Leadership advisors 221 can use this model to accelerate the learning, development and performance of their clients. 222 How? Employing the Performance Prism, they can help clients raise their awareness of and their ability to address the blend of forces that shape leadership: strategic imperative / vision, operations, relationships and personal growth. They can help clients develop their Neutral Witness and the meta competencies of seeing, connecting, doing, in alignment with their core being, in service of worthy outcomes. They can employ the change cycle to help clients achieve enduring change, starting with client awareness and desire to change and moving through mapping the territory, seeking openings for disruption, experimenting and practicing new approaches until they become habit. Above all, however, advisors who want to effectively use this model can continually invest in honing their own Neutral Witness and meta competencies – to see, do, connect in alignment with a presenced being, in service of their client’s growth and performance. 223
Employ the Performance Prism
The Performance Prism, anchored in the three legs of the stool of leadership (ideas, action, relationships), is a useful lens for advisors to use, as they listen to clients describe their challenges and their current approaches, and help clients enhance their performance, as judged by the external world, in terms of achievement of desired outcomes. The prior discussions about the Performance Prism focus on how leadership can use this model for self-reflection, including to support individual behavioral change (e.g., taming triggers) and to support the development of specific leadership competencies (e.g., decision-making). An advisor, too, can use the Performance Prism to help clients self-reflect, diagnose and troubleshoot. A quick mental check of the degree to which the three legs of the stool are being deployed in leadership’s current approach helps an advisor assess the strengths and gaps across these critical domains of strategic direction, implementation, and stakeholder engagement.
- Ideas: Is there a clearly articulated, widely understood direction, vision, strategy, agenda, goals and purpose that answers the questions “where we are going,” “why,” and “how”? If not, is the root cause a lack of clear vision or failures in communicating the vision?
- Action: Is progress being achieved at the organizational, team, and individual levels? If not, what is gumming up the works? Are the systems, processes, incentives, structures supporting or inhibiting progress? Do critical players have sufficient propensity for action?
- Relationships: Are key stakeholders positively engaged? At the organizational, team, and individual levels is culture and morale positive and in support of high performance? If not, in what ways might individual behaviors and mindsets, as well as organizational values, informal “rules of the game” or formal systems, structures and processes be contributing?
As an advisor observes the degree to which a client prioritizes ideas, action, and/or relationships and their skill level in each domain, the advisor can gain insight into a client’s propensities, as it relates to the meta competencies.
Help Clients Develop Their Meta Competencies and Neutral Witness
Fundamentally, the path to client learning, development and growth is through the development of the client’s meta competencies and Neutral Witness. An advisor can be a powerful catalyst in this development. Through keen listening, mirroring, and attuning, an advisor can act as Neutral Witness “training wheels,” helping the client to see more, connect more, and do more, in alignment with their core being, in service of worthy outcomes. On the journey, as the client builds the capabilities of their own Neutral Witness, they increasingly do not need the assistance of the advisor. As John Prendergast said, “An effective outer teacher points students to their own inner teacher. There is really only one teacher – our inner knowing.” 224
One of the most powerful ways an advisor can help leadership develop is to help it “see more,” including helping leadership “see how it sees.” By keenly observing a client, an advisor can notice ways in which the client narratives, postures, or emotions might be limiting. Using a repertoire of frameworks and methodologies, the advisor can expand the aperture of the lens the client uses to view themselves, others, and the situation, and thereby increase the possibilities available to the client. Most of these frameworks use different analogies to catalyze a subject-object shift, stimulate double-loop thinking, or reduce categorical thinking. By helping the client “see more” as well as start to “see how they see,” the client starts to gain awareness of how they make meaning, the assumptions they make about how the world works, the perspectives they take, and the filters they use. This awareness paves the way for productive shifts that expand the client’s set of choices and options for action.
The frameworks and methodologies an advisor can use are innumerable (most leadership books offer a distinct one). Although some advisors work effectively using primarily one guiding framework, a broad, deep tool kit gives an advisor more options to choose from and the ability to choose one that is more specifically targeted to the client need. Frameworks not only help the client see more, but also help the client become conscious of their habits of seeing, and thus develop their own Neutral Witness, so they can continue to open their own aperture over time.
For example, let’s look at how Chris Argyris’s Ladder of Inference, the framework we discussed earlier, can help clients develop the seeing meta competency. The Ladder of Inference is a framework that depicts how the human analytical mind operates. Thus, it helps clients “make object” how their mind operates, including some of its limits (i.e., errors of logic and errors of bias). With this shift in perspective, clients become more capable of noticing the data they are selecting (and ignoring or may not have access to), how they are interpreting it (and that there are other options for interpretation), the conclusions they draw (and the ones they do not), the assumptions they may be treating as fact, the “fat words” they may use with the assumption that others understand their intended meaning, the predisposition we all share for the confirmation bias, and how their mental models fundamentally govern many of these sub-conscious choices. Through this enhanced awareness the client gains access to a fuller array of data, an expanded set of options for interpreting the data, as well as an expanded mindset through which to experience the data. It also shines a spotlight on a myriad of reasons two well-intentioned, intelligent people might talk past each other and how high-quality advocacy and inquiry can help bridge these gaps.
In addition to specific frameworks, there are also several classes of frameworks and methodologies that advisors use, to help expand client awareness. For example, there are a myriad of leadership assessment tools (e.g., Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, Kantor Propensity Profile, Insights, Strengthsfinder, etc.) that will help clients see what “type” of leader they are and how that compares to other types, with the implications for how to utilize strengths, be aware of weaknesses, and work effectively with others who are different. There are also a number of very effective leadership frameworks that point to the different “characters” within a single leader, who may be more or less dominant (e.g., Erica Fox, in Winning From Within, 225 writes about four leaders within us all: the visionary “dreamer,” the strategic “thinker,” the action-oriented “warrior,” and the people person “lover”). These kinds of frameworks help clients see a broader set of capabilities within themselves and encourage them to cultivate each, so that they can bring forth the kind of leadership that is required in a specific context. 226 There are also leadership frameworks that advocate for a specific leadership model (e.g., Adaptive Leadership 227, Servant Leadership 228, etc.) (In fact, Consilience fits in this latter category.) All of these frameworks can help clients expand their mental model of what leadership is and how they might be more effective. The role of the advisor is to introduce relevant frameworks, that help leadership enhance its performance in a timely manner.
In summary, an advisor can help leadership develop a well-honed seeing meta competency by helping clients:
- Develop a wide, deep, and textured lens through which it senses and interprets the world, as well as an awareness of that lens and its limits.
- Catalyze “subject-object” shift, stimulate “double loop learning” or reduce binary thinking in order to enable clients to reflect actively on things that were previously assumed and invisible, such as the governing principles behind their strategies.
- Cultivate curiosity -- about what we may not be noticing, about plausible alternative interpretations, about how we may be inadvertently contributing to undesirable situations.
- Operate with “strong ideas, loosely held,” simultaneously operating with conviction and an openness to be influenced by others.
- Maintain an alertness and openness to feedback.
- Understand their own and others’ propensity for bias.
- Engage diverse perspectives in respectful, rigorous debate.
- Practice executive control of attention to learn to slow down automatic thought processes, intervene to disrupt habitual reactions, and choose from a broader set of more effective strategies.
An advisor helps leadership develop their own “connecting” meta competency by helping them learn to harness emotional experience, authentically relate with others, genuinely appreciate their own and others’ contribution and value, and create an environment where people feel psychologically safe and trusting, motivated, engaged, and committed. An advisor accomplishes this by attuning with the client and helping them enhance their ability to attune to themselves and others, helping the client see patterns in their emotional life, behaviors, and relationships and sense the emotional tenor of interactions, teams, and organizations. An advisor can help clients appreciate and capitalize on their strengths in this domain, as well as experiment with new approaches when their habitual approaches are not serving them well.
