How should companies cope with a leader’s health crisis?

by Laurie Stevens, M.D. and Steven S. Rolfe, M.D.

SMITH THOMAS was a highly successful CEO whose rm was a leader in its industry. Seeing himself as invulnerable, he rarely visited his physician and ignored urinary symptoms when they arose. By the time the diagnosis of bladder cancer was made, the cancer had spread and surgery and chemotherapy were necessary.

While Thomas worked whenever possible throughout the course of his treatment, he needed to be away for days at a time for treatment. Having little sense of how his condition was a affecting his employees and the company’s productivity during this time, he assured his board that he was able to function, despite declining revenues.

Although there was a succession plan in place, Thomas would not step down, even temporarily. The board held out hope that he would quickly recover and resume his position. In the meantime, the company was in a state of paralysis.

How a company handles illness in its CEO is a complicated business and a neglected subject, both in the business literature and in the boardroom. Waiting until a crisis hits and having to make decisions in a highly charged, emotional atmosphere is obviously far from ideal—and yet that’s exactly what generally happens.

We like to think of CEOs as forces of nature, super-humans able to conquer any adversity. We don’t usually anticipate—or prepare for—any key executive’s becoming ill, let alone the CEO. However, a serious ailment raises multiple issues, including whether to disclose the illness, plans for temporary or permanent succession, the e ect on public perception and valuation of the company and ethical and legal responsibility to employees and shareholders.

Companies may be slow to address these issues for a variety of reasons. The personality traits that lead a person to become a CEO are often the very same ones that make it di cult to reveal vulnerabilities. Companies and boards dependent on their CEOs for their success may nd it di cult
to consider how they will function when the CEO is no longer present. Instead, they may deny the problem and in doing so, collude with the CEO in refusing to accept what has befallen him. Often a conspiracy of silence may be the first response.

This is what befell Apple. Steve Jobs’ struggle with his illness, his refusal to accept both appropriate treatment and counsel from his board (including Art Levinson, CEO of Genentech at the time and Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, himself a cancer survivor), is well documented in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. It was clear the board was divided about how much to disclose: Al Gore felt they followed advice of counsel and respected Jobs’ wishes for privacy; Jerry York, on the other hand, confided to the WSJ, comments that were only revealed after his death, that he was “disgusted” by the extent of company concealment with regard to Jobs’ health problems.

Jobs’ approach to his illness contrasts sharply with that of Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO of KPMG
who, together with his wife, wrote a remarkable book,
Chasing Daylight, a forthright account of their last months together following O’Kelly’s diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. O’Kelly was transparent with his board, notifying them immediately of his intention to step down. This was the prelude to his approach of facing death directly and planning, as a CEO might, for the weeks and months he had remaining, determined to make the most of the daylight left.

For the CEO, illness may be the ultimate challenge and worst fear—a loss of control and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Whether a leader is able to cope psychologically with the realities of the illness and the treatment will determine if and to what extent he or she will be able to continue to lead the company and if necessary, make the appropriate decision about passing the baton.

Since a CEO’s reaction to a health crisis cannot be predicted—none of us truly knows how we would cope with a serious illness—companies should have plans and policies in place to handle the possibility of a leader’s in rmity. The board’s concerns must be focused on the sustainability of the company. In situations where the CEO’s agenda di ers from the shareholders’ interests, the board must deal sensitively with the con ict, while addressing it in a straightforward manner.

In addition to having contingency and succession plans and updating them annually—many companies do not—it is critical to create a climate in which discussing “undiscussable” matters is rmly rooted as part of board and company culture.

The board must value and model transparency and “walk the talk”—by demonstrating in its board process and in its everyday work with the CEO—that transparency and honest collaboration are essential to its work and to the culture of the company.

It may be helpful for the board to create a policy in advance on how to deal with CEO illness. Such a policy might include the following considerations:

  • The health of the CEO should be seen as part of the board’s evaluation process as they review the overall e ectiveness and performance of the CEO.
  • The board should spell out the process it will use in the event of major illness and make clear the conditions under which the CEO is to report a medical illness to the board. It may be helpful to appoint a subcommittee whose responsibility it would be to orchestrate and facilitate conversations about the impact of the CEO’s illness on the company and to take the lead in making concrete plans for what is to happen.

