We have now come to Chapter 2 of the CEO series, the ‘Snowball’. The metaphor of the Snowball describes a virtuous cycle of accountability that propels the change effort forward. It starts with the leader, and builds momentum as others are swept up in the journey.

The first video in our Snowball chapter is of Clynton Bartholomeusz, Managing Director in a leading global FMCG company. Clynton explains the ‘Snowball’ effect that was created after he decided to become a constructive leader.

The final video in our fire chapter is financial services CEO Christine Christian, who describes how she turned her burning platform into a burning ambition.

This brings us to the conclusion of Chapter 1 of the CEO Video Series: ‘Fire’. In our next series of CEO videos, we will focus on the ‘Snowball”.

Today begins the “CEO video series.” Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing short videos of several CEOs who were involved in my original doctoral research, and several of those who were featured in my book Leadership Transformed. The videos will follow the basic structure of the ‘7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation’ that you are hopefully already familiar with, starting with ‘Fire’. The fire metaphor describes the motivational forces that initiate and sustain transformation efforts, including the shift from a burning platform to a burning ambition, as well as personal and organisational reasons for change.

The first video in our fire chapter is media and advertising CEO Tim Castree, who explains the significance in moving away from his burning platform to a burning ambition.

Russian Nesting Dolls, also known as matryoshka dolls, are typically made of wood and contain three to eight identically shaped dolls nested neatly inside one another. When you pull one doll apart, another one, slightly smaller, sits inside. shutterstock_423176395

Each doll in a set typically resembles the others, but may bear a unique image or pattern.
While the traditional appearance of a Russian doll is a peasant woman, some of the most prized collectibles do not show a figure or face at all. Rather, they tell a story through different images painted on each doll in the set.

Russian dolls have inspired a design principle known as the “matryoshka principle,” representing an object-within-object relationship similar to the onion metaphor where one layer is peeled back to reveal another layer underneath. In our context, the Russian Dolls metaphor helps us to understand that a leader’s personal journey never exists in isolation; it is surrounded by multiple journeys occurring concurrently. When the journeys are aligned, something magical can happen.

One leader was inspired to go deeper than his ‘leadership doll’ level and pay greater attention to what we might call his ‘personal doll’– he realised over several very hectic years, he had increasingly neglected his family and health. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he wasn’t holding himself to the right standard, and that this was impacting his work. By paying greater attention to his ‘personal doll’, he brought much greater focus, energy and impact to his ‘leadership doll’.

The stories of those I have worked with are powerful illustrations of what becomes possible when leaders create very explicit links between their personal journey and their journey as a leader. It turns out that a leader’s journey of transformation does not happen in isolation.

shutterstock_418290433The process of film directing involves articulating and then adhering to the overall vision for the movie. It is all about planning the audience’s experience. And although directors will often spend a lot of time in the editing suite, analysing and making sense of the footage, much of their direction occurs on the set, in real time, where they must make key decisions as the action is unfolding, thinking on their feet and making adjustments as they go.

This type of reflective processing is what Donald Schon calls “reflection-in-action” as opposed to “reflection-on-action.” It involves looking to our past experiences, connecting with our emotions, and challenging our habits and behaviors – and being able to do all of this in the moment.

A particular reflective technique that really helped one leader improve his impact was just being quiet once in a while. His use of silence enabled him to become more mindful of his impact and to create a space for others to fill. Initially, his team found the silence difficult, but then they started to fill the voids with good ideas. Eventually, he became adept at reflection-in-action; that is, thinking on his feet and modifying his behaviour in the moment.

In one very memorable example, he caught himself encouraging competitive behaviour between his head of sales and head of marketing. He later explained to me; “I realised I was actually damaging their relationship rather than driving them to a better outcome. The old me would have been comfortable believing that I was actually driving them to a better outcome. This time, I caught myself and corrected my behaviour”.