The essence of the connecting meta competency is the ability of leadership to engage in authentic, attuned, caring relations. Thomas Huebl calls the experience of “I feel you, feeling me” the basic building block of relations. 229 Barbara Fredrickson speaks of this same dynamic in terms of “love,” defined as a “micro-moments of warmth and connection that you share with another human being.” She demonstrates how repeated micro moments of positive resonance build wisdom, resilience, health, agility, and adaptability, in a reinforcing, contagious system dynamic. Furthermore, she shows how this not only enhances the performance of individual leaders, but all they interact with (i.e., their colleagues or teams, etc.). She writes,
Every day micro-moments of positive resonance add up and ultimately transform your life for the better. You become happier and more socially integrated. Your wisdom and resilience grow as well. Emotional and physical health are contagious. 230
In moments of positive resonance…your awareness automatically expands, allowing you to appreciate more than you typically do. Also, quite automatically, your body leans in toward and affirms the other person and begins a subtle synchronized dance to further reinforce your connection. Over time, these powerful moments change who you are. They help expand your network of relationships and grow your resilience, wisdom, and physical health. …They also affect the people with whom you share your moments of positive resonance. …This repeated back-and-forth sharing…helps establish and strengthen healthy communities and cultures. …When you make love your prevailing desire, you remake whole domains of your life. You become appreciably and enduringly different and better. You uplift others, helping them become different and better as well. 231
The advisor and client can take advantage of the benefits of bio-synchronicity, to support the client’s development. The advisor can use a slow, quiet voice to calm the limbic system of the client. If an advisor “drops into presence,” the client can follow, as the client mirrors the advisor’s nervous system.
Taking it a step further, the advisor can hold the client in their mind’s eye. Dan Siegel writes about the value of this in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,
It is crucial to our development to have at least some relationships that are attuned, in which we feel we are held within another person’s internal world, in their head and in their heart – relationships that help us thrive and give us resilience. …Neural networks around the heart and throughout the body are intimately interwoven with the resonance circuits in the brain -- so that when we “feel felt” by another it also helps us to develop the internal strength of self-regulation, to become focused, thoughtful, and resourceful. 232
The experience of attunement, when “I feel you, feeling me,” has tremendous catalytic power to help leadership develop and even heal. An expert advisor can help a client explore the roots of their automatic, habitual responses, including the inherent intelligence of what often were early coping strategies. An attuned advisor can co-regulate a client who is hyper-regulated, until the client is able to regulate themselves independently. 233 This internal attunement between advisor and leader can help a leader repair hurts experienced earlier in life, which often are the root cause of automatic, unconscious triggered behavior. The advisor sets the tone in the relationship with the client, so the client feels safe enough to open up, take risks, share their fears, failures, experiences, hopes and successes – as is necessary to learn -- with the advisor. A skilled advisor understands that humans universally seek safety, dignity, love, purpose, and joy and thus authentically works with the client in a way that helps them feel genuinely “seen,” accepted, respected, and connected. At the same time, a skilled advisor understands it is their role to challenge the client, to evolve their ways of seeing, doing, connecting and being, to achieve the results they seek. Thus, the advisor strikes this balance between support and challenge.
Helping a leader attune to themselves, with the advisor, creates the groundwork for that leader to hone how they attune with others. An advisor can help the client reflect on how purposeful they are in devoting time and energy to cultivating authentic connection with others and how successful these efforts are. For example, using Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) that helps people review and assess how they spend their day, advisors can ask clients to reflect on what percentage of their interactions they:
- Focus on the other in a respectful and meaningful way
- Attune to and connect with the other’s experience
- Feel energized by the company of another
- Experience a shared flow of thoughts and feelings between them and another
- Experience their interactions as reflecting a smooth coordination of effort between them and another
- Experience a mutual sense of being invested in the well-being of another
Leveraging a foundational ability to “feel me, feel you, and feel you feeling me,” an advisor can help leadership enhance the external manifestations of a honed connecting meta competency: emotional intelligence, relationships, trust, psychological safety, interpersonal communications, and positive organizational culture.
