Good Pride and Bad Pride

Pride goeth before the fall

Pride goeth before the fall

We have heard a good deal about leadership's "dark side", which includes tendencies toward narcissism and egoistic motivations of self-aggrandizement. In this connection, recently published research (2016) distinguishes two kinds of pride: "the prosocial, achievement-oriented form of pride known as authentic pride, and the self-aggrandizing, egotistical form of pride known as hubristic pride."

  • Whereas the first kind of pride, authentic pride, is accompanied by a capacity to delay gratification, hubristic pride undermines this capacity and is characterized by impulsivity. Impulsivity, of course, impedes a more mindful or reflective mode of thought, action, and interaction. It blocks awareness of what might be important to others and of alternative ways of seeing, interpreting, and responding to what we experience.
  • However, we've also learned that development can make a difference! It was found that "self-transcendent value affirmation," reflecting upon and coming to appreciate something beyond self-interest (i.e., common interests, shared values, or concern for others) can moderate the effects of pride on delayed gratification. It has this effect first by interrupting the reactive automaticity of impulse, prompting a reflective pause.
  • Specifically, this research found that "when people feeling hubristic pride had an opportunity to affirm a self-transcendent value that was important to them, their tendency to seek immediate gratification was attenuated." It was by turning their attention to the broader context of their situation, values and interests at stake, that they gained emotional freedom and became more responsible agents.

Considering this research reminds me of a more basic truth about our nature as human beings. Whatever our current dispositional tendencies may be, they are amenable to change... that is, if we have reason to pursue such change and if we persist in our efforts. Knowing and believing this should make us less fearful of seeking feedback from others and of reckoning with our vulnerabilities or "flat sides."

For those who are skeptical about the possibility of personal change and personality change, I would cite another line of research in social psychology concisely summarized in 2014 by Carol Dweck, which disputes the assumption of "fixity." Her studies show that our beliefs about the "malleability" (changeability) of our personal characteristics predicts our ability to change them. 

If we begin with the belief that change is not possible, that qualities such as intelligence, sociability, tolerance for ambiguity, or impulsivity are "fixed" traits, we'll be less likely, indeed less able, to change them. If on the other hand, we believe that with experience, learning, and effort we can adaptively change these tendencies in thought, feeling, and action, we'll not only be more likely to do so, we will do so!

We are free agents. Even though we did not choose our parents or much of what shaped us earlier in life, we remain free to reexamine the beliefs we formed as a result of these experiences. Indeed, the first and most important discovery that arises from a course of developmental self-examination is the freedom we have to make change.

William James presented a paper in 1896, which was later published as an essay, on this topic to the Brown University philosophy club, The Will to Believe.

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

Three Keys to Organizational Sustainability: Vital Structure, Agency, and Relational Dynamics

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Vince Lombardi

Challenge and Sustainability

Most would agree that a sustainable course of business success is reliant upon organizational health. Those conditions exist when our collective intellectual, emotional, social, and practical energies and coping capacities prove to be sufficient to the challenges we face. We’re able to adaptively deploy our strategies, skills, and goal-directed actions in ways that usually prevail and achieve our aims; and we’re able do so over time across generations of leadership.  

But just as individuals can encounter stubborn challenges that resist their best efforts and leave them feeling overwhelmed, organizations too can experience “rough patches.” Moreover, it’s not always the task itself (complexity, novelty, difficulty) or skill and ability deficits that make the presenting challenge insoluble. There may be larger, unpredictable intervening events in the economy or market that intensify the challenge and make it feel “impossible.”  

In any case, should such acute conditions persist and become chronic, the effects of stress and strain may grow to deplete our adaptive resources and sap us of energy and motivation. As the famous football coach, Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Our stores of optimism and resilience to snap back can be eroded. Self-confidence and belief in ourselves, or even our mission, may begin to founder.

This phenomenon is illustrated in Figure 1, the Challenge-Development Curve. As the level of challenge rises, our energies are focused and intensified. Adaptive capacities (intellectual, emotional, and practical) grow (A-B); that is, to a point (B), the Inflection Point. 

Figure 1 - Challenge-Development Curve

Figure 1 - Challenge-Development Curve

Beyond that inflection point, absent some kind of intervention and support, we are likely to experience not only diminishing gains but an actual decline in performance and development (B-C). However, with timely and effective intervention (constructive feedback, supportive conversation, perspective-taking), we may be able to “leap” to a new growth curve (B-D) of Adaptive Change. 

