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Leadership: Transforming the Inner You

Each of us has two games at play as we go about our days: an inner game and an outer game. As a leader, whether it's how you manage the organizations operating budget, establish the agenda for a one-to-one coaching session, or make decisions about the annual strategic plan. These leadership actions are observable habits shaped by your inner game. It is the inner game that is quietly controlling the outer game. Like a new piece of technology in the workplace, the technologies features or outer game behaviors often get the most attention. Still, the technologies operating system or leader's inner game virtues, character, and values deserve equal attention and focus. Forming good habits and breaking leadership bad habits includes understanding and transforming the inner you.

Why Transforming the Inner You Matters?

Socrates suggested that "to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom." Several research studies demonstrate the proven benefits of a leader's inner game. Here are a few recent studies:

  • In a seven-year study of 9,000 employees and 84 executive leaders in Fortune 500 and 100 organizations, evidence suggested that leaders with higher character ratings had a return on net assets of nearly five times those rated lower.

  • Evidence from a large-scale empirical study involving 1,207 employees 1,341 customers suggested that the influence of virtues on employee and customer identification, distinctiveness, and satisfaction has a significantly positive correlation with all dimensions.

  • In another study involving 2,000 manufacturing companies, researchers discovered that virtues had a more significant positive impact on organizational performance and quality than management control processes.

Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are. –Coach John Wooden.

Understanding Your Inner Game

Although not frequently discussed in the workplace, a leader's virtues, character, and values are foundational attributes to effective leadership.

Aristotle considered virtues a habit or disposition to think, act, or feel in the right way that is not deficient or in excess and toward a good goal. Virtues are a part of an individual's distinctive character that influences personal values.

A leader's virtues and character will govern actions when presented with a new or unknown situation, which accounts for most leadership situations. Effective leadership involves a combination of character, competence, and commitment to challenging work.

The following figure is a model that depicts the foundational relationship between virtues, character, and values that create habits resulting in a leader's performance.

Because virtues, character, and values are often considered complex and ambiguous topics to discuss and measure they are often left out of the discussion when considering leadership development in the workplace.

Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like competencies, values, character, and virtues can and should be intentionally developed. Evidence in virtue and character development suggests that an individual's development should include:

  • knowledge transfer

  • reasoning

  • and practice.

Steps To Transform the Inner You

Striving for better habits is a competitive advantage available to any leader looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Just because you haven't already achieved the leadership success and significance you want doesn't mean you can't now.

"Nothing changes without personal transformation." W. E. Deming

Character development is primarily developed through role modeling, feedback, practice, and reflection. However, feedback on values, character, and gaps in virtues are not commonly provided in the workplace, given the complexity of these conversations. Additionally, leaders typically spend little to no time reflecting on character experiences because of blind spots.

There are likely inner game attributes you find important that others are unaware of and values you demonstrate that other people see, but you don't. Researchers Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham captured this dynamic in their Johari Window model.

Using an assessment like the Character Strengths Survey from the VIA Institute is an excellent place to build self-awareness and uncover inner game assumptions and beliefs.

The free VIA Character Strength Survey provides insights into 24-character strengths in rank order. Character strengths are values in action or positive traits for thinking, feeling, and behaving that benefit the leader and others. The VIA has been completed by over 15 million people globally, and all of the scales have satisfactory reliability.

While knowing where you are is the beginning, it is likely more important to know where you are going.

Engaging a dedicated and skillful executive coach is another way you can improve character feedback and purposeful character reflection on your inner game. Executive coaching focuses on moving toward the leader's future, assessing where they are currently, their goals for the future, and exploring and discovering the steps to get to their desired future. The ultimate goal is a change (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational).

Dedicated mentors can also support character development by openly reflecting on insights gained from experience. The most effective mentoring is mentee-driven and mentor-guided. Mentoring is a dynamically reciprocal, active learning process. A mentor asks questions and shares personal past successes and failures. A coach uses questions but focuses on the leader, not the coach's experience.

Conclusion: Transforming the Inner You

Modern business executives are running on a metaphorical treadmill every day at work. Time is precious and a scarce resource. Leadership development is one of the best and most important steps a leader can make toward success and significance.

Your inner game is primarily developed through role modeling, feedback, and reflection. Both executive coaching and mentoring provide massive benefits. However, this does not mean there isn't the best choice for you, given your situation and unique context.

An integrated approach to developing your inner and outer game unlocks the ability to break bad leadership habits and create good ones.

What inner transformation do you want to create, and how can you get started?

Let's talk about how we can help you achieve your goals with transformational executive coaching and organizational solutions that work.


Anderson, R. & Adams, W. (2016). Mastering leadership: An integrated framework for breakthrough performance and extraordinary business results. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Badaracco, J. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Harvard Business School Press.

Brickhouse, Thomas C.; Smith, Nicholas D. (1994). Plato's Socrates. Oxford University Press.

Chun, R. (2017). Organizational Virtue and performance: An empirical study of customers and employees. Journal of Business Ethics, 146(4), 869-881.

Donada, C., Mothe, C., Nogatchewsky, G., & de Campos Ribeiro, G. (2019). The respective effects of virtues and inter-organizational management control systems on relationship quality and performance: Virtues win. Journal of Business Ethics, 154(1), 211-228.

Pakaluk, M. (2005). Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An introduction. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511802041

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. (2017). A Framework for Character

Education in Schools. University of Birmingham.

Kiel, F. (2015). Return on character: The real reason leaders and their companies win. Harvard Business Review Press.


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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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