But such policies work most e ectively when employed in tandem with the board’s establishing and maintaining an emotional climate that encourages a CEO to step forward and directly address the state of his health with his or her board and company, as well as the public. This dialogue generally only takes place when the board has engaged in a serious and robust evaluation process of its own that acknowledges the critical importance of an open and collaborative board dynamic. The recent example of Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, clearly demonstrates this approach.

In the spring of 2015, shortly after being named Power-Gen Woman of the Year, Powell spoke openly to her family and colleagues, including 600 employees, about her decision to undergo prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. The procedure ultimately revealed that she was cancer-positive in both breasts. As Powell tells it, sharing her story had a profound, positive e ect. Not only did she receive an outpouring of support but she began a conversation that enabled many to speak up about their own private battles with illness and encouraged people to be proactive about seeking medical attention.

Looking back, Powell told Chief Executive that she attributes much of her ability to speak frankly about her illness to a board that mirrors her strong values of openness, authenticity and delity. It is the emotional resonance, she emphasizes, between the CEO and board that a rms the value of transparency and vulnerability that is the key to meaningful exchange and e ective leadership of a crisis induced by illness in the leader.

For a more in-depth look at this issue, visit Chief Executive

STEVEN S. ROLFE M.D., is a principal of Merion Advisory Group and Boswell Group, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and family enterprises on psychological aspects of management and leadership. He can be reached at (610) 525-6929,

LAURIE STEVENS, M.D. is a principal of the Boswell Group who advises CEOs, boards and senior leaders on interpersonal, leadership and organizational issues, and is also a practicing psychiatrist in New York City. She can be reached at (212) 877-4307,

Reboot Fall CEO Bootcamp

Reboot Your Leadership. Reboot Your Life. 

Oct 5-9, 2016

Apply Here. 

Join Team Reboot, meditation instructor and author Sharon Salzberg, and 15 other amazing leaders for a weekend retreat in the Colorado mountains to reboot and refresh what it means to be a CEO.

“It fundamentally changed the trajectory of myself and my business.” Kyle Wild, CEO of

You may be thinking: Are you kidding me? Spend four days away from my company, away from my family, away from my inbox to look deeply into my own heart and figure out who I am as a leader? I don’t have time for this; I have work to do.

Right. Keep telling yourself that. Keep telling yourself you’re too busy working to figure out why you’re so “busy,” who you need to be as a leader, and what you’d like your company to be. Perhaps, when you wake in the middle of the night to respond to that “urgent” Slack notification, you can figure out where the company is headed.

One of the traditions at Reboot boot camps is to cut through our own bullshit. Early on, we create the safety for people to stop the nonsense; to look squarely at the truth of who they are and what the company is—we call this our This Being So, So What? moment—and then, finally, explore what it is we’re up to so that the choices we make are conscious.

It is a rare experience to pause. It’s rarer still to pause with bravery and make the unconscious currents that define our choices conscious.

But the gift of doing so is the unleashing of a great capacity—at Reboot we call this your superpower. Accessing your superpower both unlocks the creative genius within your company and frees you to find resiliency.

In the end, the goal of our bootcamps is to show you that you already have the capability to withstand the storms of your lives. You simply need to access it and in doing so, the leader within emerges, with grace and fierce resolve.

To apply,

What’s going on? Leading by paying attention.

“Talk to me, so you can see

Oh, what's going on

What's going on…


Oh, you know we've got to find a way

To bring some understanding here today”

Marvin Gaye


What makes a great leader is a key topic in advising executives and one that is top of mind these days, especially with the upcoming elections, pressure in the markets, guiding clients through the challenges faced in 2015 and coming in 2016, and a never-ending pursuit to develop CEOs and leaders. A recent article in the Sunday New York Times, “How to cultivate the art of Serendipity” (Kennedy, particularly resonated. The article’s tag line “Innovation isn’t all hard work or dumb luck: It’s about paying attention” struck a note. “Paying attention” is what much of my early training encompassed as an organizational clinician. Noting what dynamics occur in groups, in teams, interpersonally, etc., is a critical skill. “Paying attention” or “listening below the surface” (Jon Stokes, “What is unconscious in organizations?” In: What makes consultancy work – understanding the dynamics.) is also part of honing one’s trade. In a recent interview with the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (!/story/kaija-saariaho-mtc-ears-open/), she recognized that her innovations in music came from keeping her “ears open” and years of experimentation composing for the experience of playing, as opposed to delivering finished pieces for the audience. For her, paying attention to the experience of performing music was paramount. Being exceptional at what we do requires a symbiotic relationship with the dynamic forces at play in what we do—consciously or unconsciously paying attention to the spaces in between, to the “unthought known” (Bollas), to the not heard but present, and to the varied contours and arcs of the stories in which we work.