The Role of Leadership

When I say it’s the role of leaders to notice these things and intervene in a timely manner, I am not referring to upper management alone, or to people with the formally designated authority to lead. Indeed, that is why identifying emerging leaders and encouraging their development is so important. In today’s flatter, faster-moving, global organizations, we need people at all levels to assert leadership properly, to help guide action and prompt intervention.  

And that brings us to a discussion of the three keys to organizational sustainability. So, I shall now briefly describe these critical factors, which promote capacity building and sustainable business performance. As you’ll see they create their effects by positioning more people to assert leadership. Through effective leadership, we not only get things done through others, we also build the capacity of others to do the same.

Vital Structure versus Static Structure:

Static structure is the more fixed framework we see represented in org charts, jobs descriptions, procedures, and policies. It defines a company’s skeletal structure and operating model. Vital structure consists of more pliable and enduring patterns of interaction (behavior) the contribute regularity and predictability to how we play our roles, interact, communicate, and coordinate in the course of execution. Vital structure is highly adaptive and guided more by principles more than procedures.

Agency and Responsibility:

Agency concerns initiative and choice in decision-making and action. We will always have constraints on our freedom to decide or act, as individuals and as groups or firms. Responsibility concerns the value-based, internal norms that we identify with and that shape our work ethic and motivate our best efforts. Accountability, by contrast, concerns what we owe to others as a function of our role, fiduciary duties, and performance objectives. As agents of accountable action, we must be able to assert responsible leadership.

Relational Dynamics:

Relatively little can be achieved in the arc of realizing a firm’s mission through coercion. That’s why leadership is reliant upon communicative action, influence, and reason-giving. It’s how we shape direction, motivate commitment, and mobilize performance. And it’s how we navigate rising levels of challenge. Leadership is dynamically granted and claimed over the life of a project, in pursuit of shared goals, and by means of vital interdependencies and ongoing adaptive action. We must all be ready to offer leadership.

Wrapping it Up

Reliance on static structure alone is not responsive to the adaptive demands of coping and thriving in periods of peak challenge. A focus on accountabilities and contingent rewards alone is not enough to produce responsible leadership. And relying on formal authority and top-down hierarchy in a world that is getting flatter all the time won’t suffice. Simply put, the fixity of older ways of operating and relating to one another just won’t cut it in today’s world!   

We must shift to a more conversational style of communication and collaboration. It's through vital structure and structuring that we align and realign our actions and interactions to meet the changing demands of our operating environment. We must free all to assert aligned acts leadership at all levels. It means less hesitation, more timely action, and greater leadership capacity. And it's by building relationships in which power and leadership is shared that we become fully accountable to one another. 

Simply reviewing these variables conceptually and conversationally has an awakening effect. It brings to mind contrasting mindsets, attitudes, and beliefs. We recognize as self-evident the consequential impact of treating structure as a vital adaptive force rather than a static framework. We prime our sense of potency as agents, free to choose to act differently, more responsible and accountable. And we’re reminded that the force reason and reasonableness, and relating to others with respect as fellow agents of action, evokes everyone's best efforts and increases our productive capacity. 

Yes, translating insight and cognition into effective change is not easy. Habits can hold us in patterns of belief and action that have served us well. But, we also know that it’s the malleability of our mind and brain that has enabled us to survive and thrive. The translation of insight into new practices begins by asking ourselves, “What would it look like if…?”, where the “if” is a cue to envision and shape collaborative action, imagining how it looks different when we rely upon vital structure, agency, and relational dynamics.

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

Leadership, Leader Development, and the Future of Humankind

Leadership, in our age, implies a non-coercive mode of direction-giving action. It’s an idea that is rooted in two vital principles of moral and political philosophy from the Enlightenment Era.[1] The first principle is the principle of autonomy, i.e., that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, as ends, never as means, and that they are most fully human insofar as they act as free moral agents. The second principle stipulates that the proper political system for a human society, thus conceived, is the liberal democratic state.

When we explicitly conceptualize leadership in this way, we are naturally led to consider the central importance of communication practices. They must support an open, inclusive process of conversation that enables all parties to express their ideas, points of views, and concerns, and to argue for their preferred course of action. All parties must have the opportunity to be heard. They must be equally ready to answer questions, explain their views, and to provide reasons to support their recommended course of action.