- An advisor uses their own emotional intelligence to sense, identify, regulate and harness their own and the client’s emotions, in support of client development. A sophisticated, experienced advisor senses, understands and self-regulates their own emotions and helps the client learn to do the same – for themselves and others around them. An advisor is an astute observer of the client’s elephant and rider expert (referring back to Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the small rider, our cognitive faculties, who sits atop a six-ton elephant, our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of our automatic system). The Advisor helps the client harvest the valuable information in their emotional experience to enhance problem-solving, effective action and relationship-building. Specifically, the advisor can help the client develop the competencies related to emotional intelligence: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, achievement orientation, positive outlook, adaptability, empathy, 234 organizational awareness, 235 relationship management, influence, coaching and mentoring, conflict management, inspirational leadership. 236
- An advisor can help leadership build strong relationships or even repair damaged relationships. In Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations, 237 Diana Smith provides a breakdown of how advisors can discern and improve the underlying dynamics and structures of a relationship. She demonstrates the strong connection between the “behavioral footprint” of an individual leader, the patterns of interactions and relationships they tend to engage in, and the strength of their relationships. Furthermore, she shows how the behavioral footprint of two individuals come together in a relationship, in patterns that can be analyzed and altered. Advisors can be particularly helpful in engaging leadership in self-reflection to make visible these underlying patterns and stuck structures and thus the shifts in framing or action that can be experimented with, to strengthen the relationship.
- An advisor can help a client reflect on the degree to which they feel trust and psychological safety in their relationships, as well as what they can do as a leader to create an environment where others feel trust and psychological safety. Most importantly, an advisor can notice ways the client may be inadvertently undermining the results they are seeking, in terms creating a positive working environment and culture. As seen in the earlier example, a leader who loves debate and believes in the importance of letting all voices be heard may sincerely want her direct reports to speak up, voice disagreement, and engage her in rigorous debate. Yet, she may inadvertently discourage that behavior by engaging in aggressive verbal sparring with anyone who “dares step into the ring.” Thus, her own behavior inadvertently discourages the very behavior she wants to encourage. An advisor can help illuminate this dynamic, which likely sits in the client’s blind spot.
- Advisors can help clients improve their interpersonal communication skills. As discussed earlier, successful interpersonal communication is achieved when the essence of what one person is trying to convey is fully and accurately perceived by another person. While this sounds simple enough, there are many turns at which it can break down. It is human nature to be aware of what others may be doing to wreak communicational havoc, but it is difficult for us to see what we may be inadvertently contributing to the very results that frustrate us. An advisor can be asymmetrically valuable in helping clients engage their Neutral Witness to gain this bird’s eye perspective. Additionally, an advisor can bring to the table any number of powerful methodologies that may also help a client troubleshoot and remedy what may be getting in the way of successful communication. For example, Diana Smith, Phil McArthur, and Bob Putnam (of Action Design) leveraged the work of Chris Argyris, to popularize the left-hand-right-hand-column approach to diagnosing, redesigning and role-playing specific interactions where a client is not getting the results they desire and are not sure what they could do better, to improve the outcome. This methodology offers advisors a powerful approach to helping clients see what is going awry and what they might do differently to get a better result. David Kantor’s theory of Structural Dynamics offers powerful explanatory power for how interpersonal communications get stuck and what can be done to restore flow. Both of these are also rich springboards for helping clients examine their own patterns of behavior, build their meta competencies, and strengthen their Neutral Witness.
- Similarly, advisors can help clients build strong, positive organizational culture or remedy a weak or negative one. Intervening to improve organizational culture is a difficult endeavor, because it requires intervening to change individual mindsets and behaviors as well as organizational systems, processes, rituals, values, and structures. An advisor who is expert in this practice can help leadership understand the root causes of the cultural challenges and guide the client as they embark on the required changes.
In each of these instances, an advisor can work with leadership to employ the five cycles of change (i.e., awareness, map the territory, seek an opening for disruption, experiment, practice). The advisor can also use the presenting problem (i.e., the specific, immediate, concrete challenge the leader seeks help with) as a springboard for building all of the client’s meta competencies and strengthening the client’s Neutral Witness. The advisor employs the client’s Neutral Witness to expand what the client can “see” and therefore, what the client can “do” in service of the domain of emotion and interpersonal interactions.