In order to pay attention to the complexity occurring around us, we must be aware of so much…

  • My own experience and feelings
  • Who I am, including the conscious (and unconscious) parts of myself that I bring
  • People’s reactions to me (and their impact)
  • My reactions to people (and their impact)
  • People’s reactions to each other (and their impact)
  • Both the work and personal relationships in the room
  • The nature of the work (the “task”) in the room
  • The issues (and risks) relating to the work and/or relationships
  • System constraints (technical and otherwise)
  • And so much more…

Yes, there is a lot going on in the room with others. Leaders, especially, should be adept at listening both above and below the surface and have empathy for those with whom they work. This is critically important since the systems in which we work can evoke our best and our worst.


So how do we watch, listen to and understand what is going on in the room, paying attention to the underlying dynamics that are operating, helping and/or hampering? A good place to start is in the emotional social intelligence model, where we develop our capacity for self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. We need to hone our skills in the “Difficult Conversations” (Patton, Stone and Heen) and “Action Learning” (Argyris, et al) models in order to behave in a “mutual” (Model II—“our perspective”) versus a “unilateral” (Model I—“my way”) frame. This includes understanding the power of inquiry (open questions) over advocacy (proving a point) and ensuring that we draw our conclusions from data and not something “inferred” (aka, “The Ladder of Inference”). Another more complex area of development is understanding our “unconscious biases”, those things that we hold below the surface that shape our view of and actions in the world. All of this hinges on how well we know how we view who we are, our identity, which may just be the most difficult task. Understanding who we are and how we relate to others is a life-long pursuit, especially since our identity continually reforms with each major relationship we engage.


As leaders, we must both “pay attention” and make consumable what we “see”. In order to free-up systems and authorize others to manage and lead, information must flow easily between people, teams, departments and stakeholders. Holding on to or controlling information will result in an unsustainable enterprise. This includes technical data, all forms of communications and, yes, emotions! Emotional data is the key to peak performance—the differentiator between average and outstanding performance. Our emotions are the key data for understanding the dynamics occurring below the surface and the key tool for “paying attention”.


“We’ve got to find a way” to pay closer attention to all of the data around us to better understand “what’s going on… to bring some understanding here today.”

What's wrong with management today part 2: power to the people!

Those that have followed this blog know that we are proponents of moving the management of work to the work, aka “self-managed” teams or systems where managers exist to provide resources and support, and to fully authorize employees/teams who are closest to the work so they, not the manager, can make decisions about and manage the work. Such systems have core to their mission the creation of work environments that support and develop people first with flexible policies and processes, including extended paternity/maternity, vacation as you need, external learning support, technology, food, extended healthcare, wellness, fitness, and the list goes on.

“People first”, simply defined as focusing on employees as the most important asset in a company, has become increasingly popular in the array of companies with whom we work. This is typically best represented by company values that support a people-focused culture in which development is key. We believe that “values” are among the most important drivers of culture and performance. As Collis and Rukstad wrote in 2008 (Can you say what your strategy is?, HBR April 2008), “Many companies do have—and all firms should have—statements of their ultimate purpose and the ethical values under which they will operate… it is good and proper that firms be clear with employees about ethical values… They govern how employees should behave.”

We always advise clients to develop values that are clear and about how they think about people and the beliefs that it wants to represent to the world. In our research on organizational resilience, the first and foremost contribution to a sustainable enterprise is the organization’s “moral purpose”—an organization’s shared resolve that contributes to a greater ethical and moral good. Most successful organizations give back to society through what they do, how they do it and/or what they support (think Ben&Jerry’s Ice Cream).