These same normative expectations distinguish the culture of an organization in which the dignity of all its people is respected. The tricky thing in an incorporated enterprise, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, is that management is not only authorized, but duty-bound to exercise an executive prerogative, which at times limits or curtails democratic process in favor of timely and prudent action. As employees, we implicitly accept and defer to this formal authority; it is a constraint on our freedom in exchange for a salary.

Extending principles of political philosophy and the liberal democratic state to corporations may or may not seem necessary or desirable. Some will argue that corporations must comply with law, but beyond that they are on their own, right? Perhaps, but if we regard these principles as fundamental expressions of our nature, normative not only in the moral and political sphere, but also in the sphere of human development, then we may recognize their normative value in promoting organizational health and sustainable performance.

The Golden Rule and Basic Human Needs

In an increasingly global world of commerce and communications, enterprises operate and have effects for good or ill beyond nation-state boundaries. Although it has become fashionable to see “velocity” and “disruption” as positive ideas insofar as they suggest forces of innovation, we must moderate this brashness when it risks offending or alienating peoples and cultures. This applies equally to political, economic, social, and organizational change. When people feel heard, respected, and free to co-determine their destiny, peace prevails.

That is why I pin the “future of humankind” to leadership and leader development in my title. We are all able to help or hinder the cause of peace and prudent economic development in the world through our actions as leaders. When we think globally and act locally, we act with sensitivity to the place, its people, their values and culture, their identity. When we act with propriety, an “old-fashioned” word given renewed meaning by Wendell Berry, we act as if we are not here alone. We find reason to care about others.

We can ground such shared normative assumptions of what we owe to one another in moral themes that arose long before the Enlightenment (18th Century). Indeed, they emerged all over the world in antiquity – in Persia, China, India, and in the Greco-Roman world.  A good example of this moral common ground is an ethic we today refer to as the Golden Rule. Earlier versions of it can be found in Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and in the philosophy of ancient Greece. It’s obviously had broad appeal and resonance.

It can be traced to the “Axial Age,”[2] between 800 and 200 BCE, when we witnessed the birth of the great religions and the emergence of classic Greek philosophy. All of these systems of belief held some version of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was a period when peoples and civilizations were beginning to encounter one another, and this gave them reason to give more thought to how they might be able to coexist. Some chose war, but most also found reason to recognize the humanity of others. 

Even now, and in spite of the events of September 11th, it is the generally accepted norm of the Golden Rule that we will invoke when expressing moral outrage. It seems, therefore, that the articulation of dignity, autonomy, and liberal democratic practices of governance are grounded in something fundamental to human nature and basic human needs. In a variety of cultures, a consensus norm arose in the Axial Age, i.e., that we treat strangers with respect, even as guests. We recognized that we are not alone as persons or peoples.

Based on this brief, scattered, historical sketch of the origins of social and moral norms, we can see why extensive research into organizational engagement has found that the central value all employees want to see demonstrated is fairness. When we believe, based on experience, that we’ll be given equal opportunities for desirable assignments, for advancement and recognition, and that there is fairness in evaluation and compensation, then we’re more likely to form bonds of trust and loyalty with our organization.

We might argue that the job of leaders is to create these conditions.  It’s a job that is both more important and more challenging to realize today because we are operating in flatter, faster-moving organizations, and we depend upon more diverse markets for our customers and our talent (regionally, culturally, and generationally). This is the context in which our emerging leaders (mostly Millennials) must find their way, often with fewer resources, less time, and more concerns about job security as compared to their predecessors.

It is with these conditions in mind, that we designed our Emerging Leader Development (ELD) Program. We encourage you to check it out and also to learn more about the Leader Identity Questionnaire (LIQ), a multi-rater assessment tool created to help emerging leaders realize their aspirational identity as leaders, and to make a difference in the world!

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.

[1] These, of course, are also the same principles that influenced the thought of our founding fathers in the United States of America, and that are pervasively evidenced in our Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

[2] This historical framing of the origin of the world’s major religions and philosophies was proposed by the famous German philosopher and psychiatrist, Karl Jaspers.

What Leaders Can Learn From a 3-Year-Old

My title may seem playful and provocative, but it’s intended quite literally and seriously. In fact, it represents the core insight I drew from a recent moment of reflection after observing a three-year-old. Let me explain. 

