The Inner Game of Leadership

The most challenging part of growing brilliant leaders who will thrive in 21st century business is coaching the inner game of leadership. Today’s leaders must adapt to rapidly changing demands, continually growing character strengths that bolster their functional capacities to lead effectively.

All effective leaders learn to master the C-suite competencies: setting strategic direction; communicating an inspiring mission; understanding financial data; planning and coordinating resources; and ensuring that processes, systems and people achieve results.

While most leadership development efforts focus on these responsibilities, they’re ultimately insufficient. Great leaders must address the inner game of leadership. However, what I find in my coaching practice is that often leaders gravitate toward the competencies they’re most familiar with, things like finances, strategy, or processes rather than any “soft skills.”

What Is the Inner Game?

The inner game consists of character traits like honesty, passion, vision, risk-taking, compassion, courage, authenticity, collaboration, self-awareness, humility, intuition and wisdom. This lengthy list may seem like a tall order for training and development, but the inner game of leadership consists of the core values for authentic leadership.

The “inner game” concept became popular 15 to 20 years ago. Sports coach and consultant Tim Gallwey coined the term in The Inner Game of Golf, The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Work, and his ideas have proved to be timeless.

Inner Mastery Required

The results that we produce in the outer world are driven by what goes on inside our heads. The mental models we create for ourselves are based on our own limited experiences, often-erroneous beliefs and even fears. We don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s hard to think beyond the boundaries of our current realities.

When we learn to change our thinking by improving our inner game, we modify our behaviors and the results we achieve.

A fear of failure, for example, interferes with your ability to take risks. You may wait until you have enough data to assure certainty. But in today’s business world, waiting for certainty may mean missing the boat. When you avoid risk and play it too safe, you fall victim to missed opportunities.

Effective leaders weigh the risks and decide when to act, despite ambiguity and uncertainty. Their level of awareness allows them to master the inner and outer worlds.

You cannot master the outer game of leadership without inner proficiencies. The inner game has more to do with character, courage and conviction than with competencies. It’s an ability to act when situations are complex, volatile and ambiguous. This is the “right stuff” of leadership: wisdom, self-knowledge, social intelligence and solid grounding in personal values.

What’s your inner game like? Are you actively engaging with your coach to help you develop character strengths? I’d love to hear from you; you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.


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