In summary, an advisor can help leadership develop a well-honed connecting meta competency by helping clients:
- Learn to harness emotional experience, authentically relate with others, genuinely appreciate their own and others’ contribution and value, and create an environment where people feel psychologically safe and trusting, motivated, engaged, and committed.
- Hone their ability to sense their own and other’s emotional states, thus increasing their ability to be in relation, with the sense of “I feel you, feeling me.”
- Appreciate and capitalize on their strengths in this domain, as well as experiment with new approaches when their habitual approaches are not serving them well.
- Feel safe to open up, take risks, share their fears, failures, experiences, hopes and successes – as is necessary to learn -- with the advisor.
- See patterns in their emotional life, behaviors, and relationships. Explore root causes of automatic, habitual reactions, understand the original intelligence of this behavior, and explore other options that are appropriate to and effective in the current context.
- Attune with the advisor, to support development and healing through co-regulation that bridges to self-regulation.
- Reflect on how much of their time and energy they devote to cultivating authentic connection with others and how successful these efforts are.
- Sense the emotional tenor of interactions, teams, and organizations.
- Foster emotional intelligence, relationships, trust and psychological safety, interpersonal communications, and positive organizational culture.
An advisor helps leadership develop their own “doing” meta competency in multiple ways. Advisors can help clients gain awareness of their own bodies and the information their bodies are conveying (internally or externally). They can also help clients become aware of their own action propensity and in what contexts they are likely to over or under-use action. Finally, they can help clients sense action and inaction at the individual, team and organizational levels and learn how to intervene to support strong action that drives high-performance.
An advisor can help leadership enhance their awareness of their physical presence. Internally, our bodies are a rich source of information. Emotion lives in our bodies. There are areas of tension and of flow, and that tell us something about how we experience life. Somatic coaching is a specialized form of leadership coaching that focusses on embodying leadership skills and principles through the physical state. 238 Richard Strozzi-Heckler, the grandfather of this field, speaks about how our physical shape holds our attitudes and how changing our physicality can be the first step toward shifting our attitudes, emotional states, actions and performance. Even advisors that are not somatic coaches can help clients become more aware of the valuable information that emotion and internal felt sensations offer. They can also help clients understand what their posture and body language are communicating to others – information that tends to live in our blind spot.
An advisor can help a client become more aware of and hone their own propensity for action. An advisor can help a client observe themselves in action. Does a client suffer from a “ready, fire, aim” dynamic, in which action is taken before the right direction is discerned? Does a client mistake activity for progress and waste valuable resources? Does a client struggle to act, when necessary? If so, what is preventing the client from taking effective, efficient, timely action?
An advisor also can help leadership unpack the root causes of unproductive or insufficient action at the individual, team and organizational levels. As discussed earlier, common root causes may include:
- Lack of clarity, skill or experience (i.e., people do not know what to do or how to do it);
- Lack of motivation;
- Low action propensity (of an individual, team or organization);
- Misaligned incentives that cause inaction or people working at cross-purposes;
- Systems, processes or structures that impede, rather than support, efficiency and progress (these can range in scale from the subtle stuck structures that impede progress in a conversation to macro systems and structures of an organization or social system that impede implementation); and
- Learning processes that over-emphasize teaching of ideas and under-emphasize the importance of repetitive practice to building new habits.
In summary, an advisor can help leadership develop a well-honed doing meta competency by helping clients:
- Utilize somatic approaches to shift undesirable conditioned responses or physiologically embed new learning.
- Understand their own relative action propensity. 239 Leaders can work with a coach or in a peer learning group to explore the specific contexts in which have a strong, appropriate propensity for action and others where they may be prone to too much or too little action. They can develop strategies for adjusting and engaging in reflective practice.
- Learn how to identify underlying structures in relationships or interactions and expertly intervene, in order to improve outcomes.
- Purposefully align organizational architecture (e.g., systems, processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.) to support the effective, efficient implementation of the strategy (and support of healthy culture). Design the organizational architectural elements to promote motivational forces. As appropriate, utilize action-oriented learning processes as part of the organizational and team architecture (e.g., Rapid Prototyping, Agile, etc.).