Being a grandparent of three little ones, I’ve been given a fresh opportunity to watch three-year-old behavior. The difference: Now I am often free to observe them without any parental duty of oversight, intervention, or care. Here’s what I was noticing most recently. 

In one moment he is talking spontaneously about what’s on his mind. It could be in dialogue with his mummy or more in the form of a running commentary as he interacts with his toys. Then, as his mummy initiates interaction with him, and especially if she suggests some direction for the play or in-process activity, he will assert his capacity for control with gusto. Often, this begins with, “No mummy.” He is claiming power. 

When mummy accommodates his assertion of control and simply plays along, offering her observations and expressing interest in the objects of their shared attention, the child may suddenly ask, “Why mummy?” He’s changed his tune. His spontaneous expression of curiosity contains an implicit admission that mummy probably knows more than he does, things that he would also like to know and better understand. 

What we can learn from this three-year-old is the natural ease with which he expresses two developmental needs: first, the need to take charge and actively shape his experience; and second, the curiosity and desire to learn, which require that he reveal his ignorance. The other thing we should notice is that these needs manifest in the safety of a caring relationship with his mother, someone whose intentions and love he trusts.  

No Mummy & Why Mummy 

What we witness here is the expression of recently discovered capacities for Autonomy and Initiative. These capacities underlie development of Will (autonomy) and Purpose (initiative). Both are necessary if we are to cultivate a potent sense of agency. Good parenting encourages development of these virtues. It also corrects their excesses, i.e., willfulness and stubbornness. As Aristotle taught long ago, virtue in all things consists in moderation as regulated by wisdom.  

Aristotle, like modern-day expert in psychosocial development, Erik Erikson, believed that in the early years, regulation by wisdom is contributed by parents, in the family. When children learn from experience, constructive feedback, and corrective guidance, their capacities for agency matures. But, if they’re not encouraged, if parents are dismissive, domineering, or judgmental, children are likely to experience feelings of fear, shame, and impotence that suppress agency.   

It’s a funny thing, when children learn that they cannot safely assert autonomy and initiative in their voice (including “no mummy”), we notice that they are also less likely to express curiosity (“why mummy”). What suppresses expression of agency in this way is fear. What liberates its expression is a special kind of love. This love manifests as an abiding presence that is there to encourage. It’s also as a safe harbor to return to when one suffers failures or is overwhelmed. 

This special kind of love augments the child’s emotional and intellectual capacities to sort out frustrating and overwhelming experiences, to gain fresh perspective, to regain confidence, and to venture back out into the world. The resilience achieved in this parent-child interaction is internalized as a stock of wisdom and a growing independent capacity for perspective-taking and judgment. The “training wheels” are taken off. The child is able to ride the bike herself.  

Lessons We Carry into Adulthood 

Our felt needs to assert agency and our curiosity to learn and grow are vital, co-equal forces that promote healthy, prosocial development throughout life. Similarly, our experiences of fear and our needs for love and encouragement are perennial. And, of course, that means that our capacity to draw upon relationships and helpful relational dynamics to cope with periods of acute challenge is also of continuing importance. 

This applies to us as individual leaders and to our role in encouraging the development of others, especially emerging leaders. To deny or suppress notice of our fears is to lose data that alert us to concerns that need to be understood and addressed. To stubbornly persist in actions that are not working is no less maladaptive than “bad” behavior in a young child. But as with the child, the corrective intervention should not serve to shame, but to redirect the person. 

A difference in adulthood, is that we are often able to catch ourselves staying with a course of action or ways of behaving that are maladaptive. If not totally from self-awareness, we often have others who signal to us, even if subtly, nonverbally, and gently, that what we are doing is not working. In these moments, we must remind ourselves that deficiencies are merely a sign that we are mortal, imperfect. And If that comes as a surprise, we’ve got a different problem!

In closing, I would remind you that dialogue with another person – whether it is a spouse, colleague, boss, or perhaps a professional coach – can be just that source of “moderation regulated by wisdom” that Aristotle advised. But we need to do is decide which we fear the most, failing in our role and duties or admitting that we need help. Agency without curiosity and openness to learning (humility) is foolhardy. Believing we can do it all is hubris, which as Greek tragedy suggests, never ends well.

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.

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.