Build Capability Before You Need It

Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.


1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.


6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.


10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.

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Every Superhero Has An Origin Story

Soon after I published my book, A More Daring Life, in early 2016 I was invited to take a daring new step of my own, teaching in the business school at Cal State University San Marcos. I had no idea what I was in for, no idea of the energy, enthusiasm and kindness of the students it would be my privilege to teach.

A few months ago, I started noodling on an idea built on the foundations of my book but specifically geared to soon-to-be graduates and young professionals. The outlines of a storytelling workshop, one that would teach participants to transcend the quantitative constraints of their resume by learning how to tell a more personal and selectively vulnerable story about their experience and qualifications, began to take shape in May. This weekend, planning and thinking became doing and I led the first one.

For the generous “yes” of those willing to be first I offer my deepest gratitude for trusting me, for being all in and for teaching me how to make it better. (Session 2 is next Saturday!)

To them and to you I offer a toast: “To a more daring life!”


Soft Focus

When you hold a “soft focus” you trust what is in front of you to be as it is while leaving plenty of space for it to be otherwise.

My work affords me the opportunity to be a mentor and coach to business professionals across the wonderfully wide spectrum of “just starting out” to “seasoned executive.”

One of the privileges of this work is that I am invited “behind the curtain” of my client’s experience into their spaces of vulnerability and unknowing. This is holy ground. And to inhabit this holy ground in a way that honors both where they are and what they aspire to become, requires a soft focus.

As strong as the impulse can be to make assumptions about them based on their years of experience, role, education, family status and the like, I must hold what is presented to me as “true” while leaving room for anything else to emerge as also true.

In my practice of “knowing and not knowing” I recognize that I have also made it a priority to encourage my clients to develop their own capacity in this regard. As a practical matter, this often includes the “homework” assignment to seek out other professional mentors – perhaps a more senior leader within their company whom they admire – as a means to stretch the limits of their perspective.

Again and again, what happens in these encounters is that my clients go in with a hard focus, holding an assumption that because of this person’s status they have it “all figured out.”

Again and again, they return from these conversations with evidence that the person they see as “so accomplished” and “so impressive” is exactly that while also being someone who makes mistakes, has doubts and endures the struggle of insufficiency. This realization is a powerful one as it normalizes the other person as a human being, first of all. It can also be unsettling because it “proves” something to my client’s that they may not want to have proven to them at all: that you can achieve or become what you want to achieve or become even with or perhaps because of your vulnerability.

It’s easy to say, “be gentle with everyone you meet because they are fighting a great battle,” but to live that awareness every day requires rigorous practice, just like anything else we aspire to do well.

The implications for us go well beyond the confines of our professional lives, of course. Imagine holding a soft focus for your best friend, your partner, your children, and your neighbor. Imagine holding a soft focus for the person in front of you at the grocery store, the ticket window, and the on ramp. How might that shift your perspective? How might that open you up?

There is a space between what is and what else there is. To remain curious and aware about what is happening in that space is to offer a gift to everyone you meet.

{Thank you, Alia}

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“Because it is a big change.”

On the cusp of his retirement from the NBA, future hall of fame player Dwyane Wade gave an interview to ESPN in which he discussed how he intends to adjust to life after basketball:

“I’ll be in therapy. Seriously,” Wade said. “I mean it, it is going to be a big change. I told my wife, I said, ‘I need to do therapy, and we need to do a little bit.’

“I was always against someone that don’t know me telling me how to live my life or giving me instructions. But I need someone to talk to about it. Because it is a big change. Even though I got a long life to live, other great things I can accomplish and do, it’s not this. So it’s going to be different.”

One observer commented that this is a “mature” approach. I would call that a major understatement. For a male, professional athlete to so plainly state his need for help and his commitment to receiving it is a very big deal.

While therapy has been de-stigmatized throughout much of our society it is not something easily discussed among men, especially those in positions of power and authority. In the business world we call therapy “coaching” and though it is inappropriate to conflate the two (one looks back, the other looks forward is a simplistic distinction) we are well-served to remember that when a client and a trained professional of any discipline commit to doing real work, good things usually come of it.

Thanks to Dwyane Wade and others like him, there will be more men who choose to make themselves vulnerable and seek the help they need. And each time that happens our world will become a better and a safer place.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Don’t wait for your company to hire you a coach

When I started my company in 2013 my first leadership coaching client was an individual who paid for it out of his own pocket. He knew it was the right time and he was willing to make an investment in his learning.

I was inspired by that commitment and it still inspires me any time I have the privilege of coaching someone who makes the same choice.

Yes, most of the time it is the company who sponsors and pays for coaching services. But what if your company is not ready to do that and you are absolutely convinced it’s time to grow? You can take the path of convincing them to do so or the even longer path of finding a new employer who is willing to invest in you.

Alternatively, you can take on an even better question: if you know you’re ready; if you are eager to learn…eager to go the edge of your understanding of self, others and your leadership potential, what are you waiting for?

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

The Best Advice

The best advice I ever received came from the book, “The Art of Possibility” by Ben and Rosamund Zander. It goes like this:

Don’t take yourself so damn seriously!” (aka, ‘Rule #6′)

I remember thinking, “How did they know!!!” (Yes, three exclamation points.)

The second best piece of advice I ever received was to see a therapist.

Doing so is how I learned make the space to apply the best advice I ever received.

I don’t believe that therapy is the only path to follow but it worked for me and it continues to pay dividends.

I’m not fixed or finished, by any means. I’m a work in progress and will forever be. It’s just that the time and energy I invested in clearing a path to understanding has made it possible for me to reduce my self-interest, my selfishness, my neediness and my need for control.

That reduction has forever changed the quality of my relationships, my capacity for understanding and empathy, my openness to new experiences. It has increased my sense of humor and my perspective. It has encouraged my acceptance of everything that’s beyond my control and a deeper commitment to everything that is.

And that’s what motivates my work today. I understand what’s possible and I want it for others. And for the people they lead. Especially for them.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Would that make you a better leader?

If you knew the core values of your team members, would that make you a better leader?

If you understood the personality dynamics of your team members, would that make you a better leader?

If you knew the defining strengths of your team members, would that make you a better leader?

If you knew the limitations or challenges that keep your team members up at night, would that make you a better leader?

If you knew the personal and career aspirations of your team members, would that make you a better leader?

No, no, no, no and no.

Knowledge is useless. It’s activation that matters.

If you don’t care, and have no interest in knowing these things please don’t act like you do. You will never see it through and your team will feel manipulated as a result. You’re better off leaving it alone because most people, most of the time would prefer no effort rather than a false one.

If you do care, and you are interested in this kind of knowing; if you are interested because you understand that this knowledge is the key that will unlock connection, commitment and engagement, then go for it. Just be sure to go all in.

Offer assessments, organize workshops, facilitate dialogue. Be a workplace that values the process of discovering and discussing these elements and commits to doing so again and again and again. Be a workplace that strives to connect the dots between the dynamics of the team, the business, the community and the industry.

Be a workplace that says, “Before we are anything else, we are human beings, and as human beings we are complex, interesting and powerful…especially when we come together to create something larger than ourselves.”

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.




Three Questions for the Weekend

It’s an enormous gift in my work – as teacher and coach – to learn from my students and clients. I am always interested in new approaches, fresh perspectives and just the help that allows me to get better at what I offer and how I offer it.

A couple of weeks ago a client shared with me three questions they had received as part of a pre-work email for a conference on “Change.” Sort of a, “Since you’re coming to this, here’s what we want you to be thinking about.”

The basic building blocks of my work…ALL of my work…are good questions. And a good question is simple and clear while potent enough to evoke a thoughtful response.

As you enjoy your weekend perhaps you will find value in considering these three questions to reflect on your work week, your love life, your friendships, your community involvement; anything that matters to you and to which you wish to apply your best self.

  • What’s been going well?
  • Where have you gotten stuck?
  • What can you do differently?

Here’s to good questions and the answers that move us to deeper understanding, more imagination and a greater sense of possibility!

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

A little more risk, a lot more luck

Here’s a little inspiration for your Monday:

Years ago, just starting out in my business as a leadership coach and organizational consultant, I decided to market myself by doing a bunch of pro bono speaking engagements. Organizations like Rotary Club always need speakers and this newly minted “freelancer” needed the practice.

On one occasion I accepted a lunch time engagement at a restaurant about 40 miles from my home. I was assured that there would be “at least 20 to 25” participants which sounded fine to me. Upon arrival, I discovered that the restaurant was more like a diner, and that the meeting was in a backroom that was connected to the kitchen. It was loud and noisy.

And six people showed up.

Between tentative bites of my Cobb salad I began to feel doubt, regret and a healthy dose of self-pity. “What the hell am I doing here?” echoed through my mind along with a few other colorful thoughts.

And then I made a decision. I saw the faces of my mentors, I examined the truth of my own intentions and I simply decided to take the risk of speaking to those six people with the energy I might give to 60…or even 600.

I gave them all I had…my very best. And as a result – would you believe it? – one of those six (1 of 6!) invited me to his organization and offered me a project that turned into a multi-year engagement. It was the most significant financial transaction of my first year in business, by far.

It happened because I took the risk of showing up and because I took the risk of playing big.

I was inspired to share this story after watching this short, sweet and totally compelling talk by Tina Seelig. In the spirit of small risks and big luck, I hope you’ll take 10 minutes to check it out.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

When Good Intentions Go to Waste

IMG_5661There’s an unopened container of mango salsa in our refrigerator.

It’s been in there for a while. It must have gone bad by now.

I imagine it seemed like a good idea in the store, that nicely packaged yellow and orange salsa quietly promising to complement some grilled salmon or brighten up a plain old cheese quesadilla. But I don’t know because I didn’t buy it. And I wouldn’t buy it, because it’s not what I want.

I prefer a traditional red salsa. Even a pico de gallo will do in a pinch. But at least twice these past couple of weeks I went to have chips and salsa only to find that the mango was the only option. What harm in trying it, I reasoned? At least you’ve got something…why not find out?

But, no. My salsa sensibilities remain unenlightened. And so it sits.

This happens with corporate training efforts and in coaching sometimes, too. That may seem like a bizarre jump to make but that little container of salsa reminds me that over-zealous organizations do this all the time. With good intentions the investment is made, and as enamored as the decision-maker might be about “this new approach” it remains unappreciated and unused unless others are brought to a place of joint commitment about its value and its promise.

Employees are engaged when they have the resources, communication and support to do the jobs they were hired to do. They disengage when any of that essential stuff gets interrupted because a well-intentioned person decides to “mix things up.”

If you really want to help them, find out what they want and need and then do the most obvious thing imaginable: get it for them.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.