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980: Building the Habits of Mentally Strong Leaders with Scott Mautz

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 Scott Mautz shares powerful strategies to stay confident and in control when negativity strikes.

You’ll Learn

  1. How to wisely managed doubt–and confidence 
  2. The early warning signs of self-acceptance being degraded 
  3. The three-step solution to reset negative chatter 

About Scott

Scott Mautz is a high-octane speaker expert at igniting peak performance and deep employee engagement, motivation, and inspiration. He’s a Procter & Gamble veteran who successfully ran several of the company’s largest multi-billion dollar businesses, an award-winning/best-selling author, faculty at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business for Executive Education, a popular instructor on LinkedIn Learning where his courses have been taken over 1.5 million times, and a frequent national publication and podcast guest.

Resources Mentioned

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Scott Mautz Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Scott, welcome back.

Scott Mautz
It is so nice to be back. It’s so nice to try to be awesome on an awesome podcast that has awesome in the title. I’m grateful for it all.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think you’re awesome at it, which is why you’re back for a third time. You got it going on.

Scott Mautz
Right on. Yeah, you take what you can get.

Pete Mockaitis
Your latest piece here is called The Mentally Strong Leader: Build the Habits to Productively Regulate Your Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors. That sounds handy. Although, Scott, some might ask, “Isn’t this for kids? Don’t kids learn this stuff? Aren’t we done with that when we’re like nine?”

Scott Mautz
Maybe they don’t. It all depends on your kid. Well, if you start with a definition of it, Pete, and then let’s get into your question here, the title obviously is The Mentally Strong Leader, which presumes that it’s about mental strength. Mental strength is the ability to regulate your emotions, your thoughts, and your behaviors productively, no matter what. For us adults, it’s how we manage internally so we can lead better externally.

And to your question now, I think as adults, we intuitively understand that if you want to succeed and be a good parent, and a good leader, and good in life, you have to be able to regulate your emotions, and your thoughts, and your behaviors. But here’s where the rub comes in for kids, guess what? It’s really, really hard to do that as a parent, and even as children.

You layer on how hard it is to grow up in this world, it becomes even harder. So, yeah, mental strength is something we all know we need to succeed. But, man, Pete, it is really, really hard to do. It’s why I wrote the book “The Mentally Strong Leader” to provide that help.

Scott Mautz
I was kind of teasing a little bit about the kids because we had Mawi Asgedom on, who wrote a cool series of books called the “Inner Heroes Universe,” which has like action-hero comic book folks doing stuff and teaching lessons about this for kids, but we had them on because it absolutely is applicable for grown-ups, as we’re called.

And it’s funny, I’ve noticed in my own inner life, sometimes it’s quite easy to manage emotions and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the frustration rolls off the back and sometimes the frustration eats at me, and it’s not even, I think, necessarily, about the strength of the frustration itself.

Scott Mautz
That’s a really important point you’re bringing up, which is it doesn’t even have to do with the strength of the frustration itself. It’s just really, really hard to manage our emotions, our thoughts, and our behaviors.

And I have found that the key to doing this is you really have to build the proper habits to help you become mentally stronger, so you could train your brain for achievement, which I’ll get into later, but train your brain in general to have the kind of outcome that you want. And habit-building science teaches us that if you want to build a habit, a habit is essentially, Pete, repetitions, right? It’s systems and frameworks that you put in place.

And in The Mentally Strong Leader, I’ve built in over 50 plus systems and frameworks to help you with that difficulty you’re talking about. It helps you build, take that first small step to building a new habit to becoming mentally stronger. It helps you figure out what to do in moments of weakness when you can feel your frustration leaking out, even if it’s not a huge frustration.

Because of that, it’s why, you know, the subtitle of “The Mentally Strong Leader” is “Build the Habits to Productively Regulate Your Emotions, Your Thoughts, and Behaviors” because of the very nature of what you’re talking about, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love it if you could maybe kick us off with an inspiring story of someone who was able to really see some powerful upgrades that made an impact for them by pursuing some of this stuff.

Scott Mautz
Yeah, it’s interesting, Pete. I bet if I had, you know, I don’t even know, if I had 500 people to ask to share a mental strength story, they would all share stories, they would all boil around six core mental muscles, and I’m going to pick a story within the context of that for you. But the six core mental muscles that make up mental strength are fortitude, confidence, boldness, decision-making, the ability to make a decision, to be decisive and make a high-quality decision, goal focus, the ability to stay focused on your goals, and even what I call messaging, the ability to stay positive-minded with your messaging even in the face of supreme negativity.

It’s those six mental muscles that make up mental strength. So, I have collected so many stories from so many people, but I’ll share one quick story that focuses on the fortitude muscle, because most often, Pete, when people think of mental strength, one of the things they might think of first is, “Oh, that’s got to be fortitude. That’s got to be resilience.”

And one woman that I interviewed for The Mentally Strong Leader was a business leader at a packaged goods company, and she would not give in to the demands of a particularly big retail customer. They wanted better service, they wanted lower prices, they wanted differentiated packaging. If she gave up all that to the big customer, it would mean a short-term sales gain and that would be great, but a substantial decrease in profitability over the long term.

And so, through a series of kind of really intense meetings, the retailer called her bluff, and said, “Okay, you’re not going to meet my demands and, fine, you’re out of distribution, and I won’t share the company, I won’t share the retailer for many reasons.” But they said, “You’re done.” And Sharon stuck to her guns, and she said, “All right.”

She got tremendous pressure to get that customer back to grow business aggressively, to get them back and to say, “Hey, make amends. Say you made a mistake.” And she just wouldn’t do it. It meant a 15% catastrophic drop in sales. And I remember she told me this story, Pete. You could see the tears forming in her eyes that it wasn’t an easy choice, and the pressure she was receiving from her chain of command to reverse the decision was brutal, but she refused to play the victim.

She held tight, and she really started to exercise her fortitude muscle. She reframed the loss as a huge sales opportunity to grow with other smaller customers that were more strategic for them, “Hey, forget this big customer,” Sharon told everybody, “Forget them. We are going to get that back and more by operating with people that are more strategically aligned with us.” And so, she kept reframing the opportunity over and over again. She would have tough conversation after tough conversation. She would really attack things with a problem-solving spirit, and despite everybody pounding on her, “Get this big customer back.” She used her fortitude muscle.

And some of the tools that I teach in the book The Mentally Strong Leader to do that, to really, at the end of the day, grow her business even faster than she did without that big retail customer, and she never went back to them. Now I just happen to talk to her a few months ago, and the business is stronger than it’s ever been and more profitable, and had a lot to do with her and her fortitude muscle.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful, and I like that story on so many dimensions because it’s not life or death. You said a 15% drop in sales. And it’s funny, depending on your point of view, you might gasp, “Oh, dear.” Well, the other hand is like, “All right. Well, no one’s bankrupt.” It sounds like there aren’t brutal layoffs harming everybody. But, as a business owner, if I were to get a 15% drop in sales, I would be quite troubled by it, and she persisted.

So, it’s not catastrophic, and yet it does feel very uncomfortable, particularly when you’ve got folks piling on you from all sides, and you can sort of see it in the numbers right there. And it takes some real faith, in terms of it’s like, “Yes, right now, we are making far less revenue. That’s just very clear. However, I believe there’s something that we can do that will be even better.” And so, it’s like, “Well, hope you’re right.” That’s an unpleasant spot to be in.

Okay. Well, so then tell us, you said there’s six big mental muscles here. Can you maybe give us a quick definition of each of the six?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, sure. Okay. So, of course, we have the fortitude muscle. And I think, Pete, fortitude is probably the one that most people could most easily define for themselves. It’s our ability to push through challenges onward to achievement. In the face of adversity, you don’t let it get you down. You keep pressing forward. Fortitude, that’s the most obvious, biggest mental muscle that people first mention.

The second is confidence, which is probably exactly what you think it is, with one exception. Confidence is, the definition of it, is not the absence of doubt. It’s your ability to monitor your relationship with doubt, because we all have a relationship with doubt.

The boldness muscle is probably exactly what you think it is. Boldness paves a direct pathway to growth and it forces us to push our thinking, to get out of grooves, to press past discomfort. And boldness is a huge part of mental strength, as is messaging. Now as a leader, as I often like to say, people are always taking cues from you, Pete. You live in a fish bowl. People always wrap it on the glass to see what you’re going to do next, especially in times of adversity and negativity.

The messaging muscle is all about, as a leader, staying positive, even in the face of negativity. Staying engaged, even when your brain is elsewhere, so that you send the right positive message to the troops, and that they take energy from that message rather than the alternative. There are two more mental muscles.

Decision-making, and I think the best way to explain this is to say that emotion and bias and undisciplined thinking are all enemies of good decision-making. And self-regulation skills, like mental strength, are really required to be decisive and to make high-quality decisions. So decision-making is a huge part of mental strength.

Another mental muscle is goal focus, meaning the ability to really set aside wayward thoughts, emotions, and anything distracting you from the goal at hand, and getting back to focusing on what’s going to make the biggest difference in moving things forward towards your goal. So, there you have it: fortitude, confidence, boldness, messaging, goal focus, and decision-making; the six mental muscles of mental strength that also equate to the highest level of achievement.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about our relationship with doubt, shall we?

Scott Mautz
We shall. I have a tool in the book called the doubt continuum, Pete. And I’m getting tremendous feedback on this tool already, and then I’m going to talk another tool afterwards on confidence, but it’s helpful. I want your listeners and your viewers to think about this thing that I call the doubt continuum. It’s a tool in the confidence chapter of The Mentally Strong Leader.

