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.

shutterstock_310342454Today, coaching is used in a wide range of professional disciplines including business, education, and psychology. When you think about coaching in these contexts, the image that probably comes to mind is a one-to-one consultation that takes place behind closed doors, detached from the usual environment. In contrast, my research led me to explore the use of the word within the context of sport and how that somewhat different use applies to leadership transformation.

Football metaphors are, of course, not new in leadership literature, and are often related to individualistic and competitive behaviours. My interpretation, however, is quite different: for me, football is a team sport. Teams comprised of superstars often loose to cohesive teams of individually inferior players.

While a business leader may be seen to be the captain of a team, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the role of captain and coach. While the captain may have been selected for the role because of a certain leadership quality he or she displays, a captain cannot be successful without support from the team.

Any successful football team requires a clear distribution of roles both within and around the team, and this distribution of functions is similar to those assumed by the groups who can help a business leader transform: a formal coaching staff, such as executive coaches; teammates such as the leader’s peer group and direct reports; and fans such as family members who are vested in the leader’s performance.

It is by leveraging all three groups in the coaching process – executive coaches, colleagues and family members – that leaders accelerate their transformation.

Just as chefs select from different utensils when creating a dish, business leaders have many tools at their disposal, including ones that profile or measure a range of attributes such as behavior, personality, values, strengths and thinking styles.

While any or all of these tools can be useful in a transformation effort, I have found in my research and practice that it is far more useful to profile leader’s impact than his or her personal attributes. That is, what’s most important, is how a leader encourages others to behave.


For a tool to be truly useful in the context of transformation, of course it needs to be statistically valid and reliable, but also accessible; it must possess the substance required for credibility as well as the simplicity required for action. Additionally, a tool needs to establish a baseline measurement that allows leaders to see how they are being experienced by their most important stakeholders – one that allows for an “apples and apples” comparison at a point in the future. And that baseline needs to be set against the leaders’ own vision in their daily interactions.

That said, a great tool is no guarantee of success. To return to the Master Chef metaphor, an amateur chef cannot achieve the same precision with a utensil as someone who has honed his or her technique. Take experienced sushi chefs, who over many years have developed an artful application of their sushi knives. An amateur chef using the exact same knives is unlikely to replicate their results. They are also unlikely to have a full appreciation of how dangerous these tools can be when used with poor technique!

In recent times, cooking has been elevated to a social phenomenon and a marker of cultural sophistication. Prominent chefs like Jamie Oliver, Wolfgang Puck, Nigella Lawson, and Anthony Bourdain have achieved global celebrity status through their TV shows, restaurants, books, and product endorsements. They exemplify how cooking has become something of a theatrical art form across both old and new media, and how cooks have become ‘Master Chefs’.


The metaphor of Master Chef may be new to the realm of leadership, but it provides valuable insights into transformation. The Master Chef metaphor is about artfully applying leadership science – frameworks tools and strategies for change – in much the same way as a chef employs recipes, utensils and cooking methods to create a culinary experience. Over time, leaders can and should advance form amateur cook to Master Chef, using their skills with increasing creativity and flair and thus maximising their impact.

Whenever I ask leaders who have shown dramatic improvement in their effectiveness how they did it, I’m usually surprised by their answers. They will almost unanimously point to the frameworks, tools, and strategies we encouraged them to employ. Which is great, of course, but the reason I’m surprised is that there are many frameworks available for those seeking to make changes. The tools and strategies are everywhere, but case studies of transformation are relatively rare.

In exploring this seeming paradox, what has emerged for me is a far more nuanced and subtle appreciation of how it is the ‘artful application’ of frameworks, tools, and strategies that helps leaders transform their leadership and their organizations.

shutterstock_157267163When leaders openly declare their intention to change, their colleagues are more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt as they make their first, often clumsy steps down this path. And leaders who invite open feedback enlist a host of ‘coaches’ among their colleagues to help them align their impact on others with their noble intentions.

Most importantly, there is a consequence when leaders make a public commitment to change and invite others to hold them accountable; such a declaration creates an implicit expectation that team members will follow their lead and make a similar commitment. In effect, all team members become accountable to one another in their quest to become more effective leaders. In effect, the leader creates a Snowball of mutual accountability with themselves at the centre and their team compacted around them, all aligned to the same desire for increased leadership effectiveness.

Practically speaking, leaders become implicitly accountable to people under their direct authority. In so doing, they flip the traditional hierarchy and yield their positional power to standards that they and their team have agreed upon. While you might think this means the leader is relinquishing power and control, I have learned that in fact the leader acquires more power to lead the organization and elicits a genuine and personal commitment from everyone else to live up to those standards.

The notion of giving up power generally makes leaders uncomfortable, particularly those who rely on position and title to get things done. But in practice, the chain of command doesn’t actually change; subordinates will just aspire more willingly to the goals of the leader because they are being led by someone who is holding himself or herself accountable to the same high standards he or she is asking of them.

Remember the Road Runner cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote being swept up in ashutterstock_242443354 snowball as he careens down snow-covered mountain? That image might make you wonder what this metaphor could possibly have to do with leadership transformation. But it’s a simple way to understand how something small and potentially insignificant builds upon itself over time, thereby becoming large, powerful, and eventually unstoppable.

The metaphor of the Snowball describes a virtuous cycle of accountability that propels a change effort forward. It starts with the most senior leader, and builds momentum as others are swept up in the journey. There are two dominant themes of the Snowball metaphor; accountability and momentum.

