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Too Big to Lead? How to Right-Size Your Energy

I was sitting in the conference room, minding my own business, waiting for the CEO to arrive. He was a new client I’d yet to meet face-to-face, although our conversations by phone had been pleasant. Before he appeared in the doorway, I didn’t just hear his footsteps, I felt them coming. His energy was big; it almost knocked me over (and I’m not exactly a wilting flower). Every cell in my body echoed the feedback I’d heard whispered about him in the company hallways: “intimidating,” “formidable,” “unapproachable.” His physical presence exuded dominance, the kind that makes some people pay attention while others run for cover.

During our conversation, he shared why he wanted an executive coach: he wasn’t getting the naked truth about how things were really going within the organization. And he knew that had something to do with him. People around him were quick to say “yes” to his requests, to applaud his decisions, to placate him at any sign of frustration… but not necessarily to tell him any “cons” along with the “pros.”

On the one hand, he enjoyed his reputation as a daunting leader. He knew, in fact, just how to use it to his advantage: cutting through stalemates with suppliers, assertively breaking new ground for the company’s direction, commanding unquestionable respect from Wall Street analysts and his executive board. But it had also dawned on him that his imposing ways shut most people down (and not just at work; at home too). As a result, he realized he was blocking the way to the honest relationships that would give him the candid critique he needed to run his organization well.

So, what do you do when your presence is too big as a leader? Imagine your energy — your presence — as one of those inflatables you see in parades; if you’re already filling up the room, no one else can get in. It’s common to talk about “right-sizing” the organization, but rarely do we consider right-sizing our energy to fit the situation at hand. Right-sizing begins with becoming aware of three simple, yet powerful leadership tools already at our disposal: our language, our bodies, and our emotions.

Take, for instance, our CEO — let’s call him Mr. Big. I listened in as he spoke to his leadership team a little later. “I want,” “I need,” and “I am” dominated the conversation. He spoke quickly with a rigid jaw and crossed arms. Everything about him projected command and control. And that would not be bad, by the way, if he were facing the proverbial burning platform and dictating do-or-die steps for the organization’s immediate survival. But as I eavesdropped, what he really wanted was for his leaders to form and embrace a new vision of company success. The problem? There was no room — given the force of his words, his almost aggressive posture, and the size of his energy — for anyone else to play.

And, worse, overbearing leadership styles tend to correlate with workers’ “poorer individual ratings of vitality” as well as “long-lasting stress,” “emotional exhaustion” and “greater risk of leaving the workplace due to poor health.” An over-sized leadership presence not only quells the naked truth Mr. Big wanted from his managers and employees, it threatens to crush the very effectiveness of these people.

What executives like Mr. Big could experiment with — say in coaching sessions or role playing with trusted colleagues — is to become more vulnerable and curious. That means physically opening up your stance, trying postures that are more encouraging (e.g., arms unfolded, a sincere smile), and gestures that invite collaboration. In speech, it means leading with more questions than answers, making space for others’ voices to be heard, and slowing down to a speaking pace that’s easy to follow. The key is to actually do these things, to practice and make them a real part of your leadership toolkit.

Once your speech patterns and physical presence take on this right-sized energy, you will likely find your whole attitude and demeanor adjusting to a more appropriate level. And that’s the sort of emotional tone which will create a field in which others can participate. Like parade inflatables, the size of your energy is adjustable. Sometimes it’s better to let a little air out and make room for others to join in the parade!

Photos by Lord Jim (top) and Roebot