How to Present Executive Presence with James Corden

I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddhist idea of presence and how we can be more aware of the “now.” According to its teachings, regret, fear, and anger come from comparing our current experience with a past, future, or alternative experience. This tension generates negative emotions that distract us from concentrating on what is occurring right in front of us.

In Western society, this concept of presence was popularized by British philosopher Alan Watts and his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Like Buddhism, he argues that the root of frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, a “constantly retreating phantom—the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” According to Watts, to escape this toxic cycle, we must maintain a full awareness of our present experience, which he differentiates from judging it, evaluating it, or relating it to some arbitrary ideal.

If the ancient teachings of Buddha or an acclaimed English academic don’t convince you, consider what The Late Late Show host James Corden said in a recent interview with Chris Hardwick:

[Being present is] the only way you can juggle being busy. You need to think, ‘What’s the thing I have to do now and I won’t think about anything else other than being the best version of myself now.’ So, if all I’m thinking about now is trying to make this the best [interview] it can be, I can leave here and go, ‘And now I’m going to try to be the best host or boss tonight.’ And when I get home, I’m going to try and be the best husband… And if that’s what you are always trying to do, you will only be a success. It’s the moment when you go, ‘Aww, I’ve got that on Thursday and I don’t want to think about this or that,’ then it’s all a disaster, then it all falls apart. When you think, ‘I’ve just gotta get through this so I can get to that thing that’s more important,’ well that thing may never come, it may never arrive. So actually, if you just go, ‘when I get to that, I’ll think about that. Right now, I’m just going to think about this,’ then, I find, that’s the only way I can juggle everything.

As intelligent people, it may seem obvious why fixating on the past and future is a diversion from the existing moment. However, as leaders, we must do more than just “live in the now;” we must demonstrate that we are present for the moment, for the team, for the vision, and for the tasks at hand. Sound daunting? It’s easier than you may think.

The most successful leaders know that appearing present is about providing your undivided attention. This can be illustrated through something I call the Dean Test. Named after Dean “the King of Cool” Martin, let’s say you walk into a meeting with a bunch of strangers. Who’s in charge? Using the Dean Test you can pick out the most senior leader by looking for the person who is least distracted.

Whereas everyone else is checking their phone, rummaging through folders, and desperately gawking at the clock, the leader is unencumbered by logistical details or outside interference. They are projecting a sense of freedom, authority, and calmness as they converse with those in the room. They focus on whoever is speaking, listen attentively, and inquisitively dig into the issues being presented.

By displaying a composed demeanor, the leader is exhibiting a quiet confidence that says, “Your time is as valuable as mine, so I will pay attention because this is the most important place I need to be right now.” Showing respect is the fasted way to build respect, and everyone appreciates attention from the boss. Plus, you absorb more of the information since you are engaged in what is being said.

The only thing that exists is this. Everything behind is gone and everything forward is unknown. All you’ve actually got is now. Everything else is dust; this is the only thing that is happening. So if you’re just trying to do this now, and when you get home do that, and tomorrow be wherever you need to be, then you’ll be alright.—James Corden

Feeling a sense of presence is not always easy. We all have competing prioritizes that take us away from the here and now. So start with behaving as if you are present. Keep your phone in your pocket and focus on your surroundings. “Pretend” as if whatever you are doing right now actually matters. The more you act purposefully, the more natural it will become, and the closer you’ll get to emulating Buddha, Alan Watts, James Corden, Dean Martin, etc.

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

2017 Crack the Leadership Code Summit

Are you familiar with the Crack the Leadership Code summit? Hosted by executive coach and organizational psychologist Michelle Pizer, this annual event is a great opportunity to learn practical and inspiring ways to become a better leader and thrive in your career.

The Summit is an online event running from May 22 – June 4, 2017 and is free if you register by May 21st.

For the upcoming 2017 Summit, I am honored to participate along with 30 others leadership experts, including New York Times bestselling authors; TedTalkers; and contributors to the Harvard Business Review, Inc, and Forbes. We’ll be discussing such topics as:

  • How to create a compelling vision
  • How to inspire your team to aspire for themselves
  • How to create a personal culture of leadership
  • How to manage your personal brand and craft your professional story
  • Fueling your courage and confidence as a woman leader
  • How to use social media to your advantage

Interviews are posted every day for the two-week event and are available for only 72 hours after they are released.

Click here to register and learn more.

Hope to see you there!

