Jody Michael is one of the world’s top leadership coaches. She’s an internationally credentialed Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, University of Chicago trained psychotherapist, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has delivered over 40,000 hours of coaching over the last 25 years, including 15 years working in corporate leadership with firms including: Goldman Sachs, Chicago Research and Trading (CRT)/Nations Bank, and Kidder-Peabody. Jody has coached some of the nation’s top performing leaders and teams across diverse industries and organizations, from hypergrowth tech companies to global Fortune 100 organizations. Among her clients are more than 120 senior executives across 18 Fortune 100 companies.
In her new book Leading Lightly, Jody shares her radical model for leadership, a powerful way to transform performance, make better decisions, gain greater self-awareness, and develop the capacity to manage work and life with enduring ease and clarity. Jody argues in her book that stress and difficulty don’t need to be a given, and that learning to lead lightly and mindfully can profoundly change the trajectory of our lives.
In this remarkable interview, I speak to Jody Michael on the concept of mental fitness, and how we can lead differently feel lighter, and achieve more in our professional and personal wellbeing.
Q: How would you describe mental fitness?
[Jody Michael]: My actual definition to describe mental fitness is your ability to remain in a neutral to positive state for most of your day, regardless of what the day is throwing at you and that is not the state people are in nowadays.
If you think about physical fitness for a moment, the more fit you are, the better you can handle physical challenges, and perform better because you are less tired and recover much faster. It is the same with mental fitness, except instead of physical challenges, mental fitness is going to apply to emotional challenges. The more mentally fit you are, the better you are able to going to tackle any of those emotional challenges that you have to face.
Situations where we get reactive and we get triggered into states of stress or overwhelm or anxiety, when you are mentally fit those moments don’t knock you down, you are resilient, you are measured and tranquil and have perspective, you can surf whatever wave comes at you with relative ease. That analogy is helpful for people to understand mental fitness.
We don’t think about our brains as having the capacity to build. You can build and develop your bodies. If you look at a functional MRI, you can actually build and develop your brain.
However, Dalai Lama has a very different brain than you and I have it under that functional MRI!
Q: When you’re working with leaders, when you’re observing people in those roles, do you see certain characteristics of mentally fit leaders versus mentally unfit leaders?
[Jody Michael]: Yes, for sure. I would say the top three characteristics that a mentally fit leader has is (1) they have high emotional intelligence, which means being mindful, reflective, have tremendous situational awareness – you are a powerful observer of not just yourself, but other people. That means you can read the room because you able to manage your emotions. You can also respond to situations as you don’t react, and you are not defensive, you are not impulsive, and you are not clouded by reactivity and ruminating.
(2) You have an adaptable lens, which means you are flexible – you can shift perspectives as opposed to rigidly holding on to your point of view. You can see things from multiple perspectives, and you don’t get stuck in the stance of I’m right, you’re wrong, needing it to be your way, etc.
The last thing is, you embody radical accountability which basically means when most people think of accountability, they think of it’s doing what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. That is not my definition. My standard for accountability means you are accountable, not only for your behaviours and your results, you’re also accountable for your moods, for your thoughts.
The emotion itself doesn’t mean you’re mentally fit. It’s rather we need to look at how often are you in those mood states? How strongly do you feel them? How long do they last? And most importantly, how much are they impairing your performance? It is a matter of frequency and degree.
Unfortunately, by my definition, many leaders are mentally unfit, because they spend most of their day in negative emotional states and they’re usually not consciously aware of it, because they’re externally focused. They are not internally focused. Most leaders operate in chronic stress, they’re focused on what’s wrong, what can go wrong, they feel out of control, they spend quite a bit of time, really, most leaders spend a lot of time in crisis mode. They are often overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious. When those challenging situations arise, they’re apt to get defensive, they take things personally.
Therefore, all of those states compromise their wellbeing, and it also compromises their cognitive capacity to perform optimally. It is essential that very leader aspire to build mental fitness because it is such a critical leadership skill.
Building mental fitness is akin to being an elite athlete. It’s not enough for the athletes just to have great technical skills, they need to be equally mentally prepared also. Otherwise, when they’re going to the free throw line for that make it or break it shot with all the eyes on them, they’re going to miss!
Q: Why, in your view, is something so important and obvious left out of our leadership education?
[Jody Michael]: Twenty-five years ago, at University of Chicago, I was one of the first executive coaches and I was just pleading them to do this, stating, this is the most critical skill for leaders to develop. I’ve been trained for like 35 years. The University did not accept my suggestion because it was something new and they overlooked it.
I was in their programme to learn human behaviour and psychology because I want to build my toolbox. During my time there I wanted to do two things. (1) a research dissertation on the effects of executive coaching versus psychotherapy but it was not recognised as important or given much priority. Today we are seeing more of this and there is more use of tactical coaches than transformational coaches, but I would say a more systemic change needs to happen.
Q: What are some of the coping mechanisms that you would advise leaders go with to cope with those extraordinarily busy or intense periods in their life?
