Size of Self & Leadership Presence

I came upon an idea from recent psychological research called “small self.” It intrigued me, and I thought you might find it interesting. It would be tempting conjure associations linking this idea to deficits in confidence and assertiveness. Or, in the contrary direction, we might associate “big self” with narcissism, arrogance, and egoism. But that would be a mistake. Neither impulse would capture the purpose of this idea. Let me explain.

The Meaning of Small and Big Self

Awe inspiring experience[1] generates prosocial behavior, i.e., feelings of generosity, inclinations and action to help, and ethical conduct. This experimental research[2] found that awe has these effects by causing our self to feel “smaller.” Awe triggers feelings that one is in the presence of “something greater than oneself, which indicates a relative diminishment of the concepts and concerns attached to the individual self.”[3]  

  How Big is Your Self, Bai et al  (2017)

How Big is Your Self, Bai et al (2017)

By contrast, feelings of pride generate an enlarged sense of self. Pride, of course, is associated with feelings of self-confidence and achievement motivation. We can see that both emotions, awe and pride, can be positive, but their effects are quite different on the felt magnitude of our self.  I am reminded of Jim Collins’ notion of Level 5 Leadership, which he conceptualized as a unique combination of personal humility and fierce determination (will).[4]

So, these two qualities, humility and will, seem to be associated with size-of-self factors. Humility is self-effacing in its effects, generating “smaller self,” and will asserts self-confident action, generating “bigger self.” It’s interesting that while affecting size of self in opposite direction, they comingle to distinguish a virtue of leadership that can be embodied in one and the same person. How does that work? Let me share a hypothesis.  

Presence as Flow and Confluence

Leaders more inclined to experience awe see themselves situated within and being part of a larger whole (humility and small self). The ways in which these leaders express their will – as a determined resolve to act in accordance with a greater good – differentiates the way their “big self” manifests. In the Level Five leader these forces converge to keep them grounded. 

State-dependent attitudes of awe and pride, and humility and will condition a leader’s presence and actions in their live moment-to-moment expression. An awe-inspired sense of duty to serve reveals emotional bonds to an organization and its mission. This amplifies the importance of mission, a greater good, and the benefits of success for all. Expression of will then reveals a big self whose size is directly proportionate to the leader’s belief in our shared commitment to perform with fierce resolve. 


The wiser we become, the more we see the virtue of small-self states, how they make room for others, for curiosity, innovation, and mission. And the more this happens the more devoid our big-self moments are of vanity, and the more room there is for a real team-oriented mindset. The reputation we build as a firm and with which we enjoy identifying is a living identity that reflects our conduct. Help build it. Enjoy it. Also, remember that that it’s earned and can always be lost.  


[1] Awe inspiring experiences could include natural vistas (mountains, ocean, forest, vast open spaces), religious, or works of art. Any of these experiences can lead to self-transcendence. They shift our frame of reference to something that evokes wonder and reminds us how small (not insignificant) we are.

[2] Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., & ... Keltner, D. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology113(2), 185-209.  Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology108(6), 883-899. 

[3] As Piff et al concluded, “we reason that the experience of awe is self-diminishing vis-a`-vis something vaster than the individual and reduces emphasis on the desires and concerns of the self.”

[4] In Collins' model. Level 1 to Level 4 leaders often rely on intelligence, organizational skills, charisma, or intimidation to move people in o given direction. Level 5 leaders, however, possess humility, personal conviction, self-discipline, and an unrelenting passion that inspires those around them to care about the organization's mission more than their own agendas.

A Classic Model of Team Development

In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be offering some new research-based insights on group dynamics and team development, but let's begin by reviewing a model that's truly become a classic with great heuristic value and simplicity.



Trust and quality-of-relationship among group members are two consequential variables – they make a practical difference.[1] So, there are good reasons to focus on team development, i.e., the ways in which a group becomes a team. And this requires that we notice the patterns of interaction and the underlying dynamics that may help or hinder cohesion and skillful collaboration. 

We can focus on instrumental task skills, interpersonal communications skills, and leadership skills. All three factors contribute to team effectiveness. The first addresses technical excellence in execution, the second enables coordination but also is the means for connecting, bonding, and becoming one. And the leadership factor prompts thoughtful reflection, alignment, perspective-taking, and inclusion. 

