Why does an individual’s aptitude for leadership depend on their relationship with adversity? Why is trust so essential for leaders—and how do they unconsciously damage it? In this podcast episode, leadership coach Don Bailey shares keys to effective leadership that everyone should know about, from entry-level to C-suite.

Highlights

  • Everyone within an organization needs leadership skills, but culture will dictate whether they truly do or don’t develop those skills. 
  • Ego is a common impediment to effective leadership, while openness, humility and trust contribute to high-performing leadership capabilities.   
  • Trust is the foundation of leadership, and that depends on both character and competence. Trust can also be destroyed when there is a gap between the written and unwritten rules within an organization—what you say and what you do. 
  • High-performing leaders have a constructive, positive relationship with adversity, and are able to harvest insights from their failures to become a better leader. 

Keys to effective leadership, with Don Bailey 

Welcome back to the Accenture Insurance Influencers podcast. In our last episode, we introduced Don Bailey from Bristlecone, a coaching, consulting, and leadership development firmDon Bailey shone a light on the insurance industry’s leadership challenges.  

In this episode, we’re going to look more broadly at what leadership is—and isn’t. Let’s start with Don’s definition of leadership. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

You’ve defined what leadership means to you, and I think it’s interesting that it doesn’t necessarily focus on what leadership looks like. By that, I mean that when people think about leadership, there’s a stereotype of an extroverted, charismatic, heroic and often masculine figure. How do how do we get past the stereotype?  

I spent a lot of time thinking about that and I think your question really does make a great statement about some of our perceptions regarding leadership. We do have this distinctly masculine view of it. A core part of what Bristlecone does is work with female executives and how they navigate what is largely a man’s landscape and rules that often were written by men, for men. It can become a very challenging dynamic.  

The world of neuroscience teaches us that effective leaders aren’t necessarily the big, bold, masculine, confident personalities. The world of neuroscience teaches us that the effective leaders are great listeners, are empathetic in proper proportions. Are coaches, are mentors. They ask great questions. What’s interesting is that so much that effective leadership is what we would often tie to more feminine qualities. 

I think that bodes well for an industry—insurance—that is long overdue to close the gender gap, and to press more women into senior leadership, C-suite and board positions.  

I’m going to press on that just a little bit, Don, because I know that sometimes, when women take leadership roles, if they behave like men, they are perceived as pushy. Whereas if they try to set their own standard of what leadership looks like—the listeningempathy and what not—those qualities may not necessarily be recognized as strengths. They may actually be perceived as weaknesses. 

Can you talk about how to navigate that? Not just for women, but maybe for people who historically have not come from the demographic that has made up leaders. How do you show your leadership skills in a world that judges you either way?  

It’s interesting because we are often challenged by the environments in which we operate. There are some cultures that are much more supportive and fostering of everything that we’re talking about right now. And there are other cultures that just flat out aren’t.  

What I would highlight though is that it’s a balance. I think on one hand you have to recognize the environment in which you’re operating in, and you can’t operate in a way that’s completely foreign to that environment. I would also say that you have to actually be disruptive if you’re going to make progress. 

So getting along and playing by the man’s rules, sometimes, yes, can cause some friction and can send things maybe heading in the wrong way. I think it’s a balance between playing the game, understanding the rules—but also being yourself, operating with authenticity, with integrity. And in this case for a female, in the workplace, leaning into those innate skills that you have as a listener, as a great questioner, as a more empathetic personality.

Don, I want to clarify who gets to be a leader. Is leadership something that applies to every individual within an organization?  

It does. It really does. Everybody needs to be leading within an organization. Culture dictates whether they truly do or don’t. 

You make the distinction, which is a proper one, between leadership and management. There are very few leaders in the world, but there are a lot of managers in the world, particularly in mid-, upper-mid, large organizations. The classic definition of manager: controlling people or process. And if you go back to the art and science of inspiration, my definition of leadership, these two things, these are jet engines and light bulbs. They are two completely different disciplines.  

Often, the distinction is not prevalent enough within organizations. Too often, people say, “Oh, our leaders, oh our managers,” and they see these as interchangeable constructs and they’re really not.  

We need to unleash leadership within the organization, and allow––empower––middle management to operate with more freedom, more flexibility, more creativity, more innovation. Because they have the answers. They’re on the front lines, they’re closer to the business, they’re closer to the people, they’re closer to the clients. 

In your experience, what are common impediments to effective leadership? 

We talk about the fact that everybody’s got an ego, and the ego plays an important role for all of us.  