- Utilize action-oriented learning processes in Leadership Learning & Development programs (e.g., Action Learning, DeeperFunner’s Collaborative Intelligence, etc.).
- Utilize the power of repetitious action/practice to embed desired actions, responses or skills, at the individual, team and organizational levels.
An advisor helps clients develop their “being” meta competency in three primary ways: by engaging clients in self-reflection, by helping them increase moment-to-moment awareness of their inner state, and by encouraging them to engage in practices (usually mindfulness practices) that enable them to train their attention, center (and re-center) themselves in challenging situations, and connect more deeply to their inner experience. Through helping clients to experience deep presence and stillness, advisors can help clients access the more expansive Being, an infinite reservoir of creativity, intelligence, beauty, love, peace, unity and joy.
An advisor can engage clients in a more regular, deeper level of reflection than they might engage in on their own. An advisor can unlock further self-exploration and revelation by asking probing, clarifying, or broadening follow-on questions. The advisor can provide frameworks or specific questions to spur reflection, that helps a client understand more clearly their internal experience. One example of such a framework is Leslie Temple-Thurston’s “Squares” technique, which aids clients in deeply exploring their fears and desires related to opposite possibilities (i.e., polarities). 240 The advisor can also provide the structure and gentle accountability that spurs a client to actually do the reflection (vs. just aspire to it).
An advisor can help clients become more aware of their inner state, discern when they are (or are not) operating from a state of presence, and, as necessary, re-center. The entry-point for this work is usually exploring a client’s triggers, illuminating the patterns and experiences behind these triggers, and helping a client learn to regain an inner state of calm presence in the face of these historic triggers. This entry point to increasing moment-to-moment awareness of being tends to be effective, because it hits the client’s learning edge: the client knows they are not operating as effectively as they would like; they are not getting the results they want; and they are unsure about what they would do differently another time. The client is usually quite motivated to understand and shift this dynamic, and in the process gains a broader appreciation for the value of operating from a presenced state of being.
An advisor can help clients find mindful or meditation practices that work well for them (this is quite individual) to help them effectively drop into presence, find center, and explore inner stillness. The benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices are many and well-documented (see Appendix 1 & 2). A regular practice helps clients maintain physical and emotional health and well-being. It helps them maintain their own strong and healthy reservoir of energy and positivity. It helps them maintain (or regain) a felt sense of maintain a centered presence in times of stress, change, vulnerability and uncertainty – it helps them maintain a Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable (F.A.C.E.S.) core. It helps them stay connected to their own higher consciousness. Furthermore, a regular mindfulness practices, enable clients to maintain an active connection to a bigger wellspring of intuition, inspiration and creativity, while being firmly grounded in the moment, in the day-to-day.
An advisor helps a client develop their Neutral Witness by helping them increase their awareness of how they see, connect, do and be. An advisor can help the client step back and observe, with compassion and without judgement, how they tend to think, relate, and act. More importantly, and more difficult to do alone without the help of another person, the advisor can help the client become aware of the underlying (and previously invisible) systems and governing principles, values, assumptions, mental models, and habits that drive how they tend to think, relate, and act. Once a client is aware of these dynamics, they can assess the “gives and gets” of how they currently operate and explore whether there are more effective (and perhaps lower cost) strategies to achieving their desired outcomes.
Employ the Change Cycle to Help Clients Achieve Enduring Change
In helping a client develop the meta competencies, the advisor can be an invaluable thought partner in engaging each stage of the change cycle. An advisor can also guide the leader through the cycle, ensuring that each phase is sufficiently engaged to produce the lasting change the leader desires.