[Jody Michael]: It is very clear and obvious that it is more stressful than I’ve ever known it to be currently. At home, at work …in the world at large. That’s the obvious part but here’s what’s less obvious.
With a chaos around, you are unwittingly making your leadership and life harder and more painful than it needs to be. Even worse is individuals have no understanding or self-awareness that they are doing this. They are totally unaware. My book and its message is – let me break it down – When you get upset, stressed, and overloaded with pressure, the first thing we do is we look outside of ourselves. Usually, we are looking for how do we make this problem go away? How do we just solve this? We look for who or what created the problem when we get angry or anxious or frustrated. In other words, we’re always looking externally, the problem always has an external cause and an external solution. That is how we are trained in corporate America. Here is my point – if people just take one thing away from this podcast this is it. Most of the pain you feel, you create.
Most of the pain stems from the conversations we are having with ourselves. It is not the actual event outside of us that affects us. That’s the case 99% of the time and that is really a hard concept for people to grasp. If that’s true, and it is most of the time, then contemplate this – You don’t get stressed. You create stress. You don’t get overwhelmed, you create overwhelm.
As a leader, in every difficult moment, you have a choice between choosing pain or performance, you either choose to create stress, anxiety, overwhelmed by being reactive, or you can choose to respond with resilience, with engagement, with opportunity. It is possible to train your brain to be able to have that choice. That is very important for people to know and understand.
Q: Could you talk us through that concept of leading lightly? Where did that concept come from for you? And what does it mean in practice to lead lightly?
[Jody Michael]: If we think about those two words. Leading, lightly. It’s an oxymoron. When you’re thinking about leadership, you’re thinking about weight. It’s heavy, it’s stressful. My intention was deliberate to capture people’s attention first of all and confuse them. I also wanted to have them know, look this is possible.
What do I mean when I say this is possible? When you’re leading lightly, you’re Teflon.
No matter what conversations or situations come at you – you’re not reacting negatively, you’re not ruminating, you’re not triggered, you’re not taking things personally, which means you have full cognitive capacity, you’re going to perform optimally, or at least have the opportunity to perform optimally, and therefore be very effective in those stressful moments because you’re not triggering a fight or flight response which always impairs performance. Lastly, when you’re leading lightly you’re just going to feel better. You’re going to feel lighter, you’re going to have more energy, you’ll feel more in control and most importantly, you’re going to feel less stress. In the same situations, you don’t have to leave your job or get a new boss, there is no need to lower the amount and volume of work that’s coming your way, because your perception will be different.
Q: How do you think we can start to pivot culture and to change the leadership culture in large organisations, to enable more people to lead lightly? Because it feels as if, actually, whether it’s from a performance or bottom-line perspective, it would improve everything.
[Jody Michael]: It has an absolute direct return on investment. The exact same company, that’s a high growth technology company, moving super-fast, they never have enough resources, they can’t hire fast enough. As an example of two companies and the people in that one company, Company A will feel energised, will feel excited, will have energy day after day after day. In another company they’ll feel overwhelmed, they’ll feel depleted, they’ll feel exhausted.
I’m making an overview there – it’s actually the people – each individual person that is going to start to build that contagious mood and that energy within that team. When you have top leaders with a contagious, inspirational energy and perspective and they’re leading from that, this spreads resulting in that people don’t get as tired, because they’re excited because they are coming from a different more optimistic perspective.
Q: If I was, let’s say, a leadership dinosaur, and I was like, I need to change, where do I start that process?
[Jody Michael]: People experience the coaching differently. We do a full day immersive workshop, my leaders that I trained, within two to four weeks they would feel different. You will already get the impacts and effects.
If you care about performance – the first thing I would want you to do is work on the inside out, I want you to start to become acutely aware of your thoughts, because it’s your thoughts and your moods that are systemically driving 90% of your behaviour and results. Why aren’t we playing in that 90% space? It doesn’t make any sense. There is a very good chance that you need to build this skill of self-awareness. Because 95% of people think they have insight, only 10 to 15% actually do.
Here are three practical steps that are both going to quickly lower your stress, and dramatically start to build your self-awareness and mindfulness. And so, the catchy way to remember this is ABC. Step A – you assess your mood, assess your thoughts in the moment you name what you’re experiencing, and what you said to yourself that created that mood state. Step B is breathe – deep diaphragmatic breathing – your belly goes out, like you are blowing up a balloon when you can’t get any more oxygen in, hold it for six seconds, exhale. Repeat that until you feel that physical shift in your body. This is the fastest way to get out of what is called a catabolic state.
You don’t want to cognitively think your way out of it, you want to breathe your way out of it. And then once your body has shifted, you’re ready for step three, C – now you’re going to choose to take full accountability for shifting your mood into a neutral or a positive mood. So, with this choice, you’ve just stopped blaming anyone or anything else externally, you completely own it. You also own the choice to change it.
We call these three steps study yourself with ABC. Those three skills, practice repeatedly day in and day out, you’ll start to do it automatically.
