In the zone…with the boss

Recently, I sat down with a leader I’ve been coaching and his boss to discuss the leader’s progress in raising his game. The leader–let’s call him Bill–was in the zone: confident, visionary, and fully engaged. He spoke with conviction, asked questions with curiosity, and had three times more “executive presence” than in any of our previous 2-on-1 meetings. As we walked out afterwards, I said to him, “Wow, you were on fire!”

What’s remarkable isn’t that Bill did this–after all, he is a visionary with a passion for ideas–but that he did it in the presence of his boss.

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And Bill isn’t alone. Have you ever noticed how often talented people lose their mojo when talking with their bosses? Why is this? And what allows people to buck the trend and stay in the zone?

Great bosses make it easy for their direct reports to show up in the zone despite the power differential. Most bosses, unfortunately, don’t. Sometimes this is intentional; they believe in managing by coercion and intimidation. But most of the time, well-intentioned bosses and their direct reports unwittingly create an environment that recreates the parent-child relationship.  Just beneath the surface of conversation is the fact that one person has the authority to fire or demote the other. This fact shapes the nature of the interaction more than the good intentions and skills of either person.

What allows this to shift is both people speaking and listening as thought they are in an adult-adult relationship. The power differential is still there, but it holds less weight than before.

This is what happened with Bill. His boss did not suddenly transform from good to great, nor did Bill suddenly discover his passion or confidence. Instead, Bill called forth his personal power as one adult interacting with another adult–and spoke from this place. Whatever fear he felt about speaking candidly and confidently was trumped by his passion for a business idea whose time he believed had come.

It wasn’t easy for him to do this, but he did it. And it exemplifies a positive pattern I see in many leaders. They are willing to practice new ways of speaking and listening despite the discomfort in service of a purpose larger than themselves. This purpose gives them the energy to persevere in entering new territories of experience. And to find themselves as they’ve always been yet not often revealed to the world.