The challenge is, you’re a house and your ego is not the house. Your ego is a permanent resident in your house and the ego needs to have a nice room on the second floor at the end of the hallway. The ego should not be camped out on the front yard. People should not come to your house and go, “Oh gosh, there’s the ego. I’m being confronted with this.” So the ego goes upstairs, second floor, end of the hallway. Great. Doorbell rings. You’re going to hear the ego’s steps coming down the hallway and trying to come down the steps. You need to meet the ego at the step to say, “No, no, no. I got this. You can go back to your room.” 

And so a lot of what I’m working with, when I deal with a new client, is just trying to understand the presence of the ego and where it resides. With some people it’s right there in the front yard and it’s not a pleasant thing to come in contact with. But if it’s what I’m encountering, it’s what their direct reports and their colleagues are encountering. 

In those cases, I try to share some books and other references on the context of the ego and how it should exist in our lives. It’s a permanent resident, should have a nice comfortable place on that second-floor bedroom and it should be engaged when needed –– but not always.

That’s a great analogy, Don. It brings to mind a messy garage sale, or maybe a lemonade stand, depending on your ego’s inclination. So ego is one of the biggest impediments to leadership. What factors contribute to successful, effective leadership?  

Openness and humility. It’s something we start with in every one of our coaching engagements, is an assessment of openness and humility. If there’s no openness and humility, we’re really not going to get very far.  

The ego likes to tell us that we’re fine. The ego likes to tell us that everything’s good, that we’re incredibly capable, that we’re better than we are, that it’s other people’s fault. The ego’s challenged when somebody says maybe you can be better, maybe you’re not seeing yourself for exactly who you are, maybe you don’t truly understand your brand within the organization. And if we made progress on all of those you could really be a highimpact leader in this organization and in this industry for years to come. It would be a game changer. 

It’s interesting for me that the biggest, most powerful leaders that I have sometimes are the ones who are the most open and humble. Sometimes you get down the ranks a little bit and you have people that are a little bit more closed.  

There are perceptions that it’s not OK to be open and humble when it comes to leadership conversation. So the more we can demystify this conversation and take that stigma away from people and just allow them to be vulnerable to say, “I don’t always know what I’m doing; I don’t always know how to engage the room; I don’t always know how to drive change; I don’t always know how to lead the team through adversity,” the better off we’re going to be. So openness and humility really are the key.  

Another concept that’s important is trust. For me, it’s how quickly can I get somebody’s trust that we can actually trigger that openness and humility that truly allows them to flourish and blossom as a leader. 

Can you talk about the role of trust in being a leader? 

Trust really is that foundation, isn’t it? It’s something we talk a lot about at Bristlecone. And we like to define it.  

Definition, trust: positive predictability. When you have a relationship with an institution, person or leader (in this case) where you have positive predictability, you know with a high probability that this person is going to deliver, is going to act, is going to engage in a certain way and it’s going to be in a positive manner. That’s a definition of trust.  

We create trust—or destroy it, franklyin two ways. Our character can create or destroy trust and our competence can create or destroy trust.  

  • Character. Honesty, integrity, authenticity. These are things that we can exhibit that can drive high levels of trust in an organization. There’s also vulnerability, another character-based trust creator. 
  • CompetenceLeaders create trust when we are perceived to know what we’re doing. When we’re perceived to be competent in terms of developing a plan, deploying a plan, executing a plan.  

Positive predictability is core, I think, to any leader’s efficacy within an organization, and we create and destroy it based upon our character and competence. 

It’s important to understand the destruction part of trust as well, because there are a lot of behaviors that “leaders” engage in every day that, frankly, serve to destroy the trust they have with the organization. And being aware of that is critically important in terms of being a high-impact leader.

What are examples of things that people do to destroy that trust?  

One of the big ones we talk about are the written and unwritten rules of any organization.  

If you think about an organization that you may have worked in, there are what we refer to as written and unwritten rules. The written rules tend to be pretty straightforward. They are the rules that any executive would stand up and talk about in a stump speech. It would be what they would talk about to external stakeholders. Then there are the unwritten rules. The unwritten rules tend to be the reality of how the place works, tends to be what people lean into more than the written rules.  

An example might be, the written rules say we want leaders who are innovative and creative and disrupting the status quo––and the unwritten rule is that those people don’t do so well. The unwritten rule is that the people that keep their head down, the people that maintain the status quo, the people that aren’t overly disruptive, the people that manage up well, are the ones that get promoted.  