In the first stage, Awareness / Desire to Change, leadership gains awareness that an old approach is not working and has a desire to change to get better results. Through active, attuned listening, an advisor can help the client hone their articulation of the results they are dissatisfied with and the change they seek. Through seeking additional data (e.g., by conducting interviews of critical stakeholders or by observing leadership in action), the advisor can enhance leadership’s understanding of the changes that may be needed to achieve the desired results. Because client readiness and desire for change is a necessary pre-condition for a successful advisory engagement, and advisor can explore the commitment 241 of the client, with a focus on understanding why the client feels the desire to change and why it is important to them (versus something others feel is important but the client does not actually care deeply about). Furthermore, in this initial stage, the advisor and client metaphorically link arms, as partners in this journey. The client commits to doing the work with courage and integrity and the advisor commits to being by their side, to support and challenge, in service of the client’s growth and development.
In the second stage, Map the Territory, the advisor can help the client deeply and thoroughly diagnose the current state, the desired state, and the gap between. The Performance Prism can be deployed as a short-hand diagnostic to understand where there may be shortfalls in vision, implementation, and stakeholder dynamics (a.k.a. ideas, action, relationships). Through asking good (and different ) 242questions and sharing observations, the advisor can help the client “see more” about the results they seek, the internal and external barriers to and opportunities for achieving those results, the root causes of the challenges, the underlying structures that may be keeping the system stuck -- and what additional data may be needed to fully understand these issues. The advisor can also help the client explore how the client themselves may be inadvertently contributing to the very results that are frustrating them and how shifts in leadership behavior can be a lever for better results. An advisor can be asymmetrically helpful by helping illuminate leadership blind spots – those things that, by definition, they cannot see themselves. Perhaps most importantly, the advisor can help the client start to explore their strengths and limitations of their meta competencies – in service of building them. The Kantor Behavioral Propensity Profile 243 can be a useful tool to help the client reflect on their relative strengths, across the domains of ideas, action, or relationships (a.k.a., Meaning, Power, and Affect, in David’s language system). The advisor can also start to help the client build the capacities of its Neutral Witness. For example, in working with the client to “Map the Territory,” the advisor not only helps the client “see more” about the underlying issues and dynamics, but also helps the client start to examine the mental models and assumptions the client uses to frame these issues (a.k.a., helps the client think about how they think). This deep exploration of Mapping the Territory can be quite vulnerable for the client. The advisor builds trust in this stage through attuned, active listening and demonstrating authentic compassion for the client’s struggles and respect for the intelligence behind the client’s current strategies, even if they are not achieving the desired results. Mapping the Territory not only reveals short-comings, but more importantly, it reveals the strengths of the client, upon which winning strategies will be built.
A good Map of the Territory provides the inroad to seeking the openings to do something different, to disrupt the status quo, in service of getting better results. In this third stage of change, Seek opening / Disrupt, the advisor’s meta competency of seeing plays an over-sized role. Through keen listening and attunement, pattern recognition, and an expanded set of lenses through which to interpret the worlds of organizational dynamics and interpersonal dynamics, as well as the specific industry, field or function in which the client operates, the advisor is able to notice how the client frames themselves, others, the task at hand, the assumptions they may be treating as facts, and the mental models they use to construct their world-view. The advisor can mirror these insights back to the client for examination and together they can explore different possibilities. Advisors help clients unpack the implicit logic of what the client is trying to achieve, the strategies they are using (whether conscious or not), and the positive and negative results those strategies are actually achieving. They can help clients brainstorm more effective strategies – ones that either achieve better results or achieve the same results at a lower cost. Together, advisor and client explore opportunities to disrupt the status quo, whether by first shifting the client’s mindset, actions, emotions, or internal state.
In the fourth stage of change, Experiment, advisors can help clients find opportunities in their day-to-day work to experiment with the new strategies they think might get them more, at a lower cost. As the client experiments, the advisor helps them actively reflect on how the strategies are working and adjust them accordingly, as they continue to experiment. These experiments can be exhilarating or frustrating, illuminating or confusing; an advisor can help the client process these experiences.
In the final stage of change, Practice, advisors can help clients identify appropriate practice arenas, help clients optimize their learning from practice through reflection, and help hold clients accountable to the practices they commit to, thus making the practice more regular. Advisors help clients find low-stakes, frequent situations where they can practice their new approaches, without fear of serious repercussions, until they become more skilled. Advisors engage clients in regular reflection on what is working well and what is not, so clients can continue to adjust and learn. Perhaps most importantly, advisors create a structure through which the client knows they will be asked about the practice, and thus a gentle, but powerful incentive is created for the client to prioritize the practice, amongst all the other demands on their time and attention. If the client falls away from the practice, the advisor is there to help them unpack that experience and resume efforts.