Think about the continuum with two ends, and on either end are danger zones. On one end of the doubt continuum is overconfidence. You’re blowing through red light signals. You operate in a vacuum. You don’t think you need help from anybody. You just keep doing your own thing. You’re operating in an echo chamber. That’s not good. That’s the opposite of self-doubt. You’re way too confident.

The other side of the scale is also a danger zone, which is where you’re paralyzed by fear. Doubt has overcome you to the point where inaction sets in, and fear takes over, and you have a hard time making a move of any kind. In the middle on this continuum are two areas where you want to be. Either perfectly confident, where you have the right balance between gut and data to inform your decision-making, between experience and just taking a risk and going for it.

Or, also in the middle is where you learn to embrace healthy doubt. This is where you learn to park those doubts that you have in the backdrop. You don’t let them overcome, and maybe this is the most important thing here about this, Pete, is that embracing healthy doubt means knowing that you don’t have the answers to everything. That you’re going to learn along the way, you’re going to find out more as you go, and you believe in your ability to do that, to figure things out as you go.

So, the doubt continuum is really about self-awareness, getting you to understand, “Am I either letting fear take over or am I too confident? How do I sit in the middle, and either be perfectly confident or embrace and work with doubt in a way that’s productive and healthy?” Does that continuum make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is very good, really good. And I think about that overconfidence reminds me of one of my favorite quotes that I really resonate with, which is from former U.S. Secretary of Treasury, Robert Rubin, who said, “Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.” And I think that those people are in that overconfidence zone and it’s dangerous because, this is one of my, I don’t know if you call it pet peeve, or one of my things lately, I’m sort of astounded by the confidence at which people say certain things.

It’s like, “Do you have a crystal ball that predicts the future? Have you ever been wrong or experienced the emotion of surprise before? Because I am amazed that you are so sure that it’s going to work out just the way you predict.”

Scott Mautz
Pete, isn’t it why we have a hard time even agreeing on the facts in today’s society, right? It’s because of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Because we’re very confident about our own facts.

Scott Mautz
Yeah, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Or our theories, we think they’re facts, but they’re really hypotheses, perhaps we should say. And so, I think that’s really great, a really great tool right there to know that a lot of us are operating in a danger zone.

So, the doubt continuum is really handy in terms of, if you are super confident all the time, you are, in fact, in a danger zone. And if you’re avoiding something, that is a variety of fear paralysis that has you. So, help us out, Scott, if we find ourselves in one of the extremes of the continuum, what should we do about it?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, there’s another tool that kind of goes along with this. It’s a kind of partner to help you on the confidence front. So, if you’re on either side of the scale, you’re obviously trying to get to a place where you can embrace healthy doubt. You can’t do that until you have greater self-acceptance, Pete. So, there’s a really powerful tool that’s a partner to this in The Mentally Strong Leader to help you build your confidence, that I call the self-acceptance scale.

Now, I want you to think about a different scale, Pete. On one side of this scale, visually, picture this, you have this term called self-acceptance. It’s nirvana, right? This is the highest form of self-regulation where you’re not allowing unpleasant thoughts and emotions and behaviors to be unproductive in your life. You’re regulating yourself in a place where you accept all that is true about you. You’re in a place of self-acceptance. That’s where you want to be on the spectrum, on the self-acceptance scale.

Now, on the far right of this scale, and we’re going to talk the in-between in a second. On the far right is the opposite of that, which is what I call imposter syndrome. This is where you’re not accepting your skills and your accomplishments. You downplay them. You question how you got to where you are. It’s the lowest level of self-regulation because you’re allowing unproductive emotions and thoughts and behaviors make you question. You’re allowing them to question who you are.

Now, in between, there are degradations of self-acceptance that happen along the way. And the point of this scale, Pete, is to help people increase their self-awareness of, “What happens when I’m in a space of self-acceptance? How do I start to erode myself over time all the way to the point where I can be as bad as imposter syndrome?” And it starts with self-awareness, knowing the points on the scale.

The first point to the right on the scale of self-acceptance, that first degradation in confidence, is approval seeking. When you start to chase the approval of others, when you start to chase approval instead of authenticity, being the authentic you. That’s the first sign that you’re not really accepting yourself. You need others to tell you that what you’re doing is okay.

The next degradation is when you start to compare to others. Sometimes hear that, the only comparison that matters is to who you were yesterday, and whether or not you’re getting better each and every day. And, yes, of course, Pete, some comparison is good. I’m sure you compare yourself to other podcast hosts and say, “Oh, he or she is doing this, and I could do that to be even better.” And that’s good.

The comparison I’m talking about that’s painful is irrelevant comparisons. Like on social media, when we compare ourselves to some model version of some other person, when we compare our blooper reel to everyone else’s highlight reel, and it starts to really gnaw at our confidence, when we assume that that person in social media got to where they are because of circumstances that were perfect for them, or because of how skilled they are, and I’m not there because of all the bad things about me.

Then the next degradation is negative inner chatter that kicks in. We start to beat ourselves up, forgetting that sometimes the enemy is the internal me. One last degradation, and then I want to get your reaction to all this. One farther point over on the scale is when we actually stop and say and believe, Pete, “I’m not enough.”

And I want your listeners to hear this, and if you’re viewing this for any clip, I want you to look in the camera when I say this. You are enough and you don’t have to take on everything by yourself. And so, the self-acceptance scale helps you to understand and raises your awareness of all the ways our self-acceptance degrades over time. The more aware you are of these, the more equipped you are to resist each and every one of them. And you’re better suited to be self-accepting, you’re better suited to overcome doubt, you’ll be more confident. That’s a lot. Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, Scott, I love this in that we’re talking about self-acceptance, and we talked about a scale. When you said degradations, I think, “Oh, I think he meant gradations.” But, you know, it is a degradation. It is the degree to which it has been degraded. And it is also a gradation in terms of, “Where along the scale are you on that journey?”

So, first of all, and it’s funny, and, for me, personally, it’s kind of volatile, you know? Like, there are some days where, boom, total self-acceptance, awesome. And then other days where, yeah, I do. I do want approval or winning or beating in competing and comparisons. And so, it’s intriguing how, and I don’t know what’s behind it. It’s just like not enough sleep or what is behind the volatility. So, I’ll ask you that first. What are some of the drivers that make it such that, on some of these things, we have good days versus bad days? Like, what are the variables, the X factors behind the scenes?

Scott Mautz
A lot of what my research has shown me on this front, Pete, is, first of all, a lot of it has to do with the human story. First of all, the fact that every day won’t be consistent. Always playing in the background, is this some level of self-doubt. And people are always surprised when I say confidence is not the absence of doubt. It isn’t. I could tell you. I’ve interviewed, I can’t even count the amount of people I’ve interviewed for The Mentally Strong Leader.

And I could tell you, even the most confident executives that I talked to will not tell you that they never experienced doubt. It’s there. It’s how you manage it. So, this human experience means doubt is always parked in the backdrop. So, it’s natural for it to surface in multiple ways over time, and we forget that. We think the human experience needs to be the absence of doubt, that Pete Mockaitis never has a bad day, that he’s always fully self-confident.

But if that was true in your mind, Pete, I would say you’re probably lying to yourself because the human experience is not that. It is to experience the peaks and the valleys. Now you layer on top of that the environment that we’re exposed to every day, the social pressures that we’re facing, the fact that we have a hard time even agreeing on what the facts are anymore, the fact that there’s more distractions in our universe than there have ever been, the fact that there’s more social tension around the planet, and a lot of more and more things to worry about.

It all adds to this quiet addition to doubt about other things that makes it only natural, Pete, that you’re going to have those kinds of days that are ups and downs. You just need the habits and the systems and their frameworks to help you better self-regulate them, not to eliminate them. Mental strength is not about making emotions disappear. It’s not about necessarily minimizing your emotions. It’s about better managing your emotions, your thoughts, and your behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that, not minimizing, but managing. And so, to that end of volatility, it’s funny, with that message of “You are enough,” sometimes if I hear that, I go “Yeah, right on. Thank you.” And other times, my response is “Enough for what?” So, lay it on us, Scott, what do you mean by “You are enough”?

Scott Mautz
When I say that, it’s more of a self-evaluative term. I’m not saying “You are enough to be an Olympic gold athlete, Pete,” “You are enough to be the best podcaster on the planet, Pete,” “You are enough to be the best partner to anyone in life, Pete.” I’m not saying any of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like this. Keep it coming.

Scott Mautz
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Am I approval seeking right now?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you’re going to cut all the rest of that out and just play this part over and over and over again. What I’m really saying here, Pete, is “You are not a complete human being, but where you are in your journey is 100% okay.” And I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s exactly where you should be right now, because only you know that.

But what I’m saying, you know, when I say you are enough is to understand that you’re an imperfect being, and that’s okay, and that you don’t have to be everything to everyone all the time. It’s okay to focus on the you-universe, Y-O-U-universe, and not the universe all the time. That’s okay. Where you are in your development is right where you should be as a human being, perhaps. At least we can allow that, you know, of ourselves, and not to think about you are enough compared to any other external standard.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. So, then help us out, if we are having one of those days where self-acceptance, we are not too high on the scale, what do we do about it?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, a good tool, I think, is the way that manifests itself a lot, Pete, is really the middle of the scale where we beat ourselves up with negative inner chatter. And whether it’s you’re seeking approval, you’re comparing yourself, you’re saying you’re not enough, or you’re just outright beating yourself up over and over again, which, by the way, I teach this stuff, Pete, and I still do the opposite of that sometimes.