A Snowball is a self-amplifying structure that feeds on itself and this process can manifest in a negative and a positive way, as a vicious or virtuous cycle. But alongside this cyclical motion, the Snowball also follows a linear trajectory down a mountain. The cyclical motion of the metaphor can help us to understand the mutually reinforcing cycle of accountability that develops between leaders and their subordinates when they engage together in a shared leadership agenda. The trajectory down the mountain allows us to explore the sense of momentum toward shared leadership goals, which seems to result from this mutual accountability.


shutterstock_365174810It was management consultant Daryl Conner who first coined the concept of the burning platform, and Harvard professor John Kotter who popularized the idea as the critical prerequisite for successful change efforts. It derives from a real-life tragedy that occurred on July 6, 1988, on the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea, when 167 men lost their lives.

One of the survivors of the catastrophe was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig. Woken by a huge explosion, he ran up on deck to discover that the platform was engulfed in flames. He faced a choice: Stay on the platform and burn to death, or jump some hundred and fifty feet — approximately fifteen stories — into freezing cold water and hope to survive? He decided to jump. Somehow he survived the impact and was picked up by a rescue boat just before he would have frozen to death. When asked why he jumped, he replied, “Better probable death than certain death.”

The apparent application of this story to a business context is that fear and urgency are not only necessary but desirable motivators for change. But while a burning platform can spark leaders into action, my research and practice strongly suggest that a mindset of urgency and fear is not conducive to sustaining change over time.

In a world of burning platforms, there are many pyromaniacs. It is, in fact, a burning ambition — a strong desire driven motivation — that enables leaders to accelerate and sustain transformation efforts over time.

When was the last time you paused to reflect on what’s working for you, and what’s not?

The festive season offers us the opportunity to press ‘pause’ on our busy professional lives and reflect in a way that can be difficult at any other time of the year. If this sounds appealing to you, the goal of this blog is to help you get started with this important task, so that you can come back in the New Year with renewed clarity, insight and energy.

I use the word ‘pause’ very deliberately. Often, we can feel like we are stuck in a repetitive loop – a bit 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 realization that he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. He is trapped in Groundhog Day.

Like Bill Murray’s character, we sometimes don’t comprehend how we are perpetuating our own Groundhog Day through our actions and impact on others. We need the time, the space, and the reflective capabilities to plot a way out.

To get out of Groundhog Day, we must pause and reflect on our actions – a bit like visiting an editing suite to watch the movie of our professional life played back to us. From this more detached vantage point, we are more likely to see how our actions are helping or hindering us.

The really god news is that if we visit the editing suite often enough, we can eventually develop the capability to reflect in action – an ability possessed by every successful and happy leader I know. Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation and also observing that conversation at the same time?  This is reflection in action – a heightened state of awareness that effectively slows our movie down. From this place of stillness, we can draw upon past learnings, insights and strategies to choose more effective actions – in real time.

If you would like to reflect this festive season on what’s working for you, and what’s not, you can start by watching the three minute animation below. Once you’ve done that, you can complete the ‘movie’ exercises on my Leadership Transformed portal, which is completely free to use.

The journey to increased leadership effectiveness starts with increased personal awareness. I hope this festive season proves prosperous for you on this journey.

Leadership impact imageThe research that led to my book Leadership Transformed was a study of a group of CEOs who had each shown evidence of shifting their impact from that of an ‘ordinary manager’ to that of an ‘extraordinary leader’.  This personal shift coincided with a shift in the effectiveness of their respective leadership teams, and an acceleration in performance across a broad range of performance indicators for their organizations.

We’ve discovered through our practice that leadership is the accelerator or handbrake for everything else. It’s the single biggest influence on culture, and ultimately sustainable performance. How leaders motivate and encourage others to behave is typically at the root of every success or failure, making leadership impact as important as every other alignment lever combined.

All leaders have noble intentions.  I’ve never met a leader who aspires to destroy shareholder value, irritate customers and alienate staff.  Yet we almost always find a significant gap between a leader’s intention and their actual impact.  In order to dramatically increase your leadership effectiveness, we don’t need to go back to childhood and rebirth. We just need to know; how would you like to motivate and encourage others to behave? How are you actually motivating and encouraging others to behave? And if we discover a gap between your intentions and reality, are you interested in doing something about it? If the answer is yes, then the strategies to do so are pretty straight forward. You can read more about them here.

Leadership impact is the final, critical piece of the alignment jigsaw puzzle.  The most perfectly crafted strategy will be derailed by leaders whose impact does not align to their noble aspirations.

Meaningful CommunicationDespite our best efforts over 75% of people are disengaged or actively disengaged at work. The natural leadership response is to communicate more, when that often just exacerbates the problem. What people are really seeking is context and meaning to navigate the intense challenges of the workplace, not more information, facts and figures.  To truly engage people, we must speak to their emotions; their hopes and dreams, and their fears and worries. 

The simplest way to capture hearts and minds is through sharing stories.  Long before Facebook and Twitter, people communicated through story – think about it as the original social network.  In the best organisations today, leaders have developed an emotionally engaging story that has relevance and meaning to every member in the organisation, from the CEO to the front line. This story becomes their shared truth.  The most memorable stories use metaphor and pictures, rather than facts and figures, to convey meaning.

A story should be simple, but not simplistic. It should be easy to follow and understand, but must walk  the audience through complexity to get there. It should create connections between what the organisation aspires to achieve, the proposed path to get there, and the challenges that need to be overcome along the way.  It is in these layers of story that emotion and engagement are created.

A powerful story rapidly and effectively directs energy into purposeful action.  So tap your people into the original social network.

This content was created in collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories.