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Executive Coaching: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential

Sometimes it is easy to spot the difference between a leadership bad habit and a good one. Take communication. While ineffective leaders avoid difficult conversations and blame their teams when issues don't go away, effective leaders know their responsibility is to lean in with vulnerability. Years ago, I was making a succession planning and leadership development presentation to the board of directors. My leader wasn't there. But, my boss's leader was. My goal was to review the past year's outcomes and make a pitch for future talent management investments. I was nervously waiting outside the executive board room, going through the presentation in my head. My boss's boss stepped out of the board room, told me a joke, and walked in with me. The presentation went well. However, I misspoke at one point, and he quickly chimed in to cover me. I remember feeling humbled by his kindness and servant's heart. Here's the reality: Outer game habits like that don't just happen. Unlocking your inner game maximizes leadership potential.

Why Unlocking Your Inner Game is Important?

Leadership creates defining moments; situations where choices must be made between right and right. It is in these moments that your inner game guides how you respond.

While your leadership behaviors (outer game) prescribe what you should do in a given situation, your character (inner game) will decide what you do. Evidence suggests that effective leadership involves a combination of competence and character applied to challenging work.

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." Viktor Frankl

Studies reveal that executive leaders with high character scores outperform leaders with low character scores on business financial measures. In a study of executive leaders and their organizations over a two-year period, CEOs who scored high on aspects of character had an average return on assets (ROA) of 9.35%, in contrast to CEOs with low ratings who had a ROA of 1.93%. Character determines how leaders apply competence, and it shapes decisions.

How to GROW Your Inner Game

The GROW model is one of the most popular frameworks used by executive coaches to unlock inner game potential and maximize leadership performance. The framework was first written about by Formula 1 driver Sir John Whitmore and has become a go-to approach applied in executive coaching research.

Given that your ultimate goal is changing, the GROW model relies on questions rather than instruction. Tapping into client-centered critical thinking, the model invokes improved self-awareness and leads to increased personal responsibility for change.

In this two-minute video Sir Whitmore reflects on the question, what is the GROW model?

The GROW framework represents a journey that begins with the client clarifying an inspiring and challenging goal from their point of view. Then the client's current reality, barriers to change, and available options are explored. The framework is based on the belief that imagination creates breakthroughs to change.

The final step is connecting the client's motivation for change with a clear path forward. Specific timebound actions tied to commitments and accountability create transformation. This step involves the client deciding which steps they will take and when to achieve their goals.

2 Key Skills To Unlock the Inner Game

Too often, everyone is talking. Time and attention get spent on urgent and surface-level topics in a digital full-speed world. At the same time, opportunities for talking about what matters most are missed.

Being honestly heard is rare. The hybrid workplace has not helped. Due to technology limitations, leaders communicating with a remote workforce receive less context and fewer cues.

The art of active listening and smart questioning skills are two keys to unlocking the inner game.

1. Active Listening is the ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. Hearing is not a synonym for listening. When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When you are practicing active listening, you are available to the other person.

Active listening builds trust and improves the creativity needed for exploring available options and motivation for change. Active listening skills include verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening:

  • Verbal listening is paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, assumption checking, and questioning.

  • Nonverbal listening refers to your body language. Eye contact, leaning forward, and an open body position all provide cues of affirmation.

  • Empathic listening involves sensing the explicit and implicit feelings being communicated.

2. Smart Questioning is grounded in curiosity and creates understanding. Because these questions have no expected answers, they open minds and enhance creativity.

There are three levels of smart questions:

  • Level 1: Yes or no questions. Are you OK with implementing the new leadership development program for the operations team?

  • Level 2: Provocative questions. I am excited about the new leadership development program that you created. I can tell it will add a lot of value to the operations team. How are you thinking about it? What is the real challenge in implementing leadership development?

  • Level 3: Catalytic questions. Which parts of the leadership development program will produce the most significant value? How would you describe success in implementing the new leadership development program? What assumptions do you have?

A GROW conversation typically begins with level one questions, intending to get the conversation to the highest level possible.

Conclusion: Unlocking Your Inner Game

Outer game habits like that don't just happen. Unlocking your inner game maximizes your leadership potential during defining moments.

Many people are good talkers. However, few are skilled listeners, and the hybrid workplace is making it more challenging.

The GROW model is a proven executive coaching framework. This framework relies on the art of active listening and smart questioning skills to enhance trust and creativity. Skillfully applied, like an acorn can become an oak tree, your inner game potential can maximize your leadership performance.

How could the GROW model help you maximize your potential or develop those you lead?


Bazerman, M. H., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind spots: Why we fail to do what's right and what to do about it. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Glaser, J. (2014). Conversational intelligence: How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results. Bibliomotion.

Seijts, G., Crossan, M., & Carleton, E. (2017). Embedding leader character into HR practices to achieve sustained excellence. Organizational Dynamics, 46(1), 30-39. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2017.02.001


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I hope you enjoy reading this blog post.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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