… A leader can hone higher levels of emotional intelligence by practicing situational agility, which I coach like a workout routine to keep both critical and creative modes of brain function supple and sharp. Like any high-performance training, situational agility draws from equal parts stimulation and recovery. For a leader, this looks like stimulating the intellect from a beginner’s mindset by delving into unfamiliar topics like enrolling in a new course, reading an unusual book, or learning a new language. In equal quantity, active recovery arouses intuitive clarity and creative expression. This can be realized by savoring silence and natural beauty, wandering and daydreaming, and booking time for unstructured creative expression and play (yes, play!).
The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview Michael Boydell.
For more than 20 years, Michael Boydell has been the X-factor behind the winning moves of elite level performers in teams, businesses, and organizations around the globe. A seasoned guide of the human experience, Mike transforms challenges into breakthrough results. From high-impact keynotes and life-changing offsites to private one-on-one coaching, Mike is a world-class leader and expert communicator who invites others to embark on their own soul-rousing adventures.
Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?
I believe most defining moments are born from how one responds to failure — mine certainly have been. I vividly remember a time in my mid 30s. I’d been pushing hard and fast for years, rising through the ranks, doing what everyone expected, following what I thought were the rules of success. From the outside looking in, it all looked good. One night following an executive dinner at a posh restaurant in London, capped off by several-too-many swimming-pool-sized martinis, I found myself back in my hotel room, curled up and heaving on the cold tiled bathroom floor. Rising to a long look in the mirror, I realized my former freedom had become ensnared in proving my worth by other people’s definitions of who I was supposed to be. My natural courage was consumed by chasing scarcity. My true power was fading, misunderstood, and misplaced.
It took that painful reckoning to reclaim ownership of my life choices — my professional identity, my family roles, and for me personally. With loving support, wise counsel, and dogged determination, I learned to confront and befriend my fears, harness them, and grow beyond them. Tough stuff to tear apart, let alone admit openly, but I had to go through that experience to find my way back to the life that had been patiently waiting my return.
John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?
That popular quote resonates with a lot of people. It relates to my view that leadership is a personal, never-ending circuit of increasing challenges — what I call the three adventures of Freedom, Courage, and Power. The Freedom Adventure is where you come to know yourself, by deriving meaning from your past, mastering your strengths and fears, and trusting your own mantra in life. Fans of The Matrix will remember the sign “Temet Nosce” (Latin for “know thyself”) posted above the seemingly innocuous kitchen door of the Oracle as the character Neo enters. For me, claiming your own sense of authentic independence is the prerequisite to any form of leadership.
Next, the Courage Adventure requires you to show that authentic version of yourself to the world. It takes a brave heart to see and savor the essence of life around you, accepting and celebrating others for who they are, above any need to manipulate or control. It takes real leadership courage to invite, nourish, and choose relationships of interdependence, to collaborate, build, and realize lasting and collective prosperity, beyond anything one person is capable of alone.
After a time, every leader begins to wonder, is this it? Beyond the achievements and accumulations, the titles and status, is there more to life? Is there more to me? In those existential moments, before stagnation creeps in, the inner hunger to grow yourself is realized by undertaking the Power Adventure. A true leader sees themselves as a continual work-in-progress, and dares to shed the security of their past in order to level-up their intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual potency. For a leader, the Power Adventure is a vital form of renewal, a metaphorical re-birth. Once rejuvenated, power tanks full, the leader is ready to know themselves again, with an evolved definition of authentic independence, with a fresh sense of freedom, ready to dedicate themselves to creating new impact in the world.
I see these three adventures as a continual life circuit — freedom leads to courage, courage leads to power, power leads to renewed freedom — for every leader to traverse, complete, and begin anew, many times over a lifetime. Said another way, by concentrating on leading themselves, the truly great leaders naturally show the way to others.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
This is an important distinction. When a leader is purely managing, there is a specific outcome in mind. It’s about clarifying a goal and achievement timeframe, allocating scarce resources, tracking progress, navigating risk, and getting the work done. It’s linear, task-oriented, and specific. When a leader is coaching, the desired outcome is transformative growth and performance of another individual. The approach is dynamic, and more about the journey than the destination. When coaching, the leader must actually care about investing to know that individual fully — their deepest wants, desires and fears; their incentives and hidden motivations; how they listen and learn; their biases and blind spots; their readiness and willingness to evolve; their impediments to change. And to be truly effective as a coach, that leader had better understand themselves to the same degree, lest they project their own limitations onto the other.