Yet, there is an inherent transaction that should occur in organizations between employees and employer that is often overlooked or misunderstood. We think of this as an equation of “value”, where value is defined as both the behaviors and beliefs one holds and the “worth or usefulness of something”. In return for valuing people and investing in its most important asset, an organization should expect “value” in return—exceptional performance. In other words, if I am valued and cared for by my organization than I have to provide value in return by performing in my role to meet and exceed what the organization requires. Simply put, VP = vp, Value(People) = value(performance). The values an organization upholds in a people first culture should be returned through exceptional performance.

Organizations where people are valued and people excel, giving their all, are highly motivating. Most studies on motivation show that employees are most invigorated by what they do, their role, and where they do it, their organization (Quinn, 1983, Kalliath, 1999). Motivation comes from within, my internal drive, my interest in what I do and my desire to achieve, and from the supportive environment created by those for whom I work. For us, this reinforces the need for a balance between what I get and what I give, and the degree to which there is a match in my drive and beliefs and those for whom I work.

Interestingly, we find considerable confusion amongst client employees regarding this transaction. Employees sometimes forget that they have a part in this equation—their performance. Frequently in people first systems we find employees who:

  • get upset when someone is let go due to performance—letting go of poor-performers is seen as against a people first policy as if poor performers should be given a home until they chose otherwise, or
  • demand relaxed hours or “more fun” in a struggling start-up that needs to maximize output given its limited resources and market opportunity, or
  •  take initiative to create their own role under “people first” (which is a good thing!) and then do not understand when the role is eliminated because it does not fit, align or offer any return to the organization.

There are many more examples but the point is that “people first”—valuing and treating people in the best possible way in order to produce an organization that can do nearly anything—is part of a transaction between employer and employee. It is a transaction that is simple in its basics—I’ll care for you, protect you, develop you and, if we are successful, offer you a career, if you work hard, perform at your best and care for our organization. This transaction produces amazing results when balanced.

What's wrong with management today part 1: ambiguity is the norm, get used to it!

I began writing this post a number of weeks ago without a clear sense of what I was writing about. Getting clear is something we all need to work on yet clarity is mostly elusive, choices remaining and ambivalence reining. I was speaking with a CEO recently who was clearly frustrated, if not agitated. When asked what was so upsetting he responded that “I feel completely torn between my anger over things not getting done and people not taking responsibility, and holding the optimism for our bright future.” We all feel stuck between opposing forces at times and most experience the discomfort of “not knowing”. Being comfortable with ambiguity (a lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives) is a quality that is critical for everyone in today’s organization.

McKinsey recently surveyed its subscribers on the use of social media across the enterprise. What interested me about the survey was how social media was expected to help "flatten" the organization, moving the authority for work to the employee, reducing the involvement of "management". Finding ways to improve communications to all employees and more transparently distributing available data will diminish the hierarchy, which is consistent with "servant leadership", "self-managed teams", "holacracy", "Team of Teams" and, as one client refers to it, a more "pluralistic" enterprise. The history of management has been peppered with this tension between how much leaders must command and control versus moving the authority and decision making for work to the person doing the work. In the United States, self managed systems have been successfully employed since the birth of the American enterprise in 1600s New England. Yet, “getting to a point where you trust… anyone to make decisions…  because… they have the same information and objectives you do” (McChrystal and Fussell, Team of Teams, 2015) does not mean that they are equipped to deal with the often overwhelming pulling forces, tradeoffs and ambiguity present in an organization.

It is not hard to imagine that the further “down” one pushes authority and responsibility, the more tenuous and ambiguous it must feel. Yes, the more we give authority to people doing the work, the less we “control” and the less opportunity there is for “telling” people what to do. There’s the rub—distributing authority for work may increase ambiguity and our related anxieties. The more we expect people to make decisions the more we put them into a position that many are ill-prepared to manage. This is especially true if the organization is not aligned, does not have a means to set goals and measure success, and so on—a surprising large number of even successful systems that we work in suffer from not having well articulated and distributed “operating systems”, “scorecards” or “dashboards”. Still, we know that moving the authority for work to the people responsible for doing the work leads to increased productivity, motivation and a more efficient system.

