep understanding of ourselves, including the less conscious feelings and fears that affect our capacity to act from security with mature judgment, and relate to others with true confidence. Out of this a fuller sense of self emerges. As we build forward in career relevant areas of behavior, it is rare that our growth does not also generate significant rewards outside of work as well.

The Paradoxical Effect

What I have observed is that when developing leaders acquire and internalize this mature, career-oriented sense of personal security, they get “smarter” and more effective, and they become more valuable to their company. They learn how to give to others more of what they themselves needed in order to bolster their own felt security. They recognize and deal with people as persons first, leading and collaborating for ends they all have reasons to care about.

Thus, we discover that enlightened self-reliance is born, lives, and thrives in healthy, adaptive relationships. It is in and through these kinds of relationships that genuine loyalty emerges. While this may prove to create a contagion of healthy relationships and engagement at the organizational level – and that would be great – it is only through the initiative and personal concern of individuals that we can count on it. So be the change you wish to see happen!

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.

Wanted: Courageous Clients

Those who know me well know that I am not audacious, so why the provocative title? Perhaps that will be better answered at the conclusion of this article. But one thing for sure is important to address at the outset: What is it that I mean in my use of the word "courageous", and why do I single out that characteristic as a most-wanted quality in a client, a client for you or a client for me?

About Courage

Battlefield bravery, standing on moral principle, facing threat to one's career or the well-being of oneself or one's family, or exploring one's own feelings of fear and insecurity. Courage refers to a willingness to approach rather than flee our fears in quite a variety of situations that we find daunting. Here, I shall limit my focus to the courage required to face challenges in personal development.

That should be of interest to all whose goals include advancing to roles of greater responsibility. I know, that could sound like resume talk, but it's not. What I'm referring to is the actual, felt experience of fear when answering a call that requires you to stretch, enter spheres of thought, action, and interaction that are new to you, or perhaps new to all those in your organization.

Perhaps you've already found yourself in a situation of much greater complexity and difficulty than you anticipated. Indeed, it may be one of those "Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into" moments. Hopefully, if this is your situation, you've also concluded that you cannot simply "fake it until you make it"; you need to sort things out, and soon.

Enough, then, about the situations that call for courage. What is the distinctive quality of courage that I am looking for when I say I want courageous clients?

The kind of personal development I am describing is elective, thus it's also avoidable. After all, we need not choose to take on more challenging levels of responsibility at work. But if we do, then we will show courage by acknowledging and responding to the objective and subjective dimensions of the challenge. Moreover, the latter must dealt with first. Let me explain.

Our desire to be the man/woman "they" think we are or hope we are can block our capacity to recognize that what they see in us is potential, a trajectory of capacity, not the actuality of that capacity. That is, it is expected that we have the ability to learn, grow, and develop if we are to become the further evolved leader that they and we want and expect to emerge.

About Fear, Love, and Performance

You've heard the expression, "don't let them see you sweat." Well, that can be apt in a crisis or in the context of an event, but it's flawed advice where personal development is concerned. "Sweat" in this context is fear - anxiety if you prefer - and courage involves getting close to it and deconstructing it, especially the parts that shake our confidence, cause us the greatest concern and self-doubt.

Okay, we all have egos, that conscious aspect of self that is who we are as an agent of self-conscious action. But our ego identity can also lead us to suppress parts of our true self, namely, any experience that may be incongruent what who we think we are, i.e., the experience of fear, doubts, and worries about being sufficient. When that happens, the ego becomes not who we are, but who feel we must pretend to be.

That pretense must be set aside to enable development. None of us is as able or intelligent, or as ready for the next big assignment as we might think we are. But many of us have unconsciously suppressed our fears because of an intense desire to advance - this is the "fake it until you make it" strategy. That may be a passable strategy in early career moves, but it seldom works for true stretch assignments that move us into senior leadership.

If you can't find a way to drop the mask of invincibility, to dwell with your fears and discomfort long enough to understand them, you won't be successful in your efforts to grow past your current level of competence. It's really that simple.