A team is a group of individuals who’ve become self-aware and “self-possessed” enough subordinate and align their capabilities to some greater purpose and good. It’s a group that has forged ways of relating that enable them work through differences, to repair strains or ruptures than can occur in the “heat of battle.” It’s a body of people that has cultivated its own collective, group-as-a-whole identity.[2]

It would be easier if these dynamics were obvious. Alas, human beings are too complex for that. We must learn from careful, observation-based theory construction – what is it that happens as individuals join as a group and strive to function as a team? Fortunately, a great deal of this work has been done. And what we notice is a rather predictable pattern, which includes “growth pains.”[3]

Among the established models of team development, the Tuckman Model[4] remains the most familiar, intuitive, and popular in group dynamics and team development circles. It characterizes the journey of a group becoming a team in a four-stage sequence: forming, storming, norming, and performing. It applies to senior leadership teams and to work group or project teams in the workplace.[5]

Here are stages briefly described:


The first stage of the model represents a search for clarity of purpose, roles, goals, and ground rules. We might regard it as seeking to answer the question, “What is our purpose, and how do I/we fit in and play a role in this group?” At this point, individuals show more dependence upon the leader and deference to her/his authority. They’re exploring boundaries, sharpening their task focus, and defining roles. They are getting acquainted: exploring relationships; experimenting with a wider range of behaviors; speaking with assertiveness; expressing points of view, perhaps staking out a distinct presence in the group. 


The second stage, storming, is a period of intragroup conflict. Dependence and deference are replaced with assertions of independence and autonomy. The initial basis of unity (task) is tested, differences are expressed with greater energy. Individuals may jockey for position and find themselves in competition or opposition with peers. Defenses and insecurities are aroused, and tensions and potential coalitions may arise, threatening unity and collaboration. It’s challenging for the leader. Surfacing issues, framing them, and fostering patterns of interaction that work through issues without suppressing dissent. 


In the third stage, they achieve greater cohesion. Members know and accept each other’s idiosyncrasies. They express opinions more freely and constructively, which helps disarm defenses. They’re learning that acute episodes of conflict can be resolved, and they have the skills to do so – feelings of confidence and efficacy grow. Roles and norms are clearer. Their commitment to shared goals and resilience in dealing with setbacks is stronger. They’ve cultivated group practices and ways to work together. They give balanced attention to cognitive (head) and affective (heart) themes to insure genuine alignment.


In the final stage, the group develops what Tuckman called ‘functional role relatedness’, which implies a capacity for well-coordinated, interdependent action. They begin to function socially, emotionally, and cognitively as a ‘problem-solving instrument’. There is a noticeable ease that emerges among members as they demonstrate the ability to adapt and play roles that enhance task activities. Structure supports task discipline. Roles become more flexible and a greater share of group energy is channeled into task performance (versus coping with dysfunction). They’ve gained a performance advantage.


[1] For example, Drescher et al (2014) found support for positive changes in trust mediating the relationship between positive changes in shared leadership and positive changes in performance. Also see Zhu & Lee (2017).

[2] This collective identity is constituted through the enduring patterns of interaction that develop (norms), and they derive from less conscious ways of being and acting as a system, ways that can help or hinder (see Rutan, 2007).

[3] See Rutan et al (2007) for a comprehensive review of the dynamics of group interaction and development.

[4] See Bonebright (2010) for a good summary of the Tuckman Model and its continuing popularity since being introduced in 1965.

References Cited

Bonebright, D.A. (2010). “40 years of Storming: A Historical Review of Tuckman's Model of Small Group Development,” Human Resource Development International, 13, (1), 111-120.

Drescher, M. A., Korsgaard, M. A., Welpe, I. M., Picot, A., & Wigand, R. T. (2014). The dynamics of shared leadership: Building trust and enhancing performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(5), 771-783.

Rutan, J. S., Stone, W. N., & Shay, J. J. (2007). Psychodynamic group psychotherapy., 4th ed. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Zhu, X., & Lee, K. S. (2017). Global virtual team performance, shared leadership, and trust: Proposing a conceptual framework. The Business & Management Review, 8(4), 31-38.

When is Sponsorship Coercion?

Perhaps you’ve heard the words, directed at you or at someone else: “Jane we’d like to encourage you to get some coaching. We think it might be timely and very helpful.” What does this proposal or offer of support really mean? Is Jane a hi-potential whose upward trajectory management wants to accelerate, or is she struggling, floundering, or even faltering toward failure?

Millennial group.jpg

We must always interpret the meaning of such propositions in context. Is coaching a positive thing in our organization, or has it been used just as much or more often to address performance issues? And how is the individual to discriminate management’s intent and motivations? Then too, there's the question of readiness of the person to make use of the offer at this time.

But those are not questions I will discuss at length or answer here. I simply want to call out the potential for confusion when coaching is offered on a case-by-case basis. If it’s a part of your organizations planned way of supporting start-up with a new hire or promotion, there’s clearly less risk of confusion – the intent is positive, at least constructive and systematic, it applies to all.

How to Resolve the Confusion

Remove case-by-case sponsorship as a general practice! That’s the solution I propose. By all means, sponsor the systematic and predictable uses of coaching to navigate transitions. In my opinion, we don’t do enough of that. But if you want people to have access to coaching on their own terms without the confusion of whether the offer (sponsorship) is a must-do, or a corrective intervention, there’s a better solution.