There’s another tool in the book, that I call taking a self-compassion break, and it’s really, really important and it’s also really, really simple to do. Here’s how you work. When you catch yourself in that moment where you’re beating yourself up, first, you got to get better at catching yourself. And I don’t know how good you are at this, Pete. I’m still working on it. There are days where I’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been beating myself up for like the last five minutes, and I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”

So, you have to get better at that, and I don’t know what letter grade you would give yourself on that. I’d give myself only a B. I’m working on it. I’m getting better at it. In the moment though that you realize that, there’s kind of three steps you take. First of all, stop beating yourself up for beating yourself up. If you catch yourself doing it, accept it, acknowledge it, quickly move to step two, which is, in that moment, to talk to yourself like a friend in need.

And I’m sure this isn’t the first time your listeners have heard this advice, but it’s really powerful to consider. I’ll give you an example before we go to the third step, Pete. Let’s say you and I are chatting, right? We’re old friends, you know, this is my third time on the show, and I start telling you about a podcast I was on that I didn’t feel like I was good on, right? And I’m clearly looking for compassion with you. We’re old friends, right?

So, I start telling you, “Pete, man, I got off this podcast. There were some points I really wanted to make. I didn’t feel like I articulated them well. I forgot to say this other thing. I feel like I came across like an idiot when I was trying to bring value,” on and on and on. After five minutes, you know I’m looking for compassion.

After five minutes, Pete, would you do this? Would you interrupt me and say, “You know, Scott, I’ve heard enough and I’ve come to a conclusion, that you’re a complete loser”? Would you talk to me like that when I’m clearly in need? I don’t think you would. So, it begs the question, “Why would you talk to yourself that way ever?” It’s not productive.

Pete Mockaitis
What you’re surfacing here for me now is sometimes I can be too quick to jump to solutions in terms of like, “Well, you know, Scott, what happened one time is I actually had a guest who thought they did a bad job and they said, ‘Hey, Pete, I don’t think I did a good job. Can we do a do-over?’ And I said, ‘Hey, thanks for asking. Sure, we can.'” So, anyway, there I am, I’m sort of, you’re looking for compassion, and instead I’m offering you problem-solving. But I think the funny thing is I can do that to my own self as well.

Scott Mautz
Absolutely. And oftentimes, that problem-solving thing is something that I do, Pete, and I have others that will tell me, “Hey, dude, I’m not looking for you to solve this. I’m just looking for you to listen.” And sometimes we’ll interrupt with that because it’s easier for us because we feel uncomfortable in what they’re sharing with us, and we want to make it easier for us, when all they really want is just to feel heard, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely.

Scott Mautz
And so, in that moment, it takes you to the third step in this, which is to remember the 90/10 rule, and it’s based on an article I wrote that went crazy viral a few years back. And the 90/10 rule is simply this, Pete, this is the third step in the self-compassion break. It’s to remember the ratio for how you should value yourself on any given day, which is to say it should be based 90% on self-worth, 10% on assigned worth.

How you value yourself should be based 90% on self-worth, self-appreciation, self-love, self-respect, self-acceptance, 10% on assigned worth, what others think of you, that occasional slice of external validation that we all need. The problem arises, Pete, when, in our minds, in our formula, that 10% external validation rises to 90%, 100% of who we are, and people say, “Well, Scott, shouldn’t you be teaching the 100-0 rule, though, that 100% of how you value yourself is based on what you think?”

And I think that’s a nice theory, Pete. I don’t think that’s the way it works in life. We all need that 10% occasional slice of external validation. But the problem is when that 10% goes to 100% of how you value yourself. The problem arises when you start chasing approval instead of authenticity. The problem arises when you begin focusing on winning love rather than giving love.

And when you remember that 90/10 rule, it really helps to round out and think like, “You know what? I’m going to stop that negative inner chatter because it’s not servicing me in the way that I need to. I need to get back to a place of 90% self-worth, self-appreciation, self-acceptance, and self-love.” And I have been told many times, Pete, that it’s a very powerful tool, a very powerful process for helping folks that need to get past that negative inner chatter.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting is, as I think about my own negative inner chatter, it’s almost never super intense, super dark stuff, although I’ve come to learn that it’s actually quite common in the human condition. It’s just like, “You’re such a worthless, stupid loser.” It’s very sad that there’s a lot of inner chatter like that that happens. And if that’s any listener, I recommend you take a look at that and work on it, because it can be really transformational.

I’m thinking about Peter Attia’s book, Outlive, a very powerful section about emotional health, in which he shared some of his practices there that I found touching. But my negative self-talk is more like, “Ugh, I’m just not up for all of the stuff I got to handle today. It’s too much for me today.” And I don’t quite know what’s the optimal self-response to that.

Because sometimes, it’s like, “Oh, come on, Pete! We can do this! Come on! Let’s do some Rocky music! Let’s do some, I don’t know, Tony Robbins power moves! Come on! Let’s get after it!” Sometimes that works, the psych up, and then sometimes like, “Oh, well, maybe let’s just take a nap.” And sometimes that works, and sometimes neither of those work, but I want to hear the Scott Mautz approach.

Scott Mautz
What if I told you, if you change one word, one word in your thinking process, it could make a world of difference?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love it. Lay it on me.

Scott Mautz
And I’ve proven this to work, and it’s very specifically for exactly what you’re talking about, Pete. One of the most common forms of negative inner chatter is like, “Oh, my God, my duties, they’re getting me down. There’s so much to do. I am not in the mood to do all this stuff today. I understand my job is this, and I get it.” Ready for this, Pete? Try this trick. I promise you it really works. I do it. I do this all the time.

I think, “Okay, Scott, I don’t have to do this. I get to do this.” And the one-word reframe is incredible, and I’ll give you an example. Part of my life is to travel around the world as a speaker, an author, a trainer, a work-shopper. And I was in the airport not so long ago, on a layover, and travel is the one part about what I do that I just cannot stand, and I was feeling really down, Pete. I was in Denver Airport, and the flight was delayed. It was going to be a five-hour flight. I was already in a grumpy mood, people were being people the way they can be in airports when flights are delayed, and I didn’t feel like getting on the plane. I just wasn’t in the mood for this.

And I remember thinking, “Wait a minute, Scott. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to go get on a plane. You get to do this.” By me getting on a plane, that would mean very shortly, within two hours of landing, I would be able to be on a stage in front of, in this case, you know, thousands of people, sharing insight, sharing something that I had learned, and it happened to be a talk about mental strength from the book The Mentally Strong Leader.

And it can really help, Pete, if you just stop to say, “It’s about understanding the privilege and what you still get to do.” And it puts the thinking, “I get to do this” versus “I have to do this,” flips it very quickly to the things that you can appreciate about what you’re doing, and bring you back to the purpose of why you’re doing it to begin with.

Pete Mockaitis
Scott, that’s good stuff. Well, there’s a whole lot of goodies in your book, and I like how you’re just surfacing the tools everyone tells you they love the most. So, Scott, can you give us one more dealer’s choice, whatever you’re feeling?

Scott Mautz
There’s one other tool that I want to share that, I don’t know, may or may not surprise you. It’s not about any one of the six mental muscles per se, but it’s an overall tool, which is the Mental Strength Self-Assessment that is a part of the book The Mentally Strong Leader, and it is a 50-question questionnaire that you take. It takes you about 15 minutes of quiet self-reflection and introspection. And when you’re done with that test, and I have worked with data scientists to build the test to make sure it correlates as tightly as it can with mental strength.

When you’re done with the test, it gives you an overall mental strength score, and then you’ll find out which tier do you score in for mental strength. There are four different tiers, all the way from novice, you’re just learning about the idea of mental strength and building, all the way up to you’re a beacon of mental strength, other people draw from you because of your mental strength, and then there’s the in-betweens.

Besides the mental strength score, it also gives you a score for each mental muscle, so you’ll know, “Oh, wow, my fortitude isn’t quite what I thought. My boldness isn’t where I want it to be. My decision-making needs to be stronger.” And then you can build accordingly your own customized mental strengths training program, which is important because when you go to the gym, Pete, you don’t go to the gym to work every muscle all the time. It would be a 19-hour workout every day. Wednesday is leg day. Thursday is, I don’t know, arm day. Friday is back day, whatever it is.

With understanding what muscles you need to work on, you can choose over time where to pull the levers and where you want to level up in your mental strength. And the mental strength self-assessment can help you to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, to take that, how do we proceed?

Scott Mautz
A couple of things, of course. Obviously, you can get the book The Mentally Strong Leader which you can find at ScottMautz.com, but I also put together for your listeners a gift. If they go to ScottMautz.com/mentallystronggift, you can download the Mental Strength Self-Assessment for free. It’s actually a 60-page PDF that not only includes the assessment with all 50 questions, it also has prompts in there to help you get the most out of the book The Mentally Strong Leader. So, if they go to ScottMautz.com/mentallystronggift, you can get your hands on the Mental Strength Self-Questionnaire to help get you primed up to get the most out of the book The Mentally Strong Leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Free stuff. We love it.

Scott Mautz
Free stuff is a good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, I really believe in this thought of chase authenticity, not approval. I find that to be very, very important to me. And I also like the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Scott Mautz
Well, very quickly, I did a study for The Mentally Strong Leader. It took me quite a while to complete, but I asked over 3,000 executives a single question, “Thinking of the highest-achieving organizations you’ve ever been a part of, that achieved the most, that overcame the most obstacles, how would you describe that leader?”

When I asked that question, time after time, between 90% to 91% of people described the same leader, a mentally strong leader that has fortitude, confidence, boldness.