Our experience tells us that some decisions are indeed hard, with no clear answers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a GPS for all decisions? Yes, we need to get comfortable “not knowing”, being patient and searching for data in both the soft (people) and hard (technical) parts of our organizations. Ambiguity will dissipate when there is alignment between people and teams, when everyone has a common set of goals and when the progress against those goals are transparently displayed. Secondly, people and teams who “fail fast” and learn from their mistakes and failures can better navigate this terrain. As one client notes, “the ability to look at a problem, generate a hypothesis, test, learn and cycle through” is critical to making decisions. We will eventually come to a fork in the road but with a little discipline, the road ahead should be clearer.


A number of things brought resiliency to the surface in a critical way this past week. I spoke to a graduate class from the University of Pennsylvania last week about resiliency and organizations, in which my colleague Steve Freeman (who’s class it was) reminded us that there is tremendous opportunity in crisis, regardless of its nature (traumatic, market, or otherwise). Next, I was struck by the differences in how four client systems are currently approaching funding cash-shortfalls—strong board/investor relationships, understanding the fundamentals of one’s business, knowing the company’s cash position, and detailed knowledge of the current state of funding, as well as the options moving forward are all fundamentals for how we think about resiliency. Next, I was asked by a colleague in London to spend time offering our perspective on resiliency to help inform the current efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation in “Helping cities, organizations, and communities better prepare for, respond to, and transform from disruption.” And last, I have been paying particular attention to the ongoing discussions among VCs, entrepreneurs, and others about the increasing rates of depression and worse in the start-up world.

What these have in common is the need for a psychological community to “hold” the individual and organization to mediate the common experiences of pressure, anxiety, change, and so on. Some of us are prepared for the unexpected and some of us find disruptive events upsetting if not disorienting. What is amiss in most talk about resiliency is the failure to recognize that organizations are communities that have a culture and exhibit constructive and destructive “group” behaviors. After all, we “live” in our work community as much if not more than we do in our home! Our work community needs to be able to “hold” us physically and psychologically. Most of the organizations I work with respect work-life balance AND expect their employees to deliver, be a cultural fit, and continue to be motivated, seeking more and more accountability as careers evolve. Today’s social contract is as important as the work contract. Many organizations offer employees a “people first” community in which benefits, pay, the work, the environment, and the quality of life are motivating factors, striving to achieve a balance between enjoying what we do (our role) and who we do it for (the organization).

Just focusing on “risk” and disaster recovery is not wholly resiliency. Resiliency is a state of mind, a community practice, a process, a system, an approach that incorporates physical and psychological support. As a manager, leader and community member, learning how to support one another is crucial. In my conversation with my London colleague, I used the example of the resiliency of Londoners during the 267 days of the German “Blitz”, which devastated London. What was different about London then was the strong sense of community felt while waiting out the destruction in the tubes and bomb shelters below—Londoners lived together, knew each other and depended on each other for support. Similarly, those of us in New York City after 9/11 felt a few days of unusual closeness to complete strangers—we experienced and endured together. Businesses must promote the psychological communities they create, whether to beat the competition, capitalize on a new approach, or simply to build and operate the best and most successful place to work.

So as leaders, we need to build our community by:

  1. Putting people first—without people we have no business
  2. Developing the emotional intelligence of our people, especially leaders
  3. Establishing strong values to guide behavior
  4. Supporting people with healthy (including mental health) benefits and adequate pay
  5. Offering feedback, coaching, mentoring, and development in role
  6. Ensuring that the People/Human Resources team is present at the executive level
  7. Building effective teams by promoting agility, communications, alignment, etc.
  8. Holding people accountable and motivating them to achieve
  9. Having the systems, processes and practices in place

… you get the idea!


Failure is a fact of life. Most of us fail at something at some point. But "derailment", the dramatic explosion that takes down an executive does not appear as common, or does it? A number of years ago the Center for Creative Leadership offered some insight—in their analysis about 40% of new managers derail! Most of us who have been around organizations for some time have seen this more than once. An executive underperforming, becoming defensive, squandering resources, making bad decisions (often in a vacuum), becoming controlling, or abusing power and perhaps even doing something illegal. Are they narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, some other diagnosis, or can they be helped and developed into high-functioning leaders?