Reflective practices effectively enabled him to slow down his Movie, creating the time and space to choose a better response while a situation was still unfolding. Of course the ability to slow down and experiment with a different behaviour in real time does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome. Rather, it helps leaders make more conscious and informed choices, to draw upon past experience, and to access their repertoire of leadership tools and strategies under pressure.

Reflection-in-action involves looking to our past experiences, connecting with our emotions, and challenging our habits and behaviors – and being able to do all of this in the moment. In my experience, this heightened level of reflective capability emerges later in a leader’s journey, and only after they have systematically practiced reflection-on-action for some time.

shutterstock_81135547During the production of a movie, the ‘editing suite’ is where the raw footage of the film is reviewed to determine its value to the movie as a whole. Following this review, changes are made: bits that confuse the plot or that might disturb the audience are edited out; scenes are rearranged and the best cut of any given scene is selected. Similarly, leaders can use the editing suite to reflect on their performance and “edit” their future behavior for maximum impact.

My concept of the editing suite can be compared to organizational theorist Donald Schon’s notion of ‘reflection-on-action.’ As the phrase suggests, reflection on action occurs after a given situation has unfolded, when the central character reflects on the situation alone or in conversation with others. These reflections then inform future situations, where they offer more choices or ideas to draw upon in a given moment.

One leader I worked with gave me the idea for the editing suite as a metaphor, he explains: “the biggest thing on this leadership journey is, you move from not knowing to knowing about yourself, and it’s the realisation on that journey that if you want change, the first thing that’s got to change is you. You’ve got to have a damn hard look at yourself. Standing outside of yourself and look at yourself as though you are seeing yourself replayed on video is very powerful.”

Based on what I’ve learned; I now use a very structured approach to reflection-on-action in my one-on-one coaching. These sessions happen within the context of the leader’s most important goals – goals that are agreed on up front and are revised at regular intervals. In a sense, these goals are the scenes in the Movie we want to make. As we review each goal, I ask, “How are you tracking against this goal and why?” When the leader reveals they are off-track, it presents an opportunity to bring to the surface strategies or habits that are ineffective and self-defeating. If the leader reveals they are on-track, it presents an opportunity to reinforce strategies that work. At the end of the sessions, we will almost always have homed in on one or two patterns – helpful or unhelpful – that become the focus for the next few weeks.

These mechanisms help to build the necessary muscles for reflection and increased self-awareness, allowing leaders to eventually take themselves into the editing suite without my involvement. The more they reflect, the better results they get, the more they value it, and consequently, the more they do it.

shutterstock_374775304Even though all of the leaders I have worked with are unique, the common thread for most is that at the outset of their leadership journeys, they felt as though they were trapped in a repeating scenario – just like Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh TV weatherman played by Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’s classic Groundhog Day (1993). At six o’clock every morning, Connors wakes up to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” playing on the radio, and to the dreaded realisation that he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. He is trapped in Groundhog Day.

In a similar fashion, many of the business leaders I have worked with would wake up and relive a similar reality, day after day after day. One of them would wake up dreading the seemingly endless queue of subordinates lining up at his door, looking for direction. Another’s Groundhog Day revolved around adjudicating the conflict among her executive team members. Yet another’s involved trying to muscle his way out of a dire financial situation. And another would climb out of bed with the horrible feeling that no matter what she tried, the day would be a struggle.

Like Bill Murray’s character, leaders do not comprehend that they are perpetuating their Groundhog Day through their own actions and the impact these actions have on others. For example, one leader experienced high levels of stress, anger, fatigue, and a sense of frustration – it seemed like he was powerless to make the positive changes he so desperately wanted to make. His days usually ended with late night phone arguments with his international colleagues rather than with him reading bedtime stories with his young daughter.

But there is more to this story. He was not just a victim of the role – he had become very adept at playing the victim. Over his career, he had internalised the leadership ideals of his head office to such an extent that he had the same negative impact on his own staff. Of course, at first he couldn’t see this because he was so consumed by his Groundhog Day routine and the victim mentality that he had adopted to cope.