And while they might not use the term mentally strong, Pete, when I say, “Oh, wow, so you’re describing these same six mental muscles that they’re flexing. Would this word describe them?” When I put mentally strong in front of them, you could see the eyes lighting up. Even when I hide the term and I say, “Okay, pick a word out of this list that describes the person you just described to me,” they find the words mentally strong, and they circle it, and it tells me that that research really helped me to see, like, I’m really onto something that mental strength may be the leadership superpower of our time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Scott Mautz
Oh, my favorite book is, I’m not going to give you a business book. I just finished reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre. So, I just read that and I love it. And it’s a close match with the all-time classic The Hobbit, which makes me officially a nerd, I think, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Scott Mautz
My favorite tool is called Unsplash. It’s a great website that you can find free images to use, whether it’s on your website, whether it’s in your presentations or whatever. They just ask that you assign credit to the photographer. So, it’s a very win-win thing. Everybody wins by using the tool Unsplash.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Scott Mautz
My favorite habit is using the self-acceptance scale and really working hard on reminding myself to stop seeking approval of other people, and working on the habit over and over of revisiting that scale to remind myself “I fall into the trap of comparing to others and I need to stop doing that and stop seeking approval.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Scott Mautz
ScottMautz.com. You can learn about my keynotes, my books, my workshops, and all the things I do there at that site, ScottMautz.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Scott Mautz
Yeah, just to remember that don’t be intimidated by the concept of becoming mentally stronger. The opposite of mentally strong is not mentally weak. We all have a baseline that we work from. And if you can take the mental strength self-assessment, understand where you stand, figure out where you want to level up, and use the tools, use the habits in The Mentally Strong Leader, you too can be mentally strong starting immediately.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, thank you. I wish you many strong days.

Scott Mautz
Stay strong, as I like to say, Pete.

979: Building Greater Trust and Connection through Storytelling with Scott Mann

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Retired Green Beret Scott Mann shares battle-tested strategies for motivating people in low-trust, high-stakes environments.

You’ll Learn

  1. Why storytelling is super powerful 
  2. The key shift that makes stories memorable
  3. How to regulate emotions (both yours and others)

About Scott

Lt. Col. Scott Mann is a retired Green Beret with over twenty-two years of Army and Special Operations experience around the world, and a New York Times bestselling author. He has deployed to Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is the CEO of Rooftop Leadership and the founder of a 501c3, The Heroes Journey, committed to helping veterans tell their stories in transition. Scott regularly speaks to and trains corporate leaders, law enforcement, and special operations forces on best practices for going local, storytelling, and making better human connections.

Scott has frequent appearances on Fox News, CNN, and other national platforms as a thought leader on building organizational relationships, restoring trust in our communities, and a range of national security issues. He is also an actor and playwright who has written a play about the war called Last Out—Elegy of a Green Beret on Amazon Prime. Scott lives in Florida with his wife Monty where they are deepening their skills on empty nesting.

Resources Mentioned

Scott Mann Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Scott, welcome.

Scott Mann
Hey, thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom, and I’d love it if you could kick us off with a riveting tale that’s also instructive about your time in Afghanistan.

Scott Mann
Build trust when risk is low, leverage it when risk is high. That was the one thing that has stuck with me, yes, Afghanistan, but pretty much every tough place that I went to. It was something that I think is very true here. As a Green Beret, we’re a little different than Navy SEALs and Delta Force and those kinds of outfits in that our whole focus, everything we do, is to work by, with, and through indigenous people. That’s what we do.

And all of that, it’s kind of a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia approach. So, most of it is around social capital, building trust, interpersonal skills in really, really, really low-trust environments. And one of the things that I learned in Afghanistan, on multiple tours, was that when things get really difficult and really dangerous and really hard, it’s the trust that you built back when risk was low that will serve you in those high-stakes moments, and I frankly think that’s true in everything that we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a good principle. And can you share with us how you saw that come to life?

Scott Mann
Most prolifically, I would say it was in the recent abandonment of our allies, almost three years ago to the day, it was in August of 2021, our government made a decision to leave Afghanistan, and I mean leave Afghanistan, like immediately. And as a result of that, probably close to 100,000 Afghan allies were completely left behind. Many of them on the run, hiding. One of them was my friend. His name was Nazam. He and I had fought together in Afghanistan in 2010. We had remained friends for many years.

He was shot through the face defending U.S. Green Berets. That’s the kind of guy he was, and then five weeks later, with a pair of U.S.-made dentures, came back to the firebase and continued to operate. You know, just the kind of guy that the most loyal friend you could ever ask for, and he was one of those guys left in the dirt, you know, left on the side of the road. And when the government didn’t pick up the phone and he was on the run, he called me, and basically said, “You know, sir, I never really worried about dying. It kind of comes with the territory, but I never thought I would die alone.”

And at this point, the Taliban were texting his phone. He was hiding in his uncle’s house, like Anne Frank, and they were circling the driveway, and that just, I don’t know, as I was watching the Taliban roll into Kabul, Pete, it hit me so hard, you know, all those years of fighting there and now my friend, who had stood up for us on so many occasions, was just going to be executed. I couldn’t live with it.

So, I made a commitment to him right there on the spot that we were going to do everything we could to get him out of the country and get him back to the United States. I called up some buddies who were ex-Green Berets and we started formulating a plan using cell phones and relationships, and we helped move him surreptitiously across the city, got him close to the gate. He got himself close to the actual location where the Marines were, and then we started working our contacts to get him pulled inside. And, ultimately, right at the last second, as they were about to throw him out, we got in touch with a State Department guy on the inside who said, “Tell him to say pineapple.” That was the code word.

And so, we’re screaming it to him to say that, and he does, and he gets pulled in, and we became Task Force Pineapple at that point, and that set in motion about a five- or six-day operation of 120 or so veterans to move about a thousand Afghan commandos and their families through a sewage canal and a four-foot hole in the fence, and then ultimately on to the United States where they are today.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Well, that illustrates trust right there.

Scott Mann
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You built it by taking a bullet to the face and more, and then, when the risk was high and in desperate need, there you were.

Scott Mann
And no authority, no resources, no time. We weren’t on the ground, so none of the things that you would want as a special operator, and, by the way, I’d been retired for 10 years. I’m a storyteller and a playwright. I’m not exactly your number one draft pick for hostage rescue, but what we did have were relationships. We had a very large portfolio of social capital in that country that we had built over the years, as did the other Green Berets that jumped into the fray.
And, you know, Pete, what I saw in that moment, it was just the worst case of duress that I had ever seen. I did not have answers, I did not have solutions, but what amazed me over and over again was how people were showing up for each other based on years of friendship, trust, and even people that didn’t know each other who were unified around this notion of just honoring a promise. Just honor a promise to our guys and get them out of there, and what lengths people were going to cooperate in real time in just complete chaos.

And, really, I don’t know, it drove home to me that, even in the worst of situations and chaos when nobody’s coming, human connection is the absolute underpinning of getting big stuff done. And it doesn’t matter what the context is, we’ve got to have that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. Thank you.

Scott Mann
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m curious, your company’s called Rooftop Leadership. Do these principles factor into the name? Where does that come from and what’s the big idea here?

Scott Mann
That’s a great question. Where that came from is back in 2010, we were losing the war in Afghanistan. We had already been there for 10 years and we were so angry after 9/11 that we had spent most of our time focused on targeting the enemy, including the Green Berets, who, really, our job is to work by, with, and through Indigenous people. We kind of got focused on this top-down targeting approach, and we needed to get back to our roots.

So, we established a new strategy of basically living out in the villages, growing our beards, indigenous clothing, and living and working the way we had done for decades, really, out in these rural communities, helping them stand up on their own. The only problem was, at this point, these communities had seen so much war and violence, and, frankly, we had kicked their doors in for 10 years. It was very hard to establish trust there, but we did, one village at a time, one community at a time, we persuaded them to allow us in small teams to live in their villages, kind of a modern day Magnificent Seven.

And what would happen is the attacks would come from the Taliban as soon as we would move in and live in this community, the Taliban would attack our compound and the village really, and we would go up on the rooftops and we would fight. The Afghan villages would not. They would stay down below and they would hide with their families.

But then after the attack was over, we’d come down, we’d tend to our wounded, and then the next day, you know, we’d go out into the village, we’d meet with elders, we’d drink chai, we’d help them in their fields, we’d try to help them find solutions to food shortages or any low-tech farming problems they were having, dispute resolution, whatever and wherever we could plug in and be relevant, and be relevant guests in their community.

And then two, three, four weeks after getting an entry in that community, there would be a muzzle flash from up on another rooftop shooting in the same direction we were, and it’s not one of our teammates, but it’s a farmer that’s climbed up there and he’s now defending his home – one dude. But usually that would be the tipping point. The next night, you would see three guys up on their roofs. The next night, you would see 10. And ultimately, until the whole village was collectively doing what it had always done, which was stand up on its own.

And over the years, I saw this again and again and again in these really trust-depleted places. And so, one of my jobs was to bring out senior leaders to see this and to talk to them about funding and resourcing, and I would call that rooftop leadership, this ability to move people up onto a proverbial rooftop when it’s hard, when it’s scary, when they don’t want to go, based on doing the right thing, even when people don’t follow you, and human connection, social capital, people taking action because they want to, not because they have to.

When I came back to the United States and I saw how divided we were as a country here and how disconnected, I thought, “Well, we could probably use some rooftop leadership here in America.” So, I started bringing those same skillsets to corporate leaders and associates here at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful. Thank you. So, you said they were doing it before, but then it was a big deal when the first guy started getting on the roof. So, can we clarify that?

Scott Mann
Yeah, so let me clarify that. So, these were communities, most communities around the world, most collectives, have a tendency to stand up on their own, and that is one thing I should have clarified, is that these communities had seen so much war and so much violence that they had just lost their purpose. They had lost their collective focus. They have lost their collective will to stand up for themselves, and they’d lost trust in each other, trust in their government, and so that’s kind of what we walked into, you know, and it was very difficult to persuade them in the beginning to take any kind of overt action on their own behalf.