What helps us approach, examine, and overcome our fears? It's a certain kind of love. Specifically, in the presence of a skilled helper, we must experience the unconditional positive regard of the other for us as a person. It’s when we feel the helper's confidence and belief in us that real change becomes possible. We must also be able to experience their confrontation and challenge as love.

This kind of love does not conquer fear. Rather, it consoles, heartens, and encourages us in the face of fear. As Albert Schweitzer pointed out many years ago, given these conditions the "doctor within" is called to action. We find our will, trust, and faith in the relationship and in ourselves, which is sufficient to calm our fears and focus our energies.


Whatever business you're in, I suspect that you'll find this phenomenon applies to you in your work with customers and clients as well. Recognize that you cannot make the relationship work and yield sustainable success if your customer or client is not equally invested in that effort. Be honest about what you know and what you need to understand better about appraising that potential and cultivating the conditions for effective engagement. Then act on it.

We all face the need to "fish or cut bait" at critical moments in relationships with others. It's difficult to recognize that something can't work right now in a client relationship despite our best efforts, but often it is in addressing the issue directly that any potential changes of heart and mind do occur. And if they don't we've likely given ourselves and our client time to pursue other more productive and satisfying opportunities.

Follow-up Contact:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.

Something Old, Something New: The Johari Window in Relational Coaching

Most of us who've worked in the fields of leadership development and group dynamics have encountered and perhaps used the Johari Window. It's a classic conceptualization of how self and other awareness affect quality of interaction. Like many models, it may suggest conceptual simplicity. Don't let that fool you. It contains powerful layers of complexity worth discovering.

I can only suggest a bit of the richness of this model here. Therefore, I'll link my comments to recent developments in professional psychology, which I believe indicate new and powerful uses for the model, ways to leverage it and achieve deeper and lasting leadership development in an organizational setting. I will address the intersection of Relational Coaching and Johari Window.

Basics of the Johari Window

Any 2 x 2 matrix will simplify a phenomenon as means of purchasing focus. In the case of the Johari Window the two axes, Known/Unknown to Self and Other (see graphic), create four cells whose boundaries change largely as a function of two kinds of interpersonal communication, i.e., self-disclosure and feedback. There's more to it, but let's start with these dimensions of behavior.

The quadrants are labeled to signify the descriptive differences and normative effects shaped by these patterns of interaction. As they are enacted, cell boundaries expand or contract, our shared space (Public) grows or shrinks. And research in group dynamics, human development, interpersonal neurobiology, and clinical psychology indicates that enlarging this space yields adaptive gains.

Entering relationships, at work or in the community, we all have social-emotional habits that govern what we disclose (make Public) and what we hold back (keep Private). Such "rules" are acquired early in life; so are those that govern the felt ease, willingness, and candor with which we share our feelings and experience of others with others (feedback). No wonder we are be left with Blind Spots.

All this can be changed in varying degrees. It depends importantly on all parties in the social-relational context, and specifically on the changes in overt behavior they are willing and able to make. It also depends on the less visible forces that work from within and between us and others - that's the "stuff" in the Unknown quadrant. And that takes us to the topic of Relational Coaching.

Relational Coaching and the Unknown

The contents of the Unknown cell of the Johari Window are not "unknowable", but they are not as easy to access. The reason that they are important, is that they also can energize our stubborn attachment to certain mental, emotional, and social habits that prove to be self-limiting. These contents were placed in the Unknown space of our mind for a reason. They were problematic.

In most cases, the dimensions of experience and behavior that are relegated to the Unknown region were placed there because they did not fit or got in the way of high-value attachment relationships when we were young. Perhaps certain expressions of subjective experience (emotions, attitudes, action tendencies) were not deemed appropriate. And we noticed, even as very young children.

In other cases, there may have been a keenly felt threat of losing the support and attention of an attachment figure if we made certain demands. So, we may have learned to suppress a good deal of what we subjectively experienced; not only because it could not be freely expressed without risk of alienation, but also because most of our attention was focused on the needs of our caregiver.

In any case, my point is that we currently have easiest access to those dimensions of our experience that we feel are permissible, safe to express, and legitimate. If we’ve cordoned off certain dimensions of experience that reduce our ability to be fully present, cognizant, and attuned to what is happening in a contemporary situation, we constrain our functional and adaptive capabilities.