Provide a blanket benefit of time-limited coaching for all, or at least all employees at a certain level, e.g., professionals who use it like they would any other kind of learning and development benefit to advance their career. You may wish to provide guidance on approved providers, but beyond that, it’s up to the individual to request the service, initiate contact, and pursue the engagement.

You might allow people to pursue this coaching during business hours, or it could be an after-hours benefit. In either case, the employee is the client. The relationship between coach and client is confidential. The employee is free to link the developmental focus to their career and current work, but this is not something that they must report or involve their supervisor in unless they choose to.

Scalability of Such a Benefit (with quality)

It could be offered for as little as $1,500 per engagement. It could be provided by licensed psychologists with training and experience in work-relevant, assessment-based adaptive adult development. Quality assurance could be evaluated by client ratings of the service provider over time. In fact, this is a model that I've begun using over the past year.

After providing executive coaching services at the usual high fee structure for over 20 years, I and others like me, including psychologists trained by me, are doing our work at or near the clinical fee structure for this segment of the workforce – $175-200/hour. But that’s only part of what makes it scalable. The biggest part is the skillfulness of the provider – methods and tools are just that. Skilled practice is the key.

Of course, the skillful use of a virtual medium (videoconferencing) also helps reduce costs. But the bottom line for me and the psychologists that I refer clients to is that we take our professional oath and ethics seriously. Care for clients and attention to quality (client satisfaction, their felt sense of growth and development, and their gains in self-efficacy) are values that led us into this field of work.

If you want to learn more about how to provide this kind of high-quality, scalable benefit to your people to complement what you might be doing at a different price point for more senior leaders, please call (617.312.5305). I am happy to discuss what I have learned about how to make this work, and I can help you create your own provider network if it’s something you decide to experiment with.

"Boredom is a Lack of Attention"


Fritz Pearls, the famous Gestalt psychologist, spoke of the here-and-now and insisted that it must be the focus of our attention if we are to see things clearly and have the best chance to experience others, interactions, and situations as they really are. His adage that "boredom is a lack of attention," awakens us to this point succinctly.

Gestalt psychology also talks about foreground, background, and how attentional shifts create movement between the two: "I thought we were meeting to discuss our plans for accelerating our deliverables to the client, XYZ Company. But what I see us focusing on are questions of who should have been in the initial meeting to set expectations."

You've no doubt observed this phenomenon. Most of us have, and we and others in such meeting have responded differently. I may regard discussion of the initial client meeting as off-topic, it blocks progress on vital questions of execution. Those pressing a retrospective discussion see a need to process lessons learned.

Depending upon the intensity with which we hold our points of view and insist on our priorities, a tug of war might ensue. Eventually, we may ask, "What's our goal? Why are we meeting today?"

Checking In

What if we assumed that in every meeting people may arrive with differing expectations, and differing attitudes, emotions, and action priorities? An agenda may have been shared. Still, wouldn't it be good to pause and recognize that we are at the start of something, and then ask, "Here's what we have on the agenda, does this look like a plan?"

Might there be some "hidden" agendas or "unspoken" concerns? We can attribute negative intentions or motivations to these words, but the reasons for things to be hidden or unspoken can vary. We may have deliberately withheld dissent earlier when seeing the agenda, or maybe we just felt that something was missing that needed to be discussed.

Checking in can be a very brief and simple way to notice and address such alignment issues before getting too far down the road. It may prompt us to reconsider how we use our time and what we should do with what's not been included in the agenda. It's more than perfunctory; it's about being here now and giving all a chance to check in.

If we don't do this now, we can risk setting off oppositional dynamics in the meeting that undermine teamwork and efficacy. But perhaps even more important, we can miss the opportunity for the less assertive, less dominant voices to be heard. The meeting leader retains her prerogative to get us all to work - this should only take 5-7 minutes max!

Boredom, Resistance, Indifference - All Imply a Lack of Attention

These attitudes will arise. And when they do, we should regard them as signals that we are not engaged or that we have disengaged. That, in turn, means that we're not present in an meaningful, practical way. So, notice these reactions without judgment. Ask yourself what they're telling you about what's happening or not happening, and what you should do.

Even if the situation is one in which you decide to "ride it out," better to do so while being intentional and attentive to what's going in the room. Are there some dynamics that are at work that are problematic or confusing? What are they? With whom might you process this experience later if not in the moment? Learn from these situations.

Practice at home. If your partner or a significant other wants to tell his or her story about a work experience that's been troubling him/her and you are exhausted, let them know so that you can either decide to discuss it another time, or they'll at least know why you may look a bit less engaged or attentive than usual. This is checking in too.