Many people in organizations underperform, make mistakes, fail and act impulsively. If 40% actually derail, think of how many more continue on in organizations. In advising executives, we believe strongly in the emotional social intelligence (ESI) model, which helps us see that there is more to the story of derailment. People generally "derail" when they lose control and act on rather than manage their impulses. And, we can learn how to manage our impulses, manage ourselves and develop as a productive organizational resource.

Following one's impulse is actually a biochemical process most likely developed early in human evolution as a defense mechanism. Think about living in the wild and needing to immediately react to the sound of approaching danger. We have commonly called these responses to a threat the four “Fs” (fight-flight-fear-freeze). Neurologically, there is a technical redirection of our brain's biochemical processing. Instead of engaging our brain's higher processing of data in the cerebral cortex (the “high road”), an impulse is reactive, short circuiting and ignoring our high road, going from stimulus to response, directly engaging our limbic system or emotional brain (the “low road”, also known as an “amygdala hijack”). The impulse overpowers or cuts off thinking resulting in bad performance, bad decisions and sometimes bad behavior.

So what can we do to better manage ourselves. It begins with knowing oneself—self-awareness. The ESI model that we use (HayGroup) has four areas of development: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and relationship management.

  • Self-awareness is simply being mindful, knowing myself, including my triggers, my emotional state and baggage, the origins of who I am today, my story, how I identify—understanding who I am as best I can.

  • Self-management is using the data gleaned from my self-awareness to best manage myself in most situations.

  • Social-awareness is the ability to tune into the dynamics around me to know what is happening interpersonally, in large and small groups, and in organizations as a whole. This means tuning into the politics, gender and race differences, the use of power and authority, and the myriad of other dynamic stimuli continually operating around us.

  • Relationship management is using our social-awareness data to productively engage others.

We see examples of derailment everyday. Think about any story in the news where we find competing ideas, ideology, approaches, etc. Look back to Enron, the failure of finance in 2008 or read about corporate bankruptcy, executive excess or other failures. Look at the the recent developments around the world regarding fundamentalism and prejudice. Read recent studies that show how gender and race bias still haunts science and academia. Or read the recent Pew Research on women and leadership. Our unconscious still drives so much of what we do. We allow unprocessed reactions to govern our actions rather than being mindful and purposeful. The more aware we are of our self and our interactions with others, the better we will engage, lead and manage. And, if we have better interpersonal and social awareness, we will be able to better manage our reactions, a critical step towards building trusting relationships.

Having an understanding of what drives me personally and with others, what influences my decision process, allows me to have integrity and build trust. Being trustworthy is key to developing relationships, and relating to others is a foundation of good leadership. Yet the tenor of a relationship is never fully in my control. It is part what I bring to it and part what you bring. Some of this dynamic between me and you is on the surface and identifiable, our overt actions and behaviors. But a good deal of the data we use to engage is below the surface, my unconscious response to you and your response to me. These data are rarely in our sights and are the culmination of our lives experiences. The more self-aware you and I are the more available these data are and the better chance we have at being productive together.

How do I begin this journey to learn as much about myself and what makes me-me? I ned to ask myself what makes me happy or sad? What makes me angry? When do I check-out or become bored? When do I argue or become defiant? When do I become complacent? When am I anxious? What triggers what kind of behaviors in me? When am I socially comfortable and not? What feels good and bad? When am I in the "zone" and when am I at my worst?

A simple self-analysis comes from Peter Drucker’s 1999 Harvard Business Review article “Managing Oneself”. He asks us to think about:

  • What are my strengths?

  • How do I perform? (meaning how do I get things done?)

    • Am I a reader or listener?

    • How do I learn?

  • What are my values?

  • Where do I belong?

  • What should I contribute?

  • Do I take responsibility for relationships?

While these may be simple questions, getting to the answers, then linking them to my role and my work, and then sharing my awareness productively with others is far more difficult. This is the hard part about getting good at soft skills. As Malraux noted: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” We spend quite some time with teams helping individuals to vocalize and discuss their awareness so the team can build trust, build relationships, provide feedback and better form as a cohesive and productive group.

I will end this post with a quote from Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in emotional social intelligence: "If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far."