Relational Coaching, focuses on quality-of-relationship variables that enable one to freely explore dimensions of the "knowable unknown" that feels out of reach and not so easy to access, express, and understand. This exploration requires that a client take risks in a relational space of felt safety. It requires the coach to use special skills along with trust, empathy, and a bit of "tough love".

I want to reinforce that Relational Coaching depends upon the joint commitment, energy, and hard work of both parties. It does take two to tango. Nobody can be mandated to pursue this kind of develop. Both a strong will and a competent guide are critical to success.

In closing, it should be noted that valuable growth in relational skill-building and relationships, as portrayed by the Johari Window, can be achieved with a bit of training - Relational Coaching may not be require. But as we encounter bigger challenges and changes in our career and life, it is not at all unusual that we find ourselves needing to reclaim potential capabilities from the Unknown.

Follow-up Contact:

Feel free to address questions to the author at or, if you prefer, call him at 401.885.1631.

The Accidental Struggle Against Happiness

Most people, if asked "Do you resist happiness?", would respond with an emphatic "No, of course not". Indeed, they might regard it as a rhetorical question or an annoying tease. But, I believe it's a serious matter, a common phenomenon, and that we often undermine our well-being and effectiveness by indulging an unconscious, self-defeating mindset and pattern of behavior.

Let me begin by placing my point of view in a psychological context that may make this "accidental struggle" a bit less shocking and more understandable. It involves two theories that have been supported by over a decade of empirical research. They are adult attachment theory and the broaden and build theory of positive emotions.

Adult Attachment Theory

In brief, attachment theory proposes that we form our sense of self identity, our personality, and our approach to relationships based upon what we learn early in life through interactions with our attachment figures. When we experience them as available, attentive, and responsive to our expressed needs, we feel validated in the free expression of our experience (especially our feelings).

Based on this quality of relationship, we come to feel hopeful and encouraged about the potential for relationships to be supportive, collaborative, and above all, capable of surviving differences and conflict. We learn to express our true feelings and thoughts freely, rather than being guarded and overly cautious, for fear of how others will react. It promotes feelings of optimism, hope, and safety.

The Broaden and Build Theory

The broaden and build theory of positive emotions proposes that positive emotions - joy, interest, contentment, and love - affect our sense of well-being and our capacity to function effectively. We've all heard about the negative health effects of stress. It triggers excessive cortisol production by the adrenal gland. Such stress is associated with negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. When it persists we can suffer physical maladies and burnout.

While negative emotions constrict the range of our momentary thought-action repertoire - think fight-or-flight reactions of the autonomic nervous system - our positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire. We become more creative, adaptive, confident, and effective in problem solving. A favorable ratio of positive to negative emotions promotes well-being and optimal functioning. 

Even more important, on the basis of sustaining a favorable ratio (estimated at 3:1 or greater) of positive to negative emotions, we are able to build enduring capacities to function more effectively. It's not just a "feel-good" phenomenon. In this connection, see my recent article on how our neurophysiology is shaped by our deliberate action in the context of positive, caring relationships.

Welcoming Happiness

Now back to the unconscious retreat from happiness. I believe that many of us hold back expressing and discussing parts of our experience, especially our feelings, positive or negative, for fear that doing so seem "soft" or will alienate those with whom we want to be connected. Perhaps we haven't learned how to cultivate relationships and ways of interacting with others that can tolerate the expression of troubled feelings and work through them productively. 

In absence of genuine optimism and hope about the potential of relationships to be mutually helpful, and the potential for positive emotions to make a practical difference, we can become habitually negative, cynical, and pessimistic. This mindset goes something like this: "Positive feelings can't last or make things different, so why set myself up for failure or risk being seen as foolish or naive?"

The good new is that self-limiting tendencies in attachment orientation and deficits of positivity in mindset can be changed. We can learn to cultivate more positive, functional ways of relating to others and to ourselves. We need not let feelings of pessimism block our capacity for welcoming and sustaining positive emotions and happiness, and using them for growth and creativity.

So, next time you catch yourself in a funk or stuck in a rut of negativity remind yourself that sustainable change is possible.

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at