Best Director

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

- Shakespeare

Step Off the Stage

If you want to take control of your results and your life, get off the stage, get out of character, and get into the director’s chair.

More often that not, we are so immersed in the show called life that we forget we own the script rights. We become lost in our character, allowing emotions and circumstances to direct us.

To author and neuroleadership expert David Rock,

“the director is a metaphor for the part of your awareness that can…watch the show that is your life, make decisions about how your brain will respond, and even sometimes alter the script. Without self-awareness, you would have little ability to moderate and direct your behavior moment to moment.”

“Without a director you are a mere automaton, driven by greed, fear, or habit.” David Rock, Your Brain at Work

Re-cut Your Results

Directors design films and stage-productions to evoke certain emotions and reactions from the audience.

We can similarly direct ourselves. For example:

  • When people aggravate us we can change the angle and try to see things from their point of view. We can get curious about why they differ so strongly and what stress they may be experiencing.
  • When asking questions we can change the metaphorical lighting from cold, interrogating spotlight to something more diffuse and warm.
  • When giving feedback we can replace the Halloween III soundtrack to something less terrifying.
  • When we attempt to motivate others, we can be less like Sue Sylvester and more like Mr. Schuester. (Don’t miss the gift link to Sue’s soundtrack at the end of this post!)


1. Observe yourself daily as though watching a stranger through a camera.

  • What do you notice about how this person interacts with the world?
  • What’s the tone/genre of this movie: Horror? Suspense? Comedy? Love Story? Tragedy? Farce?
  • What soundtrack would best suit when this person enters a room? Darth Vader’s theme? Mary Poppins?
  • How could you edit your character’s thoughts, tone, actions, to improve the tone?

2. Poll the audience.

  • Instead of sending out a dry, data-driven 360-degree feedback survey, ask your staff what movie and/or music best describes your leadership. And encourage them to be honest and creative. Perhaps you are more Psycho before your morning coffee and more Sound of Music after lunch. Consider having a trusted neutral party collect the anonymous responses and give awards for most honest and useful. While you’re at it, ask your family, friends, love-interest.

Take Control

We can go through life passively unaware or as objective directors making intentional decisions about the mood we want to convey and the results we want to elicit.  Not everyone will like your version of the movie, but at least you won’t be a puppet to your thoughts and emotions.

Enjoy the show!

Click to hear Sue Sylvester’s theme music during her amazing post-Superbowl tirade.

Want help becoming your own director? Contact us about individual leadership coaching or group coaching.


What Bruce Lee can Teach us About Living

You know the scene. Outnumbered and surrounded by bad guys, Bruce Lee composes himself, takes a stance, and then elegantly kicks ass until he’s the last one standing.

No, I’m not suggesting that we embrace violence to solve our problems. The message we can take from Lee and all great martial artists is this:

If you want to be more effective, do less.

The prevailing quality in the movement of gifted martial artists is efficiency.

And who couldn’t use some of that?

No Nun chucks Required.

You don’t have to enter a dojo to learn the lessons.

Be Your Own Sensei:

When you become an objective self-observer you’ll notice how you waste mental and physical energy on futile efforts like worry, resentment, and anger. Just sitting at your computer, you may notice a clenched jaw, shallow breathing, hunched back, and strained eyes.

Noticing the wasteful habits is challenging since they are so deeply ingrained in our bodies and thoughts. Unwinding the habits will take attention and practice.

Find a Sensei:

To shed the waste more efficiently, get a partner. Great teachers come in many forms including coaches, trainers, body workers, and cognitive therapists. A couple of years ago, I found the Feldenkrais method to help me relieve pain. Every week my practitioner Sonja Sutherland, also an Aikido black-belt, helps me re-educate my nervous system with what seem like simple, inconsequential, movement instructions. As I try to execute her instructions, the A-student inside me struggles to move as far as I can, putting lots of effort in. Her constant reminder is “do less.” The new movement only works if I do it without any struggle. When I insert struggle, I short-circuit the goal.

Do Less, Be More:

What if we went through our days without the wasted effort? If we moved between meetings, task, and errands without wasting energy on worry, resentment, tension, or comparison? What if we were more focused on the task or person in front of us, instead of lamenting about the past or worrying about the future? What could we achieve by bringing more being to our doing?

It seems a worthy quest.

Moshe Feldenkrais on his goal with the method

“To make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy, elegant.”

“If struggling were the way to get there, we’d all be there by now.”

Victoria Castle The Trance of Scarcity


Why Brains Hate Advice

A Rare Treat

In the Pixar movie Ratatouille, a novice (and mostly talentless) cook gets an experienced mentor who gives him explicit cooking advice that he heartily heeds. Eventually, after much instruction, intense attention, and lots of practice, he can cook well enough to survive in a top restaurant. The apprentice tells his mentor “Thank you for the cooking advice” and she responds, “Thank you for taking it.”

Is there anything sweeter than someone digesting your brilliant advice?  And, like so many of the most prized delicacies, it’s rare.

We wrote about the limits of advice in our prior issue Advice: Proceed with Caution. Now we have scientific data to explain why ADVICE SO SELDOM WORKS.

Advice as Threat

Dr. Evian Gordon, founder of the Brain Resource Company, explains that the brain’s overarching principle is to classify the world around you into things that either hurt you or help you stay alive. “Minimize danger, maximize reward” is the organizing principle of the brain. Your limbic system is charged with categorizing the world into friend or foe, safe or dangerous. And just to be safe, your limbic system errs on the side of dangerous. Long ago, when a rustle in the bush could have meant imminent death, this was useful.  Now, our sensitive brain doesn’t always serve us so well.