And even though they had a long history before the 40-year war of doing that, and so a lot of this was simply holding space, building human connections, and enabling these individuals to do what they were predisposed to do. Most humans are predisposed to take action. It’s just that when we’re inundated with conditions that cause low trust and low morale and lack of purpose, at some point you start to kind of throw your hands up and check out, and that’s what we were dealing with. Those are the kinds of conditions that Green Berets typically get inserted into. And we turned that around using relationships and bringing one person up at a time to kind of make a stand.

And those same social conditions, although the stakes were different, I see here at home. I saw them when I retired in 2013, the same kind of disengagement and distrust and division that was permeating society over there, it’s terrible over here. We have a lot of disconnection and distrust here at home, a lot of disengagement. I found that that same approach, these old-school interpersonal skills, putting an emphasis on human connection, that’s what people are starving for.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. Well, I’m curious to hear then, when it comes to this trust-building stuff, I mean, some of it sounds pretty straightforward, yup, just go ahead and courageously put yourself at tremendous risk, and they’ll see you doing that and they’ll notice and appreciate it, like, “All right.”

But in business context, that may not look like shots being fired, so much as, “Hey, I am actually going to vulnerably admit that I made a mistake, that I need help, that I don’t have all the answers, that I desperately need everyone’s best efforts for this thing to work, and I’m going to give my best efforts. That I, as owner, am going to not receive distributions for a little while, while we’re in this tough economic time and we’re sorting things out.”

So, it’s just like kind of put your money where your mouth is, or your heart, your courage, your risk where you want to display that, “I am in this.” That’s a huge trust-builder, in general. Can you tell me, do I have that right or any kind of nuances or elaborations you want to put on that?

Scott Mann
No, I think it’s really good framing that you just did. I’ll just build on that framing, if it’s okay, in the sense that one of the things that Green Berets do and that I’ve done for 30 years is we really study closely what I call the human operating system, the way that humans navigate the world in terms of civil society and their day-to-day life, because we mostly deal in influence and social capital. And by social capital, I mean the oldest form of capital in the world, the tangible and intangible linkages between humans that causes them to take action because we’re social creatures.

And the reality is, Pete, what I’ve learned is that, what works in life and death, the kind of stakes we were talking about in Afghanistan, works even better in life and business, and the reason is because we’re remarkably similar in how we’re wired to navigate the world. Humans we’re very primal. We’re very primal, even though we like to think that we’re sophisticated and that we navigate this modern world and, you know, highly technical creatures, and we are.

The way that we actually navigate the world, the way that we actually take action, is around meaning and emotion and social connection and storytelling and struggle. I mean, we are very, very primal. In fact, I think it was Jared Diamond, an anthropologist who wrote The World Until Yesterday, he said that humans have been primal far longer than they have been modern. And we still have so many of those tendencies with us.

And so, what I’m trying to say is, you know, what I dealt with in terms of tribal dynamics in different villages, and how these tribes and interacted with each other, you see the same tribal dynamics in a merger. If two companies are smashed together, you are essentially putting two tribes together. You’re putting two collectives together with two distinct cultures.

And no matter how good that looks on paper for the associates, for the people that have to go through that merger, it elicits the same primal response of resource scarcity and status and fear-based behavior that our ancestors experienced 20,000 years ago. The amygdala, the ancient part of our brain, doesn’t know the difference. It goes into survival mode.

And what I’ve found is the more that we can understand those primal realities about how we are as humans, how we navigate the world, how we operate, how we take action, the fact, again, that we are meaning-seeking, we need meaning in our lives, the fact that we are first and foremost emotional, and that logic usually follows emotion, those kinds of things that when we do stories, that’s how the brain makes sense of the world.

If you use PowerPoint slides, a recent study showed that an audience will forget 90% of your content 30 per seconds after you say “Thank you for your time” because you’re engaging working memory. You’re not engaging long-term memory. The brain actually needs stories to make sense of things. So, there’s just so much available to us in this primal reality that, if we can tap into and understand that human operating system, it really makes us better at leading ourselves, our family, our co-workers. And it’s the same stuff we use in those rough places, it’s just as relevant here in just about any situation that you could think of at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, could you give us a key principle and then a story of that in practice at work?

Scott Mann
A hundred percent. I’m going to pick storytelling. Storytelling is, there’s different principles, but I’ll start with storytelling, and the reason is because we’re story animals. If you think about what most people have to do at work, I mean, we have to communicate in a strategic way. We have to influence, we have to convince people to believe in our ideas, our products, our vision. And whether that’s communicating internally to other associates or teammates, or whether it’s communicating externally as a salesperson or a client-facing professional, when you think about how distracted, and disengaged, and disconnected we are as a civil society today, I mean, just look around.

Look at how people are, they roll in kind of already skeptical. We’ve got our work cut out for us and you know most people are phones out in an environment where you have to get in front of people. If you’re not compelling right out of the gate, people are on their phones. So how do we how do we hold people’s attention? How do we actually engage them in a way that lends itself to authentic influence? And I have found that storytelling is absolutely at the heart of all of it. The storyteller is going to own the room every time.

And the problem is, our modern society has conditioned us for podiums and PowerPoint, which they’re kind of manifestations of the modern world, but they actually detract from good communication because we don’t understand what really makes humans communicate well. We don’t really have a language for it like we used to. And so, storytelling is such an essential skill. Whether you’re getting up and giving a presentation, whether you’re trying to pitch your boss on something or a sales engagement, narrative is everything.

If you could present your ideas in the form of a story, it’s far more impactful than if you just give facts and figures and PowerPoint, if you can lead off your PowerPoint presentation with a story. What do I mean by a story? I don’t want to be nebulous on that. Basically, a story should have a character. A story should have a character trying to meet some goals, who faces obstacles, and then ultimately overcomes those obstacles. We’re all natural storytellers. We really are. And if you can just integrate stories when you’re talking to your teammates, if you can integrate stories when you’re talking to your boss, it’s a much more effective way to connect with them.

The general rule is what’s personal is universal. Stories of struggle, stories of overcoming pivotal moments, stories of lessons learned, this is what people actually crave, and it kind of doesn’t feel that way and it feels awkward in a business environment, but it’s actually what we’re drawn to. And when you do that, and I’ll end on this, when you lead with story and how you engage people, it makes you more relatable to their pain, and it makes you more relevant to their goals, and that’s actually what people follow, way more than they follow experience or title or the money. We follow people who are relatable and relevant, and storytelling, by definition, makes you that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Scott, give us an example of a story you’ve heard someone tell in a work environment that was just phenomenal at illustrating these perspectives and building trust.

Scott Mann
I like to see it in the day-to-day. It’s great if you can get up on the stage and you’re the boss and you can speak a story of your vision. That’s great. That’s awesome. But for most of us, that’s not where we’re living. What I like to see is what I call narrative competence, the employment of storytelling, purposeful storytelling in real time to meet your goals.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Give me one.

Scott Mann
For example, how many of us have the opportunity to recognize people that we work with? I mean most of us do. Most of us have opportunities to recognize our co-workers, to recognize new team members, to recognize people when they leave our team, to recognize people for achievement. I mean, those are just a few. And you don’t have to have a title to recognize people. You can do it in any social situation on your team.

But if you are a people leader or a supervisor, recognizing people on your team, there’s actually a very powerful way to do this, which is when you’re going to recognize somebody in front of their peers, is to meet with them a little bit ahead of time. I like to say 24 hours, but it could be a couple of hours before you’re going to recognize them, say farewell to them, welcome them to the team.

And when you do that, ask them a couple of thoughtful, open-ended questions about their recent experiences. If you’re going to recognize them, for example, for the work that they did on your team before they departed, ask them some thoughtful, open-ended questions that start with how and what, that have to do with their experience while they were on the team.

“What were some of your most fond memories while you were on the team? What was the most embarrassing thing that you had to overcome that really taught you a lesson while you were on the team?” And then just listen, just shut up and listen. You don’t need to take notes. You don’t need to write down bullet comments because the story brain is wired for narrative. It will remember everything. You just listen with pure discovery.

And then when they’re done, you say, “Would it be okay if I share a few of these with some folks when I recognize you?” They’ll probably say yes, I’ve never seen them say no. And then when it’s time to recognize that individual, you get up there and you share a couple of narratives or stories about what that person told you and why you think it matters to the people you’re talking to. And what you’ll see is a level of an immediate trust acceleration between the two parties. You’ll see a level of reciprocity with this person that you’re honoring, and there’s just no greater way to get that serotonin flow and build credibility with your people than something like that.

You can do the same thing with introductions. If you introduce somebody at a mixer or you’re going to introduce somebody on the stage, rather than get up there and read their bio, which is just so off-putting, meet with them a little ahead of time, ask them some thoughtful open-ended questions, and then tell their story. Tell their story. The one thing that just resonates so deeply with people we lead is when we tell their story better than they do. And no one does it.

And when you do, man, it’s an immediate trust accelerant. It opens doors. It’s sacred. I’ve seen it work in so many different situations, and it’s just a great way to use story in the day-to-day and elevate your role in your position, no matter what that position is.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. So, one great storytelling tip is just ask people those open-ended questions so that their stories bubble up and we can hear them and be enriched by them. Well, Scott, give us an example of when you told a story to introduce someone that was awesome.

Scott Mann
I actually did it recently.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear the story.

Scott Mann
We were traveling around, and we were doing our play, “Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret,” and we travel around the country performing this play. And there was a Gold Star family member who had lost a family member in in combat, who had really been through a lot.

And so, meeting with this individual a little bit ahead of time, I was able to ask some questions, and just get to know and some things about their background. And then to recognize that individual and tell their story up on the stage in front of a group of other people that were there to attend the play and that were there to basically attend this play, but what it transitioned into was an opportunity to really recognize a Gold Star family member that had been through immense loss, and who was really trying to find her way in the world.

