Coach for behaviors, not attitudes.

Chipmunk's gumption

Chipmunk’s gumption

Tar has shown interest in a people lead role. He has earned the respect of his peers, juniors and seniors for deep scientific expertise. His is a many-feathered cap. The prospect of his leading a team has merits.

Or does it?

Expert though Tar may be, he has an Achilles heel. Or rather two. Tum is accountable for Tar’s case and owns the decision. She ponders.


Tar is a polarizing figure. Even those who have known him for a short while remark upon his tendency to quickly take a position and get entrenched. While this attitude is a reflection upon the passion he brings to her role, trench warfare doesn’t belong in an organization.

People want to be heard out. Hearing out diverse points of view signals respect. Moreover, leadership roles frequently require the incumbent to play Devil’s Advocate with self before settling down upon a point of view.

It boils down to this. Can Tar argue both sides of a case dispassionately?


Tar grew up in an orthodox sect of his community. Tradition governed all aspects of life and authority did not take kindly to questioning. Tar’s inquisitive nature got him in trouble. He displayed unusual courage and fortitude in making non-traditional choices and standing up to authority.

Perhaps as a result of this, Tar tends to cast the relationship between people and their leaders in a David-Goliath framework. Trust is key to smooth functioning of an organization in an era of self-organizing teams. His undercurrent of cynicism has often hindered than helped. In a recent example, he lined up with an under-performer to resist the team’s attempt to upgrade process to the cutting edge of practice. In his mind, Tar had “seen through” a cynical management ploy to get more productivity out of people.

It boils down to this. Can Tar advocate executive decisions to win  over the hearts and minds of people?

Coffee at Crossroads

Tum is at a cross-roads. Tar exhibits traits that are potential derailers for a leadership role. On the other hand, without exposure to a leadership role, how can Tar remediate? Tum is left to deal with this chicken-and-egg problem.

Tum takes Tar out for a coffee. She requests permission to think out loud. She presents the conundrum and illustrates with some recent examples . In the end, she asks him, “What can you do about it?”

Tar looks crestfallen. Tum assures him, “I want you to be successful in the people lead role. I am not asking you to change fundamentally who you are. I am asking what can you do differently – what steps or action can you take – that ease this transition?”

Some answers start emerging through the dialogue. Tar cannot resist taking a position. He can, however, hold back from articulating it early. Instead, he can ask open-ended questions to clarify the other positions. That process can itself demolish weak or untenable positions.

He cannot resist questioning executive decisions. He can challenge supervisors and others skillfully though, without coming across as questioning their motives. This way, he can add value by pressure-testing assumptions.


Attitude is constant. Behavior can change. Leaders fail when they confuse the two. Wise leaders know to isolate attitudes and work with behaviors.

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