While both are essential, for many leaders (particularly male executives) managing is more straight-forward than coaching because it taps into their well-honed critical-thinking, problem-solving muscle memory. Managing a project or set of tasks can occur without requiring deeper levels of empathetic listening and emotional engagement. I suppose that’s why the corporate world has begun to complement great managers with great coaches, following what professional athletes have known for decades. Can you imagine Serena Williams, Rory Mcllroy, Novak Djokovic, or LeBron James realizing greatness by simply being “managed”?
We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?
Three come to mind right away:
Self-awareness/self-regulation. As I mentioned earlier, to be an effective coach you have to know yourself. You have to have done your own work, through your own lived-experience with success and failure. Without that, you’ll be unable to discern your own unresolved stuff from what the other person is going through. The danger of seeing another person only through your own lens is that your biased projections will create a narrative that confines them to your version of who they should be. At best, you’ll interfere with their growth; at worst, you’ll sabotage it.
Open-ended questions. A good coach must refrain from doing the work for the client. Three common mistakes from less seasoned coaches are impulsive problem-solving, blatant advice giving, and relying on leading questions. Each of these blunders are thinly-veiled tactics designed to manipulate the person or situation to meet your preferences, and your image of what that person should be or do. In reality, each serve only to validate your need to be right, seem powerful, maintain control, or feel secure. Instead, I coach leaders to ask open-ended questions that create space for the individual to explore their own reactions, and draw their own conclusions. And a related winning move: ask the question and then stop talking! Start listening to the verbal response and non-verbal cues — the tone, the pitch, the body-language. Allow the gift of silence to do the heavy lifting, for both of you.
Valuing failure. The ability to see calculated risk-taking and occasional mistakes as necessary ingredients for transformative growth is crucial for any coach. Especially as the perceived stakes go up in the face of uncertainty and complexity, when so many of us are wired to play not to lose. Building the habit of learning, adapting, and evolving from many micro mistakes is a sure-fire strategy to avoid the singular, massive, macro mistake. Breakdowns lead to breakthroughs, when leaders are able to coach others to draw meaning and attribution from the delta between original intention and ultimate impact.
We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?
One of the most memorable acknowledgements I have ever received was from a leader who stopped to thank me for “showing up with invitation.” He meant that I didn’t arrive with any preconceived notions.
For me, that’s the key to inspiring vs. mandating — meeting others where they are, as they are, and believing in their natural abilities to manifest the life they most want to create.
This way, you’re essentially paving the way for the leader to claim their own vision, clarify why it’s so important, focus on the realities most deserving of their attention, and step-up to face what they are willing (and unwilling) to act upon in order to realize that vision.
No leader wants to be mandated. Even when it looks like they want to be told what to do and how to do it, the strategies never stick. By inviting the leader to tap into their own motivations and capabilities, the resulting change is built to last.
(And truthfully, that’s the downstream win/win when inviting a leader to their own growth. The more space they have to push and challenge themselves, the more their evolution will push and challenge the coach to continually advance their own game. In other words, when a coach is at the top of their game, both sides are better for it).
Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”
Setting the right physical and emotional space for coaching work to be effective is key from the start. That entails establishing mutual trust and confidentiality parameters, clarifying role expectations, and affirming boundaries that feel safe and secure for both parties. Upfront, I offer the client three ways to use me: a sounding board on the benefits and risks of a decision under review; a mirror to reflect back the implications of a decision already made; or a safe place to vent, blow off steam, or clear out tensions that impede progress. Staying within those parameters helps ensure that the accountability “ball” stays with the client, even when they try to pass it on for someone else to catch.
I’ve developed a series of open-ended coaching questions for use with high-performance leaders, executives, and athletes, that are applicable in pretty much any context. Each question, which I outline in The Adventure Advantage, is designed to invite deeper self-discovery. They get to the heart of the matter quickly, focus on what the client can (and cannot) control, illuminate the hidden blockers of progress, inspire agency, and result in meaningful action.
We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?
