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High Performance Leadership: Surfing to Self-Mastery



Do you think of yourself as a high performing leader?

If not, do you want to be one?

First, when we talk about being a leader, we don’t necessarily mean the role or position, although that fits too. When we talk about leadership we are referring to the level of influence you have from any role in the organization.

Most leaders we work with want to increase both their leadership influence and effectiveness. When we ask them what they are doing to reach their goal, they tell us about the conferences they attend, the business books they read, and the podcasts they listen to. Plus, they ask for input from their peers, boss, and attempt to follow the latest success formulas.

Sounds reasonable, but something critical is missing.

As a leader you are often so busy looking at, and getting input from, the outside and applying these tips, tools, and formulas to the people around you, your business, and driving to great results. This may produce a great resume, wonderful achievements, and even impressing all the right people.

While this works for a while, this is an outside-in leadership development approach, and is ultimately not sustainable. Eventually, you will need to learn how to turn inward to understand how you operate, understand when you react versus respond, and learn to ride the waves of your fluctuating emotions that come from being human.

This is what we call developing Self Mastery and it may be the number one biggest lever for increasing your leadership influence, your team’s and your organization’s, creativity and effectiveness.

Self Mastery

Self Mastery requires an inside out leadership focus. It is about learning how to operate this human called you, and working with and mastering the fluctuations that occur in your own internal environment as a result of being human.

Yes, we are all wired to look outside of ourselves to judge if we are doing okay. Many people don’t realize that this view is warped because our compare and contrast equation has very little to do with what may actually be happening on the inside of the other people. So you are only getting one side of the equation.

The Silo’d Person

This tendency to judge ourselves based on outside first, leads to trying to change, construct, or manage ourselves so that we fit, please, and meet the expectations of others.

This leads to the development of what we call a “Silo’d Person,” your life is compartmentalized, you manage your behavior for effect, you treat yourself and others like objects to be manipulated versus as complex, emotional human beings to be heard and considered.

When things don’t work out well, you double down and work even harder at looking good, being in control, and shaping yourself into styles and forms that are the latest greatest examples of high performance, based on what may or may not have any substance. No, it just looks good from the outside!

In the process of trying to meet those outside expectations, you repress your natural human tendencies, you compress your own energy. This is why it doesn’t work for too long. Eventually, this natural energy inside of you has to come out. It usually does in some form of explosion, failure, or emotional or physical breakdown.

Charlie Wanted To Get Rid of His Anger

We met Charlie at one of our six-month Leadership Development Programs we lead. Shortly after the start of the program we had an in-person module. Charlie traveled from China to attend. His goal: to get rid of his anger. Hmm…

Charlie was an up-and-coming executive in a fast-growing technology company. He was struggling with a series of angry explosions at work. His superiors told him that he would be limited in his rise, and even his career at the company, if he didn’t stop reacting so unproductively.

So Charlie attended an anger management class his company recommended. At the seminar, Charlie learned the importance of shutting down his anger and communicating in a more respectful style when he was upset. For a while this was helpful, that is, until about two months after the class when Charlie blew up again. It seemed that repressing his angry feelings wasn’t going so well.

In our Leadership Development program we talk about the importance of owning and acknowledging anger, rage, and frustration, not shutting these feeling down or getting rid of them. Charlie was very surprised and took this to be a cultural difference between China and the US. We quickly explained that no, our US executives were also trained and encouraged to control, manage, and get rid of negative feelings. We just disagreed that it was an effective approach.

Instead, we encouraged learning and becoming friends with anger, rage and frustration. That getting to know, and fully own those parts of himself would make it possible to have choice when those strong ‘negative’ emotions were surfacing, and for us that was much more effective in mastering one’s emotions rather than suppressing them.

Charlie was intrigued, and willing to try anything at that point.

Inside-Out Focus

Instead of being so focused on the outside, your task as a leader is to become aware what is going on inside of yourself. That involves being able to identify what you are thinking, feeling, and wanting in any given moment.

Sounds simple, but ask yourself, “Am I really very good at that?” When something new is happening for you, do recognize:

  • Your Thinking: How the new information is bumping against your existing belief systems?

  • Your Feelings: We’ll keep it simple. What is happening in your body physiologically? Are you are feeling good and opening, or feeling bad and constricting?

  • Your Intentions: Do you recognize what you are wanting, or not wanting, right now?

Too often this inner awareness does not come until your insides are quite loud and ‘management’ is required to avoid eruption, implosion or a tsunami!