Q: Do you think that leaders also need to almost separate themselves from their job?
[Jody Michael]: Well, they can control their emotional response to it when they become aware. When they become aware of the things they can control, and they can’t control. When they become aware of how they’re sabotaging themselves with performance. Worst case would be that high stress can lead to depending on psychotropic medications.
The statistics of USA as a country is shocking, one out of four Americans this year, are going to have one form or another of mental illness. 60% of us are going to experience stress. One out of five are on psychotropic drugs, one out of 20 can’t go to sleep at night without a prescription sleeping pill. The most astonishing number I saw a couple months ago was the World Health Organisation, which said the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety worldwide. That’s billions of people. We have to pay attention. We have to empower ourselves and learn to build our muscles of mental fitness.
Q: What about when things go wrong?
[Jody Michael]: I train my leaders to use is a four-part framework called an effective apology. First, you state what you failed to do, and you apologise to everyone involved. You take full responsibility for not managing and not keeping the promise and that’s accountability. Second, you acknowledge all the breakdowns you caused for other people. That’s empathy. Third, you ask and explore, what can you do to repair the damage that was done? That’s reparation.
Finally, if appropriate, you make a new promise, and maybe even share how you will manage things differently next time. That’s contribution. So there’s four components to it.
An example – Let’s imagine you completely miss a very important meeting with a colleague. You’ll probably want to jump in and explain what happened. But for an effective apology, you don’t lead with that. Instead, you say something like, I’m so sorry, I missed our appointment, you must have wondered where I was, what happened. I know how busy you are, how valuable your time is, how you could have used that time in better ways.
I am truly sorry, what ended up happening was, and then you give the details.
Empathy is what people miss all the time. Then next to repair, you choose to be extremely flexible with your calendar and going far out of your way to reschedule, even if it’s inconvenience for you. Finally, you can end your apology by sharing the measures you’re taking so this doesn’t happen again. All four of those parts are important.
It’s important that you come from a place of sincerity and your willingness to be vulnerable. You can’t deliver an apology like you are reading a script. It is critical, for an effective apology to feel truly authentic and genuine.
Q: I think there’s some leaders that would look at that and go oh, is that a sign of weakness? Or does that mean I’m not on top of my game? But, it’s just human. It happens.
[Jody Michael]: Yes, it’s powerful. I’ve worked with men who said ‘I will never apologise, it’s weak’. They have a belief system, it’s weak. What I have observed is it is powerful, it builds connectivity, authenticity, people respond very well for it. I don’t believe people take it as weakness. In corporate America today is people don’t take accountability. They don’t apologise. It’s such a great role model as a leader, those two components.
Q: This is also where our stories create these blockers, don’t they? I love how you bring this out in your book, where you talk about stories as being the roadblocks.
[Jody Michael]: Your story about yourself is what you believe about yourself. A story about yourself, it’s not that you’re deliberately making something up or trying to present yourself as something you’re not. And you live by these beliefs. What you believe is possible for your life or in life, or what’s not possible, what you believe about trusting others, or not. What you believe about your own capabilities, or not, I call this your story. For most people, it’s unconscious. Their story grew out of many experiences that shaped them when they were growing up, what their parents, what society indoctrinated into them. Your story potentially becomes a roadblock. As a nice man famously said, we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
Your story, when we go back to conversations here, our conversations, their words, their stories, and your stories are driving your moods and your actions. If you have a story about yourself that you’re a sceptical person, that’s going to translate into behaviours of distrust or lack of curiosity.
Maybe your story is you want everyone to like you or approve of you, that’s going to lead to you to say or do things that might be out of alignment for you, as well as put energy into maintaining relationships you do not even care about. Your story creates roadblocks, because it dictates how you will see or interpret everything around you. The worst part about your story it inhibits change. If you begin to consciously try a new story, a new belief, a new assumption, your story is going to rear up in full force your old story.
It’s going to do everything to prevent you from actually changing it. That’s when the real work begins. When you become conscious of being unconscious, when you become conscious of your stories.
Q: Is legacy something we need to think about? Is it something that’s important to leaders?
[Jody Michael]: Legacy means to me the impact that you leave behind. The impact that lives beyond you and your time with the organisation. Is it a positive legacy? Have you coached, developed, trained others? Have you given opportunities to people? Opportunities that have changed the trajectory of their thinking, their way of being, their way of working, even their life. Or, have you left a legacy of toxic behaviour that has caused or deepened wounds, that has deepened anxiety, inhibited good functioning, limits what’s possible for them. You can go either way with legacy.
When it comes to a leader’s legacy, you know what people remember? They remember the extremes. The good and the bad. A milk-toast leader has no real impact, there’s no legacy there. I would like leaders to leave a positive impact, and that either impacts the future growth and opportunity not just for individual people but you will leave it for your team, for the organisation.
I work in organisations so often at the top, and they talk about a leader who retired and you just hear 5, 7 different people talking about it, quoting them, and it’s years later. That’s legacy. It lives beyond you.