Like when working with any type of diversity (gender, cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, generational, and so on), I believe that realizing collective potential in the diversity of a multi-generational workforce requires leadership courage. My starting point is guiding people to see others as they truly are, and not through a lens of unconscious bias or conscious judgement. By asking questions like, “What does it mean to be of a certain generation?” or “What about that might be challenging and empowering, difficult and painful, awesome and beautiful?”, we begin to see the motivations each generation lives by, and the unique value they offer. By sharing our stories, we begin to see common bonds that move us from rejection or reluctant toleration to open acknowledgement, and eventually to a celebration of differences. Coaching individuals up that scale is what opens the door to realizing the dynamic, compounding effect when working in any environment of diversity.
As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” A multi-generational workforce is really an extraordinary opportunity for any organization or team to learn, grow, thrive, and achieve more, together. But activating collective potential, and more importantly realizing collective prosperity among diverse groups starts with the collective courage to slow down.
You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?
Deepening self-awareness is a winning first move for any leader wanting to further their emotional intelligence, at any age, in any situation. There’s always more to learn about how our thoughts trigger emotional reactions, which in turn manifest into actions, and lead to impact (for better or worse). As a leader moves through various life stages and milestones, those thoughts evolve — in relation to money, titles, status, and change; the meaning of work and workplace, health, sex, and mortality; the importance of non-work roles, such as spouse, parent, friend, caregiver, or citizen.
As a leader stays tuned with how their thoughts evolve over time, especially as they rise to more complex professional challenges, their capacity for self-regulation also grows — the ability to navigate an emotionally triggered state and make an emotionally intelligent choice in how best to respond. Self-regulation is the key to maintaining clarity, confidence, resourcefulness, and compassion in the face of fear (in its many forms). Even seemingly unflappable leaders have their own deep ceded fears, but self-regulation is what allows a leader to fear less.
Finally, a leader can hone higher levels of emotional intelligence by practicing situational agility, which I coach like a workout routine to keep both critical and creative modes of brain function supple and sharp. Like any high-performance training, situational agility draws from equal parts stimulation and recovery. For a leader, this looks like stimulating the intellect from a beginner’s mindset by delving into unfamiliar topics like enrolling in a new course, reading an unusual book, or learning a new language. In equal quantity, active recovery arouses intuitive clarity and creative expression. This can be realized by savoring silence and natural beauty, wandering and daydreaming, and booking time for unstructured creative expression and play (yes, play!).
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
Our world is moving at unprecedented levels of pace and change, putting renewed focus on figuring out what words, principles, and strategies should govern an ideal leadership approach to it all.
For me, there are two concepts that have proven transformational when working with leaders and teams in today’s climate: altitude and attitude.
Altitude is all about maintaining a line of sight between future possibilities (drawing on the leader’s ability to inspire others to follow their exciting vision of a better tomorrow) and current reality (drawing on the leader’s ability to be present with what is most real, and get the right stuff done on time). Maintaining a balanced altitude means the leader doesn’t get so far-sighted that they disregard essential facts; or get so buried in detail that they lose sight of the big picture.
Attitude is all about amplifying the impact of risk-taking (drawing on the leader’s ability to bravely step into uncertainty, act with confidence, and protect important boundaries) and compassionate relationship building (drawing on the leader’s ability to invite and extend trust, and flow with emotional currents through empathy and heart-felt kindness). Maintaining a balanced attitude means the leader doesn’t revert to brutish behavior that damages relationships and destroys cultures; or get so consumed by pleasing and keeping everyone happy that they become indecisive or fail to act in critical moments.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” ― Miles Davis
I love this quote because it speaks to the timeless idea of living in a journey of continual discovery. Miles Davis is the quintessential jazz legend, and he’s saying that he didn’t become Miles Davis overnight. It took years of dedication, not just to practice, but to creative exploration, heart-felt compassion, and bold risk-taking before he found his unique style and sound. And then just when he could have peaked, he dared to recreate himself again. That notion can be applied to anyone in any career. To become a great leader, to remain a great leader, you have to put in the work to realize your peak, and then have the guts and gumption to go beyond. It takes time, consistency and patience, but the reward is the greatest gift to yourself and all those impacted by your dynamic contributions over a lifetime.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and to stay current on what you’re discovering?
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!