Advisor Must Hone Own Neutral Witness and Meta Competencies
Operating from a cohesive core being, with aligned thinking, feeling and acting, and a coherence between internal experience and external presentation enables an advisor to be fully present with clients, bringing to their work the fullness of their wisdom, creativity, caring, and authenticity, in service of activating the potential in the client. In order to achieve this, advisors, too, seek to hone their meta competencies. For an advisor, the seeing meta competency helps them be aware of their own biases, limiting narratives, assumptions, patterns of thought, relationships, and action -- as well as those of their clients. 244 The connecting meta competency helps advisors attune deeply to themselves and their clients. The doing meta competency helps them act with wisdom, compassion, and precision – in service of their client’s development. 245 The being meta competency helps them maintain: a grounded presence, in right relationship to the client; 246 a strong and healthy reservoir of energy and positivity; and connection to their own higher consciousness, with an active connection to the wellspring of intuition, inspiration and creativity, while being firmly grounded in the moment, with the client.
How an advisor shows up and the energy they bring to an interaction, is just as important as any moves they make or insights they offer. Attunement, keen listening, maintaining connection to spirit – while being firmly present with the client – all serve to create a space in the interaction that is ripe for blossoming. An advisor can feel this blossoming through energy shifts in the conversation. When an advisor catalyzes a “subject-object shift” to help a client see new possibilities, there is a shift in energy. When the deep attunement with an advisor helps a client feel “seen” or “heard” or “felt” in a way they have been yearning for, there is a shift in energy. When a client feels the pride of gaining new skills, higher-performance approaches, and healthier habits, there is a shift in energy. Clients are energized by the potential that is being activated in them. Thus, the leadership paradox (“it is all about you; it is not about you.”) applies to advisors, too. The best advisory work is accomplished when client and advisor co-create and the client walks away from the experience enlivened by the experience and insights they’ve had, but not focused on the process, methodology or contribution of the advisor.
How does an advisor achieve this? Again, the Neutral Witness plays an essential role. The Neutral Witness is essential to a centered, curious presence from which an expert advisor can engage in keen, active listening, mirroring and attunement. Nurturing their own alert, curious Neutral Witness enables an advisor to notice quickly when they, themselves, are triggered by a client or their circumstances or when the advisor’s shadow stories may cause the advisor to over-identify (or, conversely, be unable to empathize) with a client’s experience.
The advisor is engaging its Neutral Witness simultaneously on three levels. On the first level, the advisor is keenly alert to cues about how the client is seeing, doing, connecting, in alignment (or misalignment) with their core being. On the second level, the advisor is curious about the client’s ability to observe him/herself, to be aware of how they are thinking, acting, connecting, and being – that is, actively engage their Neutral Witness. On the third level, the advisor actively engages his/her own Neutral Witness to observe themselves, as they observe the client (and observe the client, observing themselves), to notice their own moments of reactivity or habitual response, that reflects the advisor’s (but not necessarily the client’s) learning edge.
It is essential for an advisor to actively work to continuously develop their Neutral Witness. This is accomplished by reflection, mentorship, and mindfulness or meditation practices. Reflection can be done independently, through journaling or using prompting frameworks or even by making it a practice to be keen observer of self. It can also be done together with a thought-partner or in a small group that asks good questions and makes keen observations that spur reflection. It is advisable that advisors themselves have a mentor or teacher or peer(s) that can offer “oversight” – that is, guidance and thought partnership when the advisor finds themselves in a situation with a “challenging client,” an indicator that the advisor is meeting something in their own unconscious that would benefit from exploration. Advisors also benefit immensely from regular mindfulness and mediation practices. The more experienced an advisor becomes in these practices, the more vital they understand them to be in the advisor’s own journey of learning, growth and self-discovery.
© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham