image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

“This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, self-doubt and self condemnation.”

–Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

Other than the missing obstacle of hubris, Gallwey might as well have been writing about the challenges in the mind of the leader in this mid-70’s and now classic coaching book.

Leadership is played on an open court in the workplace for all to see, yet, I submit that the game is won or lost in the mind of the individual as he/she pushes self-doubt and hubris back into their respective corners.

It’s in her mind where a great battle rages filled with conflicting demands over right, wrong, who, next, when and how. The noise from decision-choices on direction, talent, strategy, goals and targets can be deafening, and the daily drill resembles for many in leadership roles, a pell-mell race through obstacles seen and unseen. It takes remarkable mental strength and agility to filter the noise and concentrate on the right issue at the right time.

Some leaders cover the court with grace and speed, yet fail to win the game. Their firms struggle to escape from the shackles of past greatness or, they play somewhere in the middle of the pack with competitors, surviving on almost respectable outcomes…always with the promise of better, bigger, faster, stronger in sight, but never quite reaching those levels. These are often the poseurs as leaders who like the outward facing game…who revel in the roar of the crowd and the momentary accolades of adoring fans surrounding the court.

The ones who master the inner game move deliberately through their days leaving a wake of clarity in their trail. They give others confidence that the way path forward is the right one and that the journey will be difficult but achievable. Strategies are selected and the goals and actions embedded in the minds (and actions) of the broader organizational population. Critical decisions are vetted and made, with emphasis on the most difficult and painful of the decisions…talent choices…always tackled first. The noise of the crowd isn’t the objective and the leader who masters the inner game gives no concern for accolades. The emphasis is on helping others win the key points and games in what is a marathon, not a sprint.

These leaders who master the inner game fight their own demons…particularly self-doubt and hubris. Every successful leader I know has no qualms indicating there are moments where doubt about self…Am I up to this? and It’s possible we and I might fail, rent space in their minds. They recognize the sobering truth…they are no better, smarter or different than many others, yet they are charged with getting it right. Sometimes the self-doubt is so strong it is nearly crippling. Nearly, but not completely.

Leaders who master the inner game fight this demon of self-doubt at night, staring at the ceiling in lieu of sleeping. They fight it, and then they push it into a box and move forward. While painful and difficult to deal with, the presence of self-doubt underscores how much the individual cares. After all, more than the next quarter’s results are at stake. It’s about the lives, careers and well-being of the families of the people who trust them to lead.

Hubris is another distraction…a very distant cousin of self-doubt. Success opens the mind to momentarily letting down its defenses. It tells you, it’s working…you figured it out and you deserve to let it play out and let others do the heavy lifting. It’s wrong. 

Once hubris sneaks through the crack in the leader’s defenses, the outer game suffers…succumbing to the toxic temptations of this false inner voice that suggests he/she can do no wrong. Soon, the entire game is a mess. Athletes might call the outcome a slump. For a leader, the consequences are amplified by the impact on the constituents.

Effective leaders build strong defenses against hubris. They learn to take satisfaction in the success and joy of others, not their own accomplishments. And they learn to recognize and blunt the incessant machinations and manipulations of hubris as it attempts to gain entrance to the host.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Mastering the inner game of leading is a never-ending task to know oneself and to cultivate the discipline necessary to cut through the noise and to focus on what counts for everyone else and for the group at large. It’s the hardest work most of us will ever do. It starts with staring in the mirror and acknowledging the truth about yourself. Many are afraid to do just this. They shouldn’t lead.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.