Surf The Waves

Think of it like surfing. If you are on a surfboard it’s quite important to be able to ride the wave, notice the water’s rhythm, see the wave rising, anticipate the size and time your decision based upon a solid ability to master water’s movement. It’s not really about changing the wave or controlling the water. It is about mastering your own sense of balance and creating a relationship with the board, the water, and the environment.

It’s easy to get that surfing is about mastering oneself. It’s not about having the perfect tools—i.e. surfboard or resume, or controlling the water: your own nature or humanness—good luck with that! No, it’s about mastering the relationship between you, the board, and the water.

Mistake Leader’s Make

Leaders often make the mistake of focusing on getting a better surfboard, or hell, upgrading to a boat, meaning getting the perfect tools and constructing yourself from the outside-in to be able to stay afloat through a storm or ride through any rough water. This is much like Charlie’s initial effort. The better the boat looks, the more people assume it is water-ready and safe.

Sadly, some leaders are so busy looking outward, concerned about who may be watching, and assuming a big enough boat will ride through any storm that they miss the real opportunity of creating a relationship with their inner emotional world and learning to ride the waves of strong emotions, the ebb and flow of expansion and contraction.

Frankly, all the effort to fix up the boat, making sure you are saying and doing the right things, makes it even harder to be aware of what’s actually happening both inside and outside of you and hinders your able respond effectively.

Think Titanic. Yes, a beautiful boat, but they still didn’t see that iceberg.

What Is Self Mastery?

Developing self-mastery isn’t about getting more input. You probably have had quite enough already.

Self-Mastery is the process of integrating the new information and understanding what fits for you and what doesn’t. When you have Self-Mastery you are able to pause, turn inward, and becoming aware the waves inside of you. When you do this you can actually digest the information you are learning, keeping what fits, and throwing out what doesn’t.

How To Develop Self-Mastery

The first step of developing Self-Mastery is data gathering, which always helpful in understanding what is going on. This is about turning up the volume of what is happening inside of you and gather this data over time.

Tool: Three Point Check

The Three Point Check is pausing and noticing several times a day:

  • What am I thinking?

  • What am I feeling?

  • What am I wanting right now?

Once you start to gather this data, you can determine if there are any patterns to the data. Then you can apply the next tool.

Tool: Curious Investigator

For this tool you want to consider that maybe what is going on inside of you is there for a good reason. The key is understanding how you got to where you are or how other people got to their point of view.

The magic ingredient is curiosity.

This is a more matter of your intention to be open and understand more than specific skill. It is really shifting to the place where you are willing to take in information.

Let’s see how Charlie did this.

How Did Charlie Do It?

Once Charlie got over the belief that he had to get rid of his anger and accepted that his anger was natural and in fact, it was giving him some vital information about what wasn’t working for him, he started to make progress.

First, he started doing the Three Point Check several times a day. He became aware of triggers and patterns both inside and outside that created an escalation towards anger. Here are two triggers he noticed and what he did to work with them.

1. Poor Performance – When someone gave Charlie a project that clearly missed the mark, he would immediately get revved up. Because he was working on Self-Mastery, rather than explode, he would pause and do a full

Three Point Check:

  • Feeling: That’s easy – Rage!

  • Thinking: This person is incompetent!

  • Wanting: People to do what I tell them to do!

This Three Point Check gave him some space to go to the second tool: Curious Investigator. He would ask: “What did you understand the assignment was about?

”When the person related something that was clearly not what Charlie wanted, Charlie was surprised. He became even more curious, asking “Wow, how did we get so far apart?”

More than one person said, “I don’t always understand what you want me to do. I don’t ask questions because I don’t want you to get angry.”

Charlie got much better when he was giving assignments. He spent a bit more time getting people on the same page, and was much happier with the results.

2. Being Hungry: He also realized that by 4PM he was more apt to get upset. Doing his Three Point Check, he realized it was because he was getting hungry. So he started to have a protein bar about 3:30, and everyone was happier.

In Summary

Become a High Performing Leader!

Increase your leadership influence and effectiveness through Self Mastery, which is an inside-out Leadership Development approach. Self Mastery is about knowing and owning one’s inner landscape as much, or even more than, focusing on meeting other’s expectations. Sure going to trainings, conferences, and listening to business gurus is helpful, but don’t stop there.

Do your Three Point Check to understand what you are thinking, feeling, and wanting at any moment. The data you gather will give you valuable information. Become a Curious Investigator to uncover how you got there. This is where the surfboard meets the water!

Self Mastery demands attention, but it is so worth the ride and much more fun when you aren’t as focused on who is looking but on what the water’s telling you, and then anticipating, and responding to the inner wave!


CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.



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