Leaders often lack the time, space and reflective capabilities to plot a way out of their Groundhog Day. Ironically, it is the very act of disciplined reflection that allows leaders to understand how they are reinforcing the repetitive loop they’re trapped in, and eventually break out of it.

shutterstock_403057771I have found evidence of masking in many leadership journeys, but not all of the leaders I have worked with wear a mask in order to conceal their insecurities. Some of them deliberately put on a mask to project a particular persona. In this case, a leader isn’t so much hiding their ‘true self’ as internalizing a persona to such a degree that they risk becoming it — at least at work.

To explore mask of persona, let’s turn to the 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. Carrey’s character, Stanley Ipkiss, is a shy man who discovers a mysterious green mask. Unbeknownst to Ipkiss, the mask channels Loki, the Norse trickster god. When Stanley brings the mask near his head, it melds with his face and transforms him into a confident, aggressive, and outgoing ‘superhero.’ With Loki’s mask, Stanley becomes the man he thinks he needs to be in order to succeed in life. In contrast to the Phantom of the Opera, people perceive Stanley as the mask rather than as someone hiding behind a mask. Stanley eventually learns the hard way that the mask isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as he inevitably scares off the love of his life and lands himself in jail. It’s not until Stanley rids himself of his mask — which takes some doing — that he gets his happy ending.

While leaders’ initial motivations for wearing a mask may be very different, the end result is often the same: the mask becomes too heavy a burden to carry. Brené Brown puts it beautifully in her book, Daring Greatly: “Masks and armour are perfect metaphors for how we protect ourselves from the discomfort of vulnerability. Masks make us feel safer even when they become suffocating. Armor makes us feel stronger even when we grow weary from dragging the extra weight around. The irony is that when we’re standing across from someone who is hidden or shielded by masks and armour, we feel frustrated and disconnected.”

Once Stanley Ipkiss comes to the conclusion that wearing his mask exacts a heavy price, he goes to great lengths to rid himself of it. As Stanley connects with the best parts of himself — parts that were previously hidden — he gets the girl of his dreams.

In a business context, the wearing of a Mask creates poor outcomes in a leader’s professional and private life, and often leads to inner conflict with the leader’s deeply held values and aspirations. As a result, many leaders will reach a point where they want to ‘de-mask’ as they realize it is no longer delivering success, and that not being able to show their true face has become a heavy psychological burden.

Taking off the Mask requires courage, but the rewards are exponential relative to the effort, both for the leader and for those they lead.

shutterstock_318990764Masks have been prevalent across human cultures since the Stone Age and have been used in a variety of ways. In a theatrical context, masks are sometimes used to conceal a character’s identity. At other times, they allow the actor to adopt a certain persona. It is these two notions of concealment and adoption of a persona that have enhanced my understanding of how a leader transforms. In this blog, I explore the first type of mask and in my next blog, I will explore the second.

To explore the mask of concealment, we need only turn to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, a musical based on Gaston Leroux’s classical novel of the same name. In the book and musical, the Phantom wears a mask to conceal his physical imperfections. But while the Phantom presents a perfect, porcelain face to his audience, there is a certain irony at play here: it is starkly obvious that the mask is not his real face. The Phantom knows he is wearing a mask, the audience knows he is wearing a mask, and the Phantom knows that they know. Still, he prefers to maintain a façade rather than reveal the man behind the mask.

I now understand that when leaders wear a mask of concealment, they undermine trust and create fear, doubt and anxiety in others. Rather than take what the leader says at face value, subordinates will try to second guess the leader’s true intent. Instead of focusing on improving performance, valuable time and energy is wasted trying to please the leader.

It is often the case that leaders feel they need to hide their human qualities from colleagues at work. Rather, leaders should embrace their humanity as it is a sure pathway to build connection with, and commitment from, those they lead.