The Inner Life of a Leader


Finding the courage to Put Values into Action

Inner Life

Putting the words “inner life” together with the word “leadership” may seem inherently contradictory. Many assumptions about the work of leadership involve taking action: doing specific things, and being accountable for consequences.

The phrase “inner life,” on the other hand, carries a connotation of invisibility, of personal, emotional experience that is unknown to others.

Books and articles on leadership that fill bookstores and libraries often seek to answer a simple, concrete question: What is it that effective leaders do? An equally expanding leadership development industry takes that question one step further: How do they learn to do it (e.g., McCauley, Moxley, & Van Velso, 1998)?
These questions are extraordinarily important, and they have driven students of “leadership” to push their inquiry in a number of productive directions. Understandably, that inquiry has centered on the observable, the external, and the measurable.

If we want to understand what makes a particular leader “effective,” it makes sense to look at visible behavior and its impact. But does leadership behavior flow in one stream or more? If we explore this question, we do find a connection between the “inner life” and what we label “leadership.”

For instance, the effective leader is often described as having similar characteristics in behavior:

Keeping promises;

Telling the truth;

Taking risks;

Demonstrating accountability;

“Going the extra mile;” and

Being a servant.

Such behavior, when others see it consistently and reliably, lends congruence to a leader’s actions. By congruence, I mean the belief that a leader is both willing and able to do what she says is the right thing for everyone to do—in other words, the leader is known for putting her own values into practice.

In a very real way, congruence means “embodied leadership,” since the leader shows others—by doing—that a particular value exists and how it should be practiced. I usually assume that when a leader is said to have integrity or trustworthiness, others see her as behaving congruently.

How does a leader become able to act congruently? To use a current cliché, how does he become able to “walk the talk?”  When people talk admiringly of effective leaders, they are describing a chain of behaviors based on inner capacity.

This chain of capacity begins with a sense of courage, or willpower; which then leads to a demonstration of commitment, or intention; which is finally translated by the leader and seen by others as congruent behavior. Capacity is formally defined as the “power to receive, absorb, hold, and contain” (Webster, 1994), and every one of these actions serves an important role in effective, or embodied leadership.

It is important to differentiate capacity from competency as a source of leadership effectiveness. Competencies refer to specific sets of skills that a person is able --or learns -- to perform. However, those skill sets or foreground competencies are defined (and definitions fall in and out of fashion), the leader’s followers know when a leader is doing them effectively.

 “Doing” though, requires more than just the ability to perform. Doing also requires the will and the intention to perform—what we often call “drive” or “motivation.” And what is the source of a leader’s, or any person’s willpower and intention? Drive and focus are controlled by that person’s:


Sense of inner clarity;

Resolution; and

Confidence that develops from having resolved challenges.

A leader’s capacity, then, will determine whether he can demonstrate courage and commitment to act, the drive and the resolve to put values into action, and the background behaviors of leadership.

It is important to point out that many reviews of leadership effectiveness include characteristics such as courage, commitment and integrity. “Emotional intelligence,” for example, articulated by Daniel Goleman (1995, 1998, 2000) has been especially influential in directing our attention to a taxonomy of inner abilities that determine leadership behavior.

Noel Tichy described one of the necessary characteristics that a leader must have by using the term, “edge” (Tichy & Cohen, 1997). Defined as “having the courage of one’s convictions,” edge is also “the refusal . . . to let difficulty stand in the way of acting on one’s deeply held ideas and values” (Tichy & Cohen, p. 157).

Many characteristics could be added to a concept like “edge,” and all of them are reflections or manifestations of a leader’s personal capacity. However, when we witness them as background behaviors, it seems that they are the most potent signs of powerful, positive leadership.

What we tend to remember and want to emulate are less often behaviors that represent “learnable” skills, and more often those that suggest a well-developed inner capacity. In fact, I believe that many people secretly doubt whether these behaviors (the ones that show courage, honesty, risk-taking, commitment, etc.)
can be learned.

Let’s assume, though, that a leader has such personal capacity. Now, let me be more explicit and outline four types of leadership action that require a well-developed capacity. When we see a leader taking this kind of action, we can assume the inner resources to display courage, commitment, and congruence.