And, all of a sudden, she hears her story told and the story of her loved one, and she’s immediately immersed in the social connection of this group, and the group feels an immediate connection to her. And, in that case, I’m just the vessel. I’m just the storyteller. I’m just sharing a beautiful narrative of this woman’s life and her loved one with these people that I know are going to care. I’m just that bridge. And as soon as that happened, it was an accelerant for trust. It gave her access and placement to a group of people that she really needed to be around.

So, it doesn’t have to be like epic, or it doesn’t have to have like an ROI to it that we typically evaluate engagements. It could be something as, it’s just a small touch point like that, but extremely profound in somebody’s life. And when we do that, we’re building social capital. One other thing I’ll just say, Pete, to this, and I think it’s a pivot to the same topic, a lot of times it’s not the stories we tell. It’s the stories we ask to hear, particularly in low-trust environments where everybody’s really going through it, or there’s a lot of stress.

Thoughtful, open-ended questions to the other party that just let them respond in story about what’s going on with them in their life, what’s going on with the merger, “How are you feeling about what we’re doing here? What’s the latest thing you’re seeing with this?” and just listen with pure discovery, trying to just see the pictures in their head, pain and goals, pain and goals. And I just keep asking how and what until I really get a sense of what the pictures in their head are.

And that alone, Questionology, Warren Berger calls it, using the reverse where you ask questions that let them tell you a story. It’s like a dance. Narrative competence, the integration of stories and everything that we do, and, hell, two-thirds of the time, it’s stories we’re hearing, not saying, that will really elevate our effectiveness in how we lead.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a great perspective. So now, can we hear you tell a story that’s awesome?

Scott Mann
Well, there can be short stories that are like super short, even when we’re doing social media and things like that. There was Hemingway, had a bet with a reporter, when he was alive, that he could tell a sad story in six words. And the reporter said, “There’s no way you can do that.” So, they had a typical Hemingway wager over a bottle of rum, and Hemingway said, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I have heard this.

Scott Mann
And I think the larger point is that there is a way to tell stories that, if you train on it, you can integrate even your toughest struggles, your toughest scars. I tell a story, Pete, about my mental health when I came out of the military after almost 23 years. In 2015, I nearly took my own life, and right in this house, in my bedroom closet. I had reached a point after years of combat, and then coming home to a world, it was like a different planet to me.

The people that I looked everywhere were as divided as they were in Afghanistan. They were tearing each other apart, and my purpose and perceived sense of purpose was gone. Everything that I’d known about my life was no more. I’m walking around the house in a bathrobe and not having showered in two weeks, and just like two weeks earlier, I was a high-performing Green Beret. And I lost my way in a very short period of time and found myself in a closet holding a pistol.

And had my son not come home when he did, I don’t think I’d be here. But he did, and thank God I wasn’t able to go through with it. And as a result of that extremely dark low point in my life, it put me on this path to try to find an answer. I knew I had something to say. I knew there was something for me to do in this world. I still had relevance. It’s just that every time I would try to talk about, for example, my lessons that I’d learned as a Green Beret, about human connection, I would jam up when I got in front of people, when I started to talk about those lessons and the battlefield. I would lock up.

And so, I became convinced that there had to be a way for me to bridge that gap. And eventually I ended up finding a mentor, a civilian mentor who was a storyteller himself. He was a former NFL football player named Bo, and he had become an actor and a playwright and a storyteller, and a really good one. And when I saw him on the stage, and I saw what he did, I just thought, “Man, that’s what I ought to be doing. That’s how I can find my way again.” I just knew it like in my chest cavity. And he listened to me and he said, “Okay, I’ll train you.”

And he trained me for two years in the art and science of storytelling, and how to bring the physicality of it, and the struggle, the tough stuff, the scars. And that really was what I locked onto, was taking the struggles and repurposing them into stories that first healed myself, and then I started to use those stories as ways to bridge gaps with bankers, with associates in the tech industry, small businesses, because we’re all wired for struggle. We all go through it. We all struggle.

And when we hear stories of struggle, we listen autobiographically, we locate ourselves in them. And before I knew it, I had done three TED Talks, I had done hundreds of keynotes, I wrote a play about the war to complete my midlife crisis, I learned how to act at age 50 and took the play on tour with Gary Sinise. But at the heart of all of it, Pete, was storytelling, what we’re doing right now.

And it’s just crazy because, at this primal level, we all locate each other in our stories. And if we can just unleash that thing, unleash that muscle and put it into the world, there’s just no ceiling for what you can do. It’s a powerful, powerful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew, I like that a lot. Well, one, I’m so glad you’re here, and thank you.

Scott Mann
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
And, two, thank you for sharing that. And, three, as we think about story, it’s amazing how, boy, it’s night and day in terms of like the impact of storytelling when you say, “After I returned from Afghanistan, I struggled with my mental health.” Now, a lot of times when we express ourselves, we kind of leave it at that. But when you actually paint the picture of you are in a closet with a pistol to your head, and your son walks in, it’s night and day.

And both of these descriptions, there is a person struggling with their mental health. But in the latter, in which you’re really sharing what went down, you, a human being in a physical place with objects that we can visualize, it ignites something inside of us, inside of me, and I imagine every listener with a heart, and I think there’s science on this in terms of like mirror neurons or biochemical stuff going on in there. And I think that’s a huge takeaway right there.

And it takes a whole lot more vulnerability as well and courage to share that, not so much, “I struggle with my mental health when I returned from Afghanistan” to painting that picture. And in so doing that, like the connection is like night and day. It’s like ten, a hundred-fold.

Scott Mann
I appreciate you calling that out. And what I want to get across here is this is available to every single one of us. When I was first exposed to this, I thought, “There’s no way.” I watched Bo do this, and I thought, “I could never do that,” and I had the stuff buried deep inside me that I hadn’t even told my wife.

But, Pete, I mean, I’ve lost nine friends to suicide since I got out of the Army, nine friends. And these were, look, these were Delta Force, Navy SEALs, Rangers. These were highly resilient individuals. And then I looked around, that’s what’s happening to mental health in our workplace today, two plus years of COVID, prolonged isolation. Honest to God, I feel like, in so many ways, what we’ve gone through as a society of employees and associates, post-COVID, is like coming home from a two-year deployment.

It’s very similar because people have had these different lived experiences and we don’t know what they are, but there is a, I know this, there is a mental health tsunami in this country right now that we’re dealing with in the workplace, and people are going through it. They’re dealing with stuff. And what I feel like is, “Okay. Well, if my story of how I’ve coped and went through this and struggled and overcame it, and found my way out, if that can allow a young associate somewhere in the country to hear that and locate herself in my story, that’s what I call the generosity of scars.”

It’s when we can repurpose our struggles through stories in the service of other people, and the cool thing is, it is actually why storytelling was invented. It’s what happened. You nailed it when you said the mirror neurons. When we hear a story of struggle, the armor comes down and we listen autobiographically to the person talking. And, all of a sudden now, yeah, you have the context of me in that closet, but there might be some version of you in that closet or someone you knew in that closet.

We start to make sense of, because story is a sense-making tool, we start to make sense of our lived experience, the tough parts, in the safety of somebody else’s narrative. And that’s where the love and the courage and the relatability comes in because, now, you’re holding space so somebody else can make sense of their life in the safety of your story. And, to me, it’s just like, “Man, what a gift to have gone through these things and then be able to repurpose them so that somebody else can make sense of it for their own journey.”

I mean, as far as I’m concerned, that saved my life. It saved my life in so many ways. It gave me my life back, and I love talking to people, like you who get it, who have an audience of people who, I know, will be capable of doing some version of that themselves, and who knows what that can lead to.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say it’s a gift, that really resonates. And I’m thinking that so often, this gift is sort of wrapped up so tight in opaque brown wrapping that we can’t even appreciate it in terms of like, “I struggle with my mental health when I returned from Afghanistan,” or I could just say, “I’m disappointed that I don’t seem to have as much energy, drive, and motivation for my work as I did in 2019.” It’s like, “Okay, that’s something.”

But then you can really share a story in terms of, “I remember when I used to be able to crank through 11 one-hour coaching calls in a day, and say, ‘That was awesome.’ And now, I’m struggling to roll off the couch at 2:30 p.m. after a hefty afternoon nap, just to make it through my inbox,” for example. So, now, it’s sort of like, it’s again, night and day in terms of, “Okay, it’s almost like you’re telling me about the situation versus you’re really telling me here’s the situation.”

Scott Mann
A hundred percent. And, look, the former, to me, is unwatchable. This is what we get all the time. We get this all the time, and we all know it’s false, and frankly, social media, the 24/7 news cycle, this represented reality that we live in most of the time, it’s all performative. It’s all performative. Everyone is giving a performance all the time. And when you’re dealing with that and you’re dealing with a growing level of disconnection in the country and different levels of distrust, you start to isolate.

That starts to have a really profound effect on every aspect of how you do your job, of how you think about your work, how you think about your purpose at your work. And we’re hungry for people, not even leaders, we’re just hungry for people who authentically connect to us. And I get it, some people worry about vulnerability, particularly like in corporate environments, in the military, and the V word gives people a lot of angst because you feel like you’re sticking your jugular out, and I get it.

And what I tell people is, “Okay, cool. Let’s reframe it. Rather than get wrapped up in the vulnerability or the signaling vulnerability, think about relatability. Humans are social creatures. We are actually wired to be social. It’s our superpower, and we connect to the other humans who are relatable to our pain, and that’s what we’re looking for.” And so, if you just focus on asking yourself, when your teenage daughter has been bullied on Instagram, “Am I being relatable to her right now?” You will automatically demonstrate the appropriate level of vulnerability for that moment.

