Leaders: Don’t Change. Rather, Grow More Complex.

Recently, a physician-leader coaching client (Lydia) described her frustration with the work we were doing together. Without getting into details, we were introduced because she needed to make some important changes in her leadership behavior, at least according to top leadership in the hospital system. Meaning, this was ‘forced coaching’ and not something she chose voluntarily.

Lydia is an outstanding physician and patients give top ratings regarding both treatment outcomes and her bedside manner–patients really love interacting with her and refer their family and friends. Staff are loyal, work hard, and generally seem to like working in her practice. So what’s the issue? At times, she says things to or around staff that don’t belong in the workplace. Not ill-intended but she doesn’t seem to understand the impact that some of her jokes and comments can have on others.

During an early coaching session, Lydia commented, “I get that I need to change some of these things, but I want to be myself, and don’t want to lose my edge.”

I responded: “I get it. Here’s the thing: We’re having this conversation right now because your edge is cutting other people and it is also cutting you. You’re just now realizing it. That said, I don’t want you to change and don’t think you need to. However, I do think that you need to grow more complex.”


To suggest that someone “needs to change” implies that there is something wrong with who they are. For the vast majority of the population, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with who they are. Rather, their current behavioral options and patterns are too limited or not the right ‘fit’ for their leadership situation. And as a result, their leadership impact doesn’t match their values and intentions.

“Leadership development” is inseparable from human development. As we age, our world and the challenges we face become more complex, and ideally, so do we in order to meet those challenges. We wouldn’t expect a teenager to have developed the complexity necessary to run a hospital. Unfortunately, aging itself does not guarantee that a leader has grown complex enough to effectively meet the needs of their current or desired leadership responsibilities. Unfortunately, the world does not wait for us to grow more complex. It is up to us to continue to self-reflect and choose to take ownership for our leadership impact. Then perhaps we can learn new behavioral options and strategies aligned with our values and intentions.


With some some guided self-reflection, Lydia started to realize that her leadership impact didn’t consistently align with her values and intentions. She also realized that she has been using the same interpersonal strategies (jokes, comments, pushing the limits) since college (she’s now 45). Her behavior remained the same while her leadership situation became more complex.

Why? Perhaps her internal and external ‘bubble’ continually reinforced the same routinized behavior at home and in social situations, and subsequently at work. In a very real sense, this bubble shielded her from the true complexity around her and the impact she was having. She was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss. Consistent with the ‘bubble’ concept, upon reflection, Lydia recognized that she was behaving much the same as she did as a college student.

To help yourself grow more complex as a leader, consider exploring your leadership the way that Lydia and I explored hers:

  1. Identify the kind of leadership impact you want to have on others.
  2. Reflect on and identify the values behind your desired leadership impact.
  3. Take stock of the behaviors that you demonstrate as a leader. Keep a journal to reflect on interactions, decisions, feedback you get, etc. throughout your week.
  4. Ask trusted others for candid feedback about the kind of impact you have on others around you. Be sure to ask someone who will actually tell you the good and bad. You might also set up or request a 360 feedback assessment.
  5. Identify where your current behaviors have and do not have the leadership impact that you want.
  6. Engage in targeted, specific development activities to learn new behavioral options to choose from. Typical options include training, new experiences, speaking with leaders you admire about their values, books, mentoring, coaching, etc.

Own your Leader Impact


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