So what is the role of the manager or team lead in a self-regulating team? Since most organizations have not flatten their hierarchies, those in the lead need to master a shift in role to improve team performance in a self-regulating world. Their roles need to be inverted from one of directing to one of supporting and facilitating, inverting the traditional triangle (making the ∆ into the ∇). Leaders need to be the point at the bottom that support and facilitate the team above, helping it and its members develop the requisite skills to perform at its best. When there are problems to be solved, decisions to be made, performance to be evaluated, or work to be assigned or authorized, the leader must work from below to help the team discuss and decide.  This approach, though, is hard, especially for those with more traditional training or experience.  The skills and behaviors needed to manage from below include:

1. Self-management—requiring an orientation towards achievement, adaptability, emotional self-control and a positive outlook.

So when I am disappointed or upset about the progress a person or team has made or an error in judgment or a lack of execution, do I appear distraught, hyperbolic or upset or do I remain calm and offer a clear path to solving the problem? Impulse control (aka the “amygdala highjack”) is the number one cause of a person derailing. Do I have the emotional self-management to be able to calmly reframe and guide folks to a better outcome?

Do I often complain, blame or allow others on my team to do so without letting the past be and focusing on understanding the problem we face and finding suitable solutions?

Do I take the extra steps to ensure that my work excels? Do I take pride in the outcomes and not stand on my past laurels? Do I help others achieve and excel in their work?

2. Social awareness—mastering both empathy and organizational awareness (how the technical and social systems operate and intersect) and "process" consultation.

Can I place myself in another’s shoes to understand what they might be experiencing, especially when the pressure is on or the conversation is difficult?

Do I keep abreast of my teammates, our stakeholders and the direction other departments and the company are taking?

Do I have a good enough understanding of the dynamics amongst my teammates and between us and other departments and stakeholders? Can I read a room to know when things are on course or not? And do I know how to intervene when there are miscommunications, politics, people disparaging others or other negative dynamics that lead to poor performance?

3. Relationship management—being adept at conflict management, coaching and mentoring, giving and receiving actionable feedback, influencing others, leading with inspiration, problem solving and promoting teamwork.

How are my communications skills?  Can I negotiate a difficult conversation between others and myself or between colleagues? Am I comfortable giving and receiving actionable feedback? Do people at different levels understand and listen when I talk?

Do I take the lead when necessary and inspire others to follow? Can I offer alternative positions or ideas during discussions that influence others to achieve better outcomes?

Can I manage conflict utilizing multiple strategies to resolve matters?

Am I someone that others feel comfortable coming to for help? Can I coach and mentor others from behind helping them achieve success and build unique and personal strengths? Is my orientation to help others advance and be successful in their roles and careers?

Do I understand how teams function, ensuring roles and tasks are clear and aligned, and that people have the authority to do their work? Can I lead a team from behind to achieve and excel?

4. Communications—mastering active listening, giving and receiving actionable feedback, difficult conversations and inquiry (over advocacy).

Am I an active listener, engaging others in conversation? Do I know how to productively intervene when someone is dominating the conversation?

Can I deliver good and difficult news with equal affect and focus? Do people trust my feedback and me?

Do I use the power of the question to engage in conversation with others, especially when solving problems? 

Can I engage in a difficult conversation while both managing my emotional state while empathizing with the other?  

5. Subject expertise—having a deep understanding and experience in the work of the team.

Have I become expert in the areas of my responsibility?

Do I understand the measures used to assess progress and what impacts their movement? Am I continually aware of the metrics and how we are doing?

6. Planning and resourcing—developing a plan for getting work done, making sure people, budget and other required resources are available when necessary, and ensuring the systems are in place to track results.

Am I organized and do I co-develop plans for my and the team’s work?

Do I use tools to report on progress and are they shared across the team and stakeholders?

Have I ensured that my team knows our budget and resources and do we offer excess capacity back to the organization, load-balance and reassign work accordingly, and ensure people are aware of constraints and risks?

The examples offered above are ways in which highly effective people and teams find success.  We need to find ways to productively bring the management of work to the work in order to excel in performance and profitability. Holding each other accountable for results and taking responsibility for improving both my colleagues and myself are critical to leading successful sustainable teams and organizations.