And I found, at least for me, that’s a very, and I teach this to Green Berets and FBI, is it works. It still allows you to bring vulnerability in at just the right level. But as a metric, focus on just being relatable. Just be relatable to somebody’s pain. Be an empathetic witness, as Dr. Benjamin Hardy says. Bear witness to their pain just for the sake of discovery and curiosity, just to see the pictures in their head. No one does that. And if you do that, you’re immediately going to help them drop the body armor, there’s going to be a biological element of reciprocity, and you can start to connect.

We’re actually wired to do it. We just haven’t done it in a long time. And, unfortunately, this transactional world we live in drives us away from it. So, to bring it back to that Nobody’s Coming to Save You, that’s why I wrote the book, it’s just to give as many tactical tools as I can to folks that are having to do this with their teenagers and their spouse and their PTA. We need leaders that connect, and it’s not a foregone conclusion, that instinct is going to get you there.

Pete Mockaitis
And now, when you say, when you respond, just be relatable, could you maybe give us some examples of snippets of dialogue, which would be put in the relatable column and the not relatable column?

Scott Mann
Right on. So, let’s break it down this way. The guy that I studied negotiations under is a guy named Professor Stuart Diamond, and he wrote the book Getting More. One of the things I like that Stuart always said is, “You want to see the pictures in the head of the other party.” Humans operate off the transfer of imagery. It’s just what we do, theory of mind and all that. So, it’s really important to see the pictures in the head of the other party.

A great example of what you’re talking about with the relatability, Chris Voss talks about in Never Split the Difference. When you talk about relatability, I want to see their pain and their goals. I want to be relatable to their pain and relevant to their goals. If I can just get some sense of the pain points that they’re going through, if I can just get some sense of what they’re experiencing internally, of what it is that’s jamming them up, and just ask thoughtful open-ended questions of how or what, that allow me to ascertain what that pain is, and it can be incremental in the beginning.

Like, for example, if my son, Brayden, who’s my youngest, if he’s having a really rough day, I might just start with, “What’s going on, man? How are you feeling? What’s up?” It could just be as simple as that. And, usually, you’re going to get something, you know. And then, a lot of times you could just reflect back, reflective listening, “Really? Really, that’s what she said?” Just be curious. Just show discovery.

And, again, not from a transactional creepy kind of way. I really want to see the pictures in their head, like, “What’s the pain going on here? What’s happening?” And I want to get a clear picture of it, and my end game goal is that I get clear enough on what it is that’s going on with them that I can articulate it back, and they say something like, “That’s right. That’s right.” And when you hear “That’s right,” you’re probably really close to where that person’s ready to listen to what the hell you have to say.

Pete Mockaitis
So, for a teenage bullying situation, so lay it on us, what does relatable sound like there?

Scott Mann
The thing to remember in this is, see what a lot of people try to do when they’re negotiating or influencing is they try to just look at the Questionology aspect of it. In other words, they try to look at the formatting of the questions, and that’s cool, but what I like better is a, “What’s your approach? What is your approach to this situation?” Because, you know, every situation is different with every teenager.

However, there are some universal singulars at play here. For example, if your teenager has been bullied, then it is a foregone conclusion that they are in a sympathetic state. The emotional arousal is somewhere between fear and anger, and there’s pain, and it is a highly aroused state, trance-like state that they’re likely in. They are agitated to a very high degree. If it was a thermometer, they’re high in the red.

And the problem with that is when someone’s in a sympathetic state like that, they can’t hear you. Physiologically, the ears don’t work. Bullets get quiet in a gunfight because you don’t need to hear them. The body moves energy where it needs to move it so that it can handle the situation for survival. It’s an autonomic, physiological response. The sympathetic nervous system clicks in.

Think about if you’ve been in a car wreck or if you get in an argument with somebody, and you’ve heard the term “seeing red” why is that? It’s because you’re elevating your emotional temperature to such a degree you’re preparing to survive. You’re preparing. This is a primal 250,000-year-old response. So, it’s not conducive to reflective listening or cognitive processing and certainly not shared perspective.

So, if I’m a parent, the first thing that I want to remember is what James Claussen says, from Darden University, “Leadership is the management of energy.” Humans are mostly energy. It’s the management of energy, yours and then theirs. So, when I get in front of my kid, “What’s my emotional temperature?” What do most of us do when we see our kids bullied? We mirror. We go in the red, too, right?

And so, I look like I don’t trust myself as I go in, and what I’m trying to say to Brayden, I’m really scared for him, but I just want him to be okay. It comes across as what? I’m telling him how to do it. I’m telling him what he needs to do. It comes across as prescriptive, which immediately agitates him, and he goes up. So, a lot of it is the approach of three diaphragmatic breaths, say, “I have time” three times. Ask yourself these three questions, “Who am I? Why am I here? What do they need from me?”

Just those three steps, three diaphragmatic breaths, belly breaths, three “I have times,” and then “Who am I? Why am I here? What does Brayden need from me?” It will bring you down into a parasympathetic state, calm and connect.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting, the “I have” times.” I’ve heard other things such as “I am safe,” “I am enough,” “I am loved.” If you went for “I have time,” can you expand upon that?

Scott Mann
It’s called temporal pacing. It’s actually something. And a lot of the techniques that I’ve actually learned for high-stakes engagement, I actually learned in acting, because in acting, when you get up in front of people, you go into a sympathetic state. Because we’re status creatures and we’re worried about how we’re being judged, and so we start to speak faster and we start to move up. The same thing when we get up in front of people to give a presentation and a briefing. We have to pace it down. We have to slow it down, which feels unnatural. It’s called temporal pacing.

So, just by verbally saying, “I have time,” I regulate my own emotional temperature. I slow my pacing down, and all of that crap that I just had in the last meeting that is jamming me up, by doing those three “I have times,” I can leave that at the door where they belong and not in the next meeting and projecting it on someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love this, the effect of the rate of speech. And I see this in my own world if I’m listening to an audiobook, sometimes I will crank that bad boy at over 2X speed, and that produces one effect, like “Okay, I’m dialed in. We’re doing this.” And other times, I will crank it all the way down to like 0.7 speed, so slow.

And Audible is amazing at this with their algorithms to not make the pitch get weird. I’m an audio dork in that way, and so it’s just very slow. But, sure enough, that gets me sleepy. It is fantastic when I want to fall asleep, it’s like, “We’ll make that super slow.” And, likewise, “I have time,” slowly to yourself, it would make sense, it follows then, that that would get you in that groove of, “Oh, okay, no need to rush and speed through this, because I have time.”

Scott Mann
It’s the coolest thing. And I’ve had guys take this into Afghanistan, Syria, acting, Broadway shows, interrogations, presentations. Like, it works, and I call it pre-engagement preparation. If you want, I’ve got it on a little video, I’ll flip it over to you, and feel free to share it with whoever. I think we need all the tools we can get, and that one does work.

But taking it back to the bullied teenager, regulating your own emotional temperature is essential, and then getting a sense of the emotional temperature of the teenager across from you, “What is her emotional temperature? Is she in the red?” And the ultimate question I want to ask myself in this moment, and it’s not just for bullied teenagers, it’s for any high emotion situation, “What’s it going to take to get her ready to listen to me? What does she need? What is it going to take to get her to a place where she’s ready to listen to what I have to say, because she’s clearly not. She’s clearly not.”

Nine times out of ten, someone is dealing with something, the last thing they want is another party coming in and chirping in their ear. They’re not ready for it. They’re still in a state. They are in a trance state of fear or anger-based behavior. So, the responsible thing is to show up, “Okay, how can I hold space here and help her bring her emotional temperature down to where she’s ready to listen to what I have to say?”

Now in this case, the most important thing is just, make a human connection first. Don’t try some questioning technique. Don’t try, you know, whatever. Just make a human connection, and your instincts will guide you in that if you’re open to it. Is it just sitting there in silence with them? Is it just putting your arm around them? Is it just letting them know you’re there? And is it just saying, “Are you okay? How can I help?”

But if we can ask these open-ended questions of how and what, even if they’re irate and angry, Pete, what will happen is their emotional temperature, they’re expending energy, right, so the emotional temperature from the sympathetic state will start to drop, and that’s why questions are so important instead of statements. How and what questions allow them to respond in narrative, which is the natural way to respond, and their emotional temperature will start to drop from sympathetic state of fight, flight, or freeze to parasympathetic state of calm and connect.

And then, at some point, and again, what am I looking for? I’m just trying to ascertain pictures in their head, pain and goals, pain and goals, what’s going on. And the more that I can get clarity on that with pure discovery and curiosity, and that’s it, at some point, when I articulate back to them, and they say, “That’s right,” “Would it be okay if I shared something with you?” like, then you’re probably ready to engage, really engage, and maybe offer something. Nine times out of ten, that’s what people need. They don’t need you to sit there and spew at them. They need two-thirds of every engagement, if it matters, is questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Scott Mann
He’s sitting right outside the room here listening to my podcast because that’s what he does. My dad, my hero, a 42-year firefighter in the Forest Service on his third bout with cancer, a stroke, my biggest fan, and I’m his biggest fan, “Leave tracks. Leave tracks.” That’s what my dad says that all of us should be doing in this world. And it is this notion that we’re all here to do something bigger than ourselves, that we’re all meaning-seeking, meaning-assigning creatures, looking for that impact, and our legacy is the most important thing that we can do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Scott Mann
I would say mine has been in the generosity of scars. It’s been in noticing how storytelling works with deep grief and trauma and loss, and how it’s allowed people to come out of the darkness and really find new meaning in their life by repurposing these stories in the service of others. I think it’s not the silver bullet to mental health, but it is definitely a hugely helpful tool that we’re not tapping into and we need to.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Scott Mann
Let’s see, favorite book would be this one right here, Steven Pressfield, The War of Art. He’s a good buddy of mine, and I’m a big fan of Steve and his outlook on resistance and overcoming self-sabotage for something greater than yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Scott Mann
I would say my PEP, pre-engagement preparation is my favorite tool. Yeah, what we just talked about, “I have time” and those three things.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Scott Mann
I do a thing called the Tribal 12 every morning where I wake up and I work on my instrument as a storyteller. And it’s a series of 12 rituals that I do that involve everything from diaphragmatic breathing, to voice and articulation drills, to physical movements and character gestures, that no matter what I face that day, my instrument for communication is ready to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote back to you often?