And sadly for those of us who love giving advice (and particularly sad for parents of teenagers), advice lights up all our brain’s danger signals, sapping resources from our higher brain, rendering us less efficient and less able to accept the advice. David Rock, CEO and author of Your Brain at Work, offers an incredibly useful acronym, SCARF, to explain why the brain’s threat system gets activated and how we can leverage knowledge of the brain to minimize threat and increase our capacity.

What the Brain Craves: SCARF

Status: We constantly assess how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. In our personal lives, our neighbors’ new car, their kids’ college acceptance, their groomed yard and much more, are material for comparison. In the work place, even a casual conversation with a boss can trigger a status threat response. And when a superior offers advice, our limbic system focuses on their perceived superior knowledge and experience–not on how we can benefit from the advice.

Certainty: All humans crave a degree of certainty. When unsure how to resolve a problem, our memory decreases and we disengage from the present moment, focusing instead on what could go wrong in the future. In this mode, we’re less likely to hear and neutrally appraise advice.

Autonomy: People need to feel some control over their lives and an ability to choose. When offered advice, the limbic system can trigger an emotional threat response at having our options narrowed.

Relatedness: Our brains are constantly assessing people as friend or, more often, foe. So before offering someone advice, build relationship.

Fairness: The cognitive drive to seek fairness is evidenced by people fighting and dying for causes they believe are just. If employees perceive a leader playing favorites, they will withhold trust and true collaboration won’t happen. On the flip side, employees will stay loyal longer to leaders and companies they perceive as fair. When a leader dishes out advice, an employee’s inner dialogue may sound like: “What, you don’t trust me to figure it out?  I bet you wouldn’t tell Suzie what to do.”

Good Advice for You but…

And just because your advice seems optimal to your brain, doesn’t mean it’s right for the brain you’re trying to influence. According to David Rock,

“Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to recognize his or her thinking.  It is far more useful to help others come to their own insights.

What Works

When we come up with our own insights and solutions, our brain is deluged with rewards: our sense of status goes up, along with a sense of increased autonomy and certainty. We even get a little lift from the dopamine burst that encourages us to take action and move us toward forming new neural pathways.

Here are two approaches to help others create rewarding insights:

1.       Help others narrow the problem to one clear statement by asking:

  • What’s the core issue?
  • How would you describe the problem in one sentence?
  • What will it look like if resolved successfully?

2.       Help them focus on their own internal thought process by asking:

  • What solution are you leaning toward?
  • What have you tried already?
  • How did it work?
  • If you had to guess what to do, what would it be?

And you may help motivate them to act by asking:

  • If nothing changes a year from now, where will you be?
  • What’s the first step you can take?
  • What support can you gather?

For real change to happen, inspiration has to come from within. Sure, you might motivate someone in the short term with carrots and sticks, but it will be fleeting change at best.

Become an Inspiration Catalyst

Withholding advice can be draining. It takes great energy, patience, and self-control to help others find their own insights when you have a golden nugget that you’d love to share. To regularly evoke brilliance from others, you’ll need practice.

You can start by working on your own SCARF. That is, build a brain that trusts more and fears less, and gain capacity to perceive and evaluate options more clearly. While not easy to rewire a brain, with focused effort it will happen. Leaders who invest the time will reap huge rewards as they become more trusting to others and create low-fear-zones where people can let down their guard and do their best work. They also gain the ability to hear and act on good advice swiftly.

“[t]his need to demonstrate how smart we are rarely hits its intended target.”

~ Marshall Goldsmith

Other Resources:

Managing with the Brain in Mind by David Rock

Drive, by Daniel Pink


How to Tell if You Work in a Fear-Ridden Environment

In our last post, we offered the ROAAR™ model as a way to understand how real work gets done, and provided a ROAAR™ Root-Cause Analysis tool. Here we offer:

Ways to Tell You Work in a Fear-Ridden Environment


Check any that apply:

◊   “cya” by email is an evolved and widely practiced art.
◊   Managers are expected to know micro-details of every project on short notice.
◊   The word “accountable” is used often.
◊   The phrase “I messed up” and its cousin, “It’s my fault” are heard rarely.
◊   People initiate and respond to emails after 11:00 pm.
◊   Employees in different departments are considered competitors.

If more than 2 apply to your workplace, you probably work in a high fear zone. If you are the boss, we should talk…soon.

Don’t despair. The situation is reversible. Here’s a list of action you can take to lower fear and increase the IQ and overall effectiveness of your organization.

To-Do List for the Courageous Leader

How to create a blame-free work zone where problems are surfaced early and people do their best work.

  1. -  Evaluate your beliefs and behaviors about risk, blame, leadership, and emotions (see the Confidence and Ego Assessments in our e-book, Conversations for Brilliance).
  2. -  Apologize for acting like a jerk.
  3. -  Strike the word “accountable” from your vocabulary. It’s been ruined and only creates a witch-hunt mentality where people scramble to avoid blame.
  4. -  When you discover problems, quickly and publicly admit your contribution. Use active voice and speak in first person: e.g. “I messed up.”*
  5. -  Calibrate your expectations and illusions of perfection: accept that if you are to have any chance of creating outstanding products and services, then mistakes must happen, and despite such imperfections, you and your customers will most likely survive. Share this belief with others.
  6. -  Invite people to disagree with you. When they do, don’t debate. Instead, ask “What else?” or ‘How can you tell?” or “Say more about that.”
  7. -  Thank the messenger.
  8. -  Take a deep breath, and remind yourself of who you want to be and what you want to create.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
- Philo of Alexandria

“I don’t recall…Mistakes were made.”
- U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez in testimony to the Judiciary Committee investigating the firings of eight US Attorneys.

“The person who can describe reality without laying blame will emerge the leader.”
- Susan Scott, best-selling author of, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership

*This advice pertains specifically to American, and potentially other, high individualistic cultures.