What happens is these unwritten rules dictate the behavior, and ultimately, the culture of an organization. That destroys trust within an organization much more broadly, and in particular for the leader that’s supporting those unwritten rules and is speaking those written rules. That gap is what is a destroyer of trust within an organization. 

If somebody came to you with that situation, where they do have these unwritten rules of keeping your head down and this new leader has been brought in precisely to create change? What are some ways that they can address that gap in a way that doesn’t destroy the trust, that builds the trust? 

There are a lot of very interesting change models out there that talk about how change happens in an organization. One of the things any leader has to do when they go into an organization to create change, is first understand the dynamics of change within that organization. And I would tell you that beyond the trust conversation that we just had, the leader as a change agent is a foundational skillset for any leader in the 21st century. 

In the context of this question, we also need to talk about how change gets blocked within an organization. Sometimes there’s change fatigue: “We seem to be announcing changes all the time. Nothing ever seems to get traction or sustain itself. So that fatigue is a blocker to change. 

There’s also something that the neuroleadership has put out there, called the SCARF modelChange threatens people’s sense of:  

  • Status 
  • Certainty 
  • Autonomy 
  • Relatedness, or sense of community
  • Fairness 

The SCARF model explains a lot about why nobody wants to change: because they perceive this threat of change in one of these SCARF elements.  

As a leader, when you go into an organization, it’s important to ask a lot of questions and understand people’s beliefs –– because their beliefs are driving the current behaviors. And until you change their beliefs, you can’t actually create any lasting change within their organization. Those beliefs are going to be protected with these SCARF elements.  

For example, the change I’m about to announce is going to threaten certain people’s sense of status. I need to know that, I need to think about that. I need to engage these colleagues with an understanding of that and a discussion –– an open, transparent discussion about that before we go into the change. Too often we just announce where we’re going and these SCARF elements keep us where we’ve been. And so understanding why change happens, why change doesn’t happen, what the blockers are to change within an organization, is critical for a leader going forward. 

In the first episode of our conversation, you said that you gained a lot of your leadership skills through failures and shortcomings. I think that’s very frightening to some people, that you need to fail in order to become a leader. And failure may not be something that is welcome within some organizations. Can you comment on how to navigate that? 

We can come back to some of these written and unwritten rules. You have the written rules that say that failure is fine. Fail fast. You have a lot of snappy, pithy phrases around the power of failure within the organization. Those are the written rules. The unwritten rules often are, you can’t fail. You shouldn’t fail. You will be looked at differently if you fail. And again we’ve got to close that gap.  

Failure is a fascinating thing. It scares people. People really, truly don’t believe that failure has utility. And that’s the mindset change.  

A lot has been written now on fixed mindset, growth mindset. So the fixed mindset being that our skills, capabilities and intellect are largely fixed––they are what they are and you can’t change these things. The growth mindset being that our skills, capabilities and intellect can actually evolve. It’s not going to make Don Bailey into Albert Einstein, but it can get better. It can evolve. I can be a better version of myself––skillset, attributes, intelligence––tomorrow than I am today.  

Failure is required for growth. The growth mindset embraces the failure as something of utility. They see the failure as an opportunity and not as a threat. That’s got to be the core of what drives people.  

I like to ask to my coaching clients, “What’s your relationship with adversity?” And until you find a constructive, positive mindset with adversity, you’re not going to get to the next level. You’re not going to harvest the insights from those failures and become the better leader tomorrow.  

So within an organization, how do you foster or support failure, when failure can be very expensive? 

It’s always a balance. I talk about a normal distribution curve. You’ve got a flat part of the curve on the left side, and then you’ve got this bigger mass in the middle, and then a flat part in the end. So this normal distribution curve, I look at failure that way.  

If we’re operating on the tail on the left side, meaning there’s very little to no failure in the organization, that’s a problem, that’s not going to go well. It means we’re not taking enough risk. We’re not challenging ourselves. We’re not getting outside of our comfort zones. No good.  

Flipside, if you go to the far right of the normal distribution curve and you look at the data points out there on that far end: too much failure, way too much failure. Huge problem. This isn’t going to work. We’re failing every day. Everybody is failing. There’s no good end to that dynamic either. 

So: too little, no good. Too much, no good. We’ve got to hang out in that part of the curve where we’re balancing the failure and the success. It’s the only way it works.