Are You Suffering from Moral Superiority?

Are you really as good a person as you think you are? Don’t get me wrong; I think you’re great, really, I do. What I’m asking is whether you are morally superior to the general population. Are your decisions more principled? Is you behavior more virtuous?

According to research in Social Psychological and Personality Science, we tend to see ourselves as better than other people. In the study, participants rated themselves and the average person on traits reflecting the core dimensions of social perception: morality (e.g., sincerity, honesty), sociability (e.g., warmth, likeability), and agency (e.g., competence, creativity). Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities. For instance, they rated traits like trustworthiness as 6.1 for themselves, but only 4.3 for others. The other domains of positive self-evaluation also received higher scores, but the participants didn’t inflate their scores as much as they did for the morality-based characteristics.

In another study from Motivation and Emotion, participants estimated the percentage of times they exhibited positive traits. Six weeks later, these same participants evaluated the average person’s positive traits based on estimates that supposedly represented the populace. In reality, the traits being measured were their own scores. Results found that people consistently gauge themselves more favorably than others, even when the estimates on which they base their ratings are identical to their own.

If you’re familiar with the theory of social projection, it states the belief that if you do something, others are likely to do the same. But if this were true, in the two studies above and numerous others, participants would either drop their own self-rating or rate everyone else higher. No, social projection may be true for aspects of our life, but there remains an assumption that one’s morality is significantly greater than everyone else.

As a leader, moral superiority can have dangerous repercussions. This “positive illusion” leads to self-justified corruption, a reduced willingness to compromise, and intolerance. In addition, people displaying this arrogance feel less obligated to follow a strict ethical code because they believe themselves to already be so much more progressive. Thus, by believing we are above the moral average, it could ironically makes us less so.

Don’t fall for the trappings of moral conceit. I’m sure you are extremely morality-bound, but so are most of the people around you. You may not always understand why they behave the ways they do, but that’s an opportunity to converse, not pronounce them as malefactors and yourself a saint. Sustain a more grounded outlook and keep your “ethical ego” in check.

Insults and the Insulting Leaders Who Use Them

I recently read an article on foreignpolicy.com discussing how the media and U.S. policymakers commonly depict North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as irrational. The piece explains the current state of affairs from Kim’s point of view and provides historical reasons that may validate his behaviors. While I’m certainly not condoning Kim, it does remind me of the power in diplomacy.

Many U.S. politicians have verbally assaulted North Korea over the years. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “We are not dealing with a rational person, who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly” and President George W. Bush labeled them as part of an “Axis of Evil.” My question is why you would want to insult someone with whom you’d like to build a constructive relationship?

This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this. I remember when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi continuously insulted Republicans while she was concurrently trying to gather votes for the Affordable Care Act. Or when a Congressman shouted “You lie” to President Obama during a joint session address. Or when a Democratic Congresswoman called her Republican colleague a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod” during a budget debate. You could even go back to when Theodore Roosevelt disagreed with then President Benjamin Harrison calling him “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

In each of these cases, one politician was in the process of garnering support for his/her legislation; and in each case, they allowed productive debate to be disrupted by empty slurs…and they were empty. There was no substantive argument or strategic need for discord. It was frustration, pure and simple, boiling over in ineffective ways.

In the newspapers, we see this [politician] insulting that one, that one says this about the other one, but in a society where the standards of politics has fallen so much – I am talking about world society – we lose the sense of building society, of social co-existence, and social co-existence is built on dialogue.—Pope Francis

Now I am not so naïve as to argue for kumbaya-like unity, nor am I compelling you to admire your rival, but insults are not the pathway to results. Even President Trump on occasion (very rare occasion) has recognized the destructive nature of insults:

We don’t need to like the other person or agree with their point of view. We do, however, need to find ways in which to support a culture of mutual respect where work can get done with all affected parties. This, if nothing else, is a core responsibility of a leader.

As leaders, we must be focused on getting things done. This sometimes entails swallowing your spiteful thoughts in the pursuit of progress. You cannot bring people together if you’ve already alienated them and their ideas. It does not mean you should pretend to be in accord; just that you can be nice.

Don’t let pettiness distract from your ability to influence. In the midst of intense discord, feelings are raw and people tend to act out, but this does not excuse impolite behavior. Find an outlet for your resentment, but also find the right time and do it in a way that will not sabotage your deal. With practice, who knows, maybe you’ll even win them over to your side.