At the same time, courage is even more essential in order to tolerate those situations when the anticipated outcome doesn’t occur. A leader’s capacity to tolerate an unexpected or unwanted result is especially valuable. With this added capacity in mind, the four specific actions include:

Communicating purpose. When we know our own purpose for living and being in the world, our lives have meaning and we know what we believe in. When we find a person who has a clear sense of purpose, that personal clarity often serves as an example that can inspire us to explore and define the meaning of our own lives.

Powerful, effective leaders tend to be clear about their personal reasons for wanting a leadership role and about the values that support that sense of personal mission. Followers yearn to find a leader whose purpose and values are positive and inspiring.

Taking risks. If a sense of purpose is knowing what you believe in, the next step is taking the risk to act accordingly. We admire a leader who is able to act and to fail, and yet turn this shadow anxiety of risk-taking into another possibility. A leader who can tolerate an error in the service of learning a valuable lesson is often regarded as a role model.

Telling the truth. This step is the most challenging of all, since it raises the specter of conflict. Finding the courage to speak our truth brings integrity into relationships and becomes the foundation for interpersonal respect, trust, principled agreements, personal learning, and effective change. If a leader cannot tolerate conflict, he will covert action, the "undiscussable" issue, and the unreliable report.

Acting with personal authority. Whenever we know what we believe in and are willing to risk a mistake, we are courageously exercising personal accountability. When people speak of a leader who has “personal presence,” they are describing the visible, outward behavior that signals inner confidence in the capacity to act in her own behalf. Self-trust is extremely compelling.

A leader must have an abundance of courage that signals a well-developed inner capacity. However, to liberate that courage, a leader must first do battle with a daunting, dangerous inner adversary: anxiety.

Unfortunately, the anxiety is usually more than just our own. If we listen to conversations around us, we often overhear long lists of adjectives to describe families, jobs, lives, political and economic conditions, and global tensions (e.g., ambiguous, uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, turbulent, chaotic, etc.). We also overhear reactions to them (e.g., frightened, confused, ambivalent, depressed, etc.).

The point is that personal anxiety continues to rise because we both absorb it and create it. That is why the most important verb in the definition of the word capacity is “contain.” A primary challenge we all face as we move through adulthood is developing the capacity to contain inner anxiety so that we can act with “the courage of our convictions.”

In fact, learning to contain anxiety requires a special kind of courage,-- courage that is a consequence of an unfolding process of self-definition or self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is a universal human challenge, but since it is also the core process that generates personal capacity, it has a special resonance for people in leadership roles.

If you are a self-differentiated leader, what are you able to do? In a calm, non-anxious manner, you are able to maintain a balance between “I” and “we.” Thus, you are able to express your own purpose and convictions quietly and confidently
and maintain close, satisfying relationships with important people in your life. You

Know clearly what you believe or intend to do;

Express that belief or intention clearly and calmly;

Calm your own inner anxieties and respond calmly to the anxious responses of others; and

Proceed with your intended plan of action calmly and resolutely.

At the core of self-differentiation is the courage to accept a bottom-line awareness: if I am too anxious about responding to others’ anxiety, and if I anxiously pacify them because I cannot tolerate their anxiety, I will lose myself. And if I lose myself, the capacity for leadership evaporates. Chronic anxiety undermines personal courage, and it is toxic for leaders.

If, then, self-differentiation is the path to courage, how does a leader become more self-differentiated? If, as a leader, I am willing to accept this task, I should be strategic in planning my approach to learning. I might begin my effort by reviewing my sequence of goals:

To find the courage and commitment to put my values into action, I must develop my personal capacity.

To develop my personal capacity, I must learn to respond with greater calm to my own anxiety and the anxiety of others.

To respond more calmly, I must work on my self-differentiation.

With this clarity, a leader can then decide whether he/she has the courage and the commitment to take the final step: working consciously on becoming more self-differentiated. A leader might:

Acknowledge, first, that he has an inner life and attend to those personal cues (e.g., images, memories, messages, thoughts, and feelings).

Recognize that this inner life has been shaped by and mirrors a personal biography.

Learn to identify messages and experiences that are most likely to create anxiety anxious and uncertainty in the present because they trigger familiar responses from the past.

Though simply described, this is not easy work. It can be extraordinarily fulfilling, though, especially if a leader has the courage to be curious about these initial steps.

Building confidence and trust in our selves requires that we become as familiar with our own interior landscape as we are with our outer world. For the leader who is brave and curious about his inner life, courage begets courage.

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