You mentioned beliefs and mindset as part of being a good leader. It sounds like a big part of becoming a leader actually starts with changing yourself. And change is never easy—at least, I’ve yet to meet someone who really enjoys it. So what does that change, that inner journey look like, as someone goes from capable leader to high-performing leader? 

Effective leadership is highly correlated to the leader’s relationship to adversity. Adversity, as we always say, either just left us or is on its way to find us at some point in the future. 

There’s no such thing as a journey without adversity. So the key for leaders is to take a good look at their relationship with adversity. Examine their relationship with adversity, because therein lies the answer to this question.  

What we’ve learned is that the learning that we have, the insights that we get from a leadership standpoint, come from our failures as leaders –– not from our success as leaders. When we’re successful, our egos tell us, “Well, of course we’re successful, because we’re good,” and we move on. We don’t tend to examine it.  

The really important part of that is when the adversity finds us. What is our mindset when the adversity finds us? Do we have a learner’s mindset when it comes to adversity? Do we harvest the insights from the adversity, become better as a result of the adversity? We are best when we embrace and are not threatened by the adversity that comes our way. 

When there’s adversity in my life I say, “Why is this adversity my life right now?” Because there’s a reason why it’s here and I need to find an answer for that. I need to find a learning in that. I need to enhance my relationship with that adversity in a way that drives my leadership skills beyond where they could have been. So great leaders, from my perspective, have a very productive relationship with adversity and have throughout their journey.  

And if you dont currently have that as part of your mindset, how do you cultivate that? How do you start? 

This is interesting. I’m not sure I did 10 years ago, 11 years ago, and I was challenged by that. At that moment I was going through a divorce and it really focused my mind on this concept of adversity. 

Our egos tell us, “It’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s fault.” And so I hired a coach––it’s going to sound incredibly self-serving––but I hired a coach and he did an extraordinary job of helping me on a journey of awareness. Helping me understand who I was more deeply and helping me understand how others were perceiving me.  

That was an incredible help for me. I was operating with this level of blind certainty, this blissful ignorance that we go through life with. And this coach changed the course my life. He never told me what to do. He showed me who I was and was capable of doing in the world. And I embraced that.  

I think it’s something leaders in the industry really need to embrace substantially more than they are right now. I see it through my coaching. The first time somebody is told that they have a coach who’s been hired for them, they see it as this gutpunch, as something demoralizing that’s come their way, there’s something wrong with him or her. 

It really should be the exact opposite. There are brain surgeons that are hiring brain surgeon coaches to go into surgery with them. And if it’s good enough for them, I think it’s something we probably want to think about as well.  

That’s a good analogy. If a brain surgeon needs help then you everyone can use help. That may be part of it –– that leadership is typically seen as having all the answers: “I know exactly what I’m doing and I’m this indefatigable leader.” And so it sounds like coaching is acknowledgement that things need to change there.   

It is. I think it really is and this ties into a comment that you had made earlier about this masculine mindset and mystique that permeates the industry. People wouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor if they’ve got a broken leg, but mental illness gets put into a different category. 

Coaching kind of plays into that world as well. People see it as a soft science. And some of what I’m certainly trying to relate through my own experience, but also through the conversation you and I are having, is that it’s not a soft science. I mean, there are very clear, distinct understandings about what leadership is and what it can be. It’s not an art. It is very much a science in this day and age, and leaders would be well served to access the distinct insights that are out there and available.  

Don, this has been a fascinating conversation. Unfortunately, that’s all we have time for. Thank you so much for making the time to share your expertise. 

Summary

  • The SCARF model identifies five elements that inhibit change, because change can be perceived to threaten someone’s Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (sense of community) or Fairness. 
  • Failure is essential for growth, and the growth mindset embraces failure as an opportunity to improve.  
  • Neuroscience teaches that effective leaders are empathic listeners in proper proportions and ask good questions. They are good coaches and mentors. 
  • Effective leadership can be challenged by the environment and culture within an organization—you can’t operate in a way that’s completely foreign to the environment. At the same time, disruption is necessary for making progress.  

For more guidance on building trust and developing leadership capabilities: 

That wraps up the conversation with Don Bailey. Don’s a partner at Bristlecone, a coaching, consulting and leadership development firm, and previously held executive positions at Marsh, Allstate and Willis. 

Stay tuned for our next episode, a conversation with Rick McCathron. Rick is the chief insurance officer of Hippo Insurance, an insurtech that’s taking a new look at homeowners insurance. That episode goes live in two weeks. 

In the meantime, you can catch up with seasons one and two of the podcast. 

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