Scott Mann
“Meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Scott Mann
ScottMann.com. It’s all right there.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Scott Mann
See if you can get somebody to say “That’s right” in the next 48 hours that’s going through something.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a treat. I wish you much good trust conversations.

Scott Mann
Thanks, Pete. Appreciate you, man.

977: What Makes Leaders Bad—and What You Can Do About It–with Dr. Barbara Kellerman

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Dr. Barbara Kellerman explores the roots of bad leadership and offers strategic tips for challenging it.

You’ll Learn

  1. Where leadership training falls short 
  2. The two core components of “bad” leadership 
  3. Four tips for standing up to bad leaders 

About Barbara

Barbara Kellerman was Founding Executive Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School; the Kennedy’s School’s James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership; and a member of the Harvard faculty for over twenty years. She is currently a Fellow at the Center. 

Kellerman received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. (in Political Science) degrees from Yale University. She was awarded a Danforth Fellowship and three Fulbright fellowships. Kellerman was cofounder of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and is author and editor of many books. She’s appeared on numerous media outlets and has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Review.  

She received the Wilbur M. McFeeley Award from the National Management Association for her pioneering work on leadership and followership, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association. From 2015 to 2024 she has been ranked by Global Gurus as among the “World’s Top 30 Management Professionals.” 

Resources Mentioned

Barbara Kellerman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Barbara, welcome.

Barbara Kellerman
Well, thank you, Pete. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for asking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and I thought it’d be great if you could maybe kick us off with hearing a tale of maybe the most wild case of bad leadership you have witnessed or heard about through your work and research in the workplace.

Barbara Kellerman
Well, Pete, if you know my work, it goes back on bad leadership, in particular, to a book I wrote or an essay. At first there was an essay I wrote called “Hitler’s Ghost: A Manifesto,” which was me arguing that, what I call the leadership industry, which is my field, all kinds of experts on leadership, whether in corporate leadership or political leadership, mainly corporate leadership, that my colleagues in the leadership industry were not paying any attention to what I call the dark side of leadership, the painful side of leadership, the egregious side of leadership.

But in the book that grew out of that, which came out about 20 years ago, which is called Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, I developed seven different types of bad leadership. Those types of bad leadership are important because they range from the ineffectual, all the way, in awfulness, to evil.

So, it really depends on which type of bad leadership are we talking about. Obviously, if we’re talking about evil leadership, which I define as someone who inflicts pain, literally physical or psychological pain, on his or her followers, that’s obviously a different case in point as somebody who is, dare I say, simply ineffectual.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I guess I’m interested in terms of, let’s go with evil, in terms of in the workplace, you say, “Whoa, so you think your boss is bad, check it. This is what full-blown bad looks like.”

Barbara Kellerman
So, I would say that the word evil as I define it, and again I developed and identified the types in the book, it very rarely applies to the workplace because it implies a kind of malevolent intent, which I don’t think we find that often in the workplace. In the workplace, I talk more about something called callous leadership, leaders who are thoughtless, mean, or unkind, not thinking carefully about the other, or leaders who are explosive, who lose their tempers too quickly.

Alas, it’s one of the mysteries of the human condition to me because it would seem to me that it would be in the interest of most leaders and managers to keep those who report to them relatively happy as opposed to unhappy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve often wondered, that’s one of my top mysteries of humanity, it’s like even if you are purely self-interested, and truly care not a wit, about your fellow human being, you’re still better off not being a jerk. You adjust, you get farther, you achieve more of your ends if people can tolerate you and, generally, are fine interacting with you.

Barbara Kellerman
I completely agree with you, Pete, but I would say it especially applies to, let’s say, the United States of America in the third decade of the 21st century, when the issue of talent retention, holding on to people that you think are really important to your enterprise, to your mission, to your purpose, that becomes really top of your list of priorities.

So, it is often in one’s self-interest, apart from the graciousness of being decent as opposed to indecent to other people, it is in one’s, as you imply, in one’s self-interest, in the corporate interest, and almost always in the interest of the task that needs to be accomplished to keep people, if not wildly happy, at least from being miserably unhappy.

Pete Mockaitis
That checks out. So, with all that said, can you lay it on us, a tale that was particularly shocking in terms of bad leadership at work?

Barbara Kellerman
I think I’m going to take a slightly different example, a man, because he’s so extremely well-known since, even since, though he’s now dead, a man by the name of Jack Welch.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Barbara Kellerman
Who, of course, was one of the legendary corporate leaders of all time, the company, which many of your listeners will know, is General Electric, and it’s an example, I would not exactly call him a bad leader, particularly a prototype of somebody who’s awful, but he was known, very well known, and much admired for being lean and mean. And that, of course, meant letting a lot of people go.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember the nickname Neutron Jack. He would evaporate, make the people disappear, but keep the buildings and equipment.

Barbara Kellerman
Exactly. But I will tell you why I, in particular, think that history has proven him not to be a particularly good leader, even setting aside the point that we’re just making. So, Jack Welch was on the cutting edge of what I referred to earlier as the leadership industry. And you probably know this, Pete, that GE, again, was on the cutting edge of corporate training. They had a campus in Crotonville, New York, and it was well known, again, at the forefront of the leadership industry.

The irony of that, though, and it addresses what I am known for, I dare say, for better and worse, which is a kind of skepticism, if not even cynicism, about the leadership industry, which professes to teach people how to lead wisely and well, and I’m not sure we have an enormous amount of evidence for that. But setting that aside for the moment, the Crotonville campus was an example of something that didn’t work.

Because, as I hardly have to tell you that in recent decades, now it’s somewhat recovered under CEO Larry Culp, but for decades General Electric went from being the icon of American industry to being one of the fall guys of American industry, and Jack Welch’s successor failed absolutely to not only help the company thrive, but he succeeded in plunging it straight downhill.

Pete Mockaitis
And there, what do you believe are some of the particular behaviors that were so destructive and may have led to GE’s demise?

Barbara Kellerman
I don’t know that I would use that language, Pete, that it was particular behaviors, I think it was just a kind of hubris that assumed that, “You know, the way I teach leadership, it’s guaranteed to succeed.” As I suggested a moment ago, we have not a great deal of evidence that the way leadership is taught, whether within organizations, whether within business schools, schools of public administration, our criteria for measurement are rather meager.

We’re dealing here with human beings, not widgets, so it’s hard to measure the success of a leadership program, a leadership course, a leadership institute. And I would say that hubris was the main problem with Jack Welch and his legendary leadership training efforts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, then could you maybe give us some examples of how hubris translates into some of the things they did and said that were problematic?

Barbara Kellerman
Well, again, I want to be careful to distinguish between being bad, or to use the word you just used, “problematic” and not being good enough. In other words, I’m not saying that what was done at Crotonville was bad. I’m saying that the successes that were touted were in scant evidence and are in scant evidence.

And I’ve taught many leadership courses, although I don’t tell people I teach how to lead, I tell them I teach about leadership, which is actually two different things, that when somebody takes a leadership course, whether mine or anybody else’s, and then they’re questioned at the end, or there was a kind of review, “What did you learn? How was it?” typically, the answer is, “This was a great course. I learned so much. It’s amazing. I’m a different person.”

But, in fact, in the real world, we don’t really have brilliantly successful ways of assessing the long-term impact of what most leadership courses, programs, centers, institutes, etc. actually accomplish. So, it’s a quick and easy sell, “Buy my book and you too can learn how to lead,” “Take my course and you too can learn how to lead better than you’re leading now,” “Follow my seven easy steps and you too can succeed,” I would argue that’s not as brilliant to sell and brilliant to buy as people generally like to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then I’m curious, from your perspective, having looked at a lot of things and having a lot of skepticism for a lot of promises, have you seen any bright spots and what makes them bright?

Barbara Kellerman
In a book I wrote called Professionalizing Leadership I argued that leadership learning should, much, much more strongly than it currently does, resemble learning how to be a physician, learning how to be a lawyer, learning how to be a teacher, learning how to be an engineer.

In other words, I argue that we need to take it more seriously, that we need to think more like some of the sages from the past, whether it’s Plato or Confucius or Machiavelli, which is it takes a long time, if not a lifetime, to learn how to lead.

And if you’re going to, again, emulate what the professions do, becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, you will realize that what I break down into a three-step process. First, it should be, in my view, leadership education, which is developing an intellectual understanding of what leadership and followership entail. Just like in medical school, one of the first courses that you take is anatomy. They’re not going to let you slice into a human body until you have learned, been educated about the anatomy of the human body.

So, it is with leadership. I believe first step should be leadership education. Second step should be what I call leadership training, which is where you develop the skills required to lead in your particular context. By the way, I’m going to deviate again because I want to stop at context. So, I can be a great leader in one situation but a lousy leader in another. So, I always talk about the importance of context, which is something we can return to if you like, but I’ll go back for a minute just to the three-step process of what I call professionalizing leadership.

Step one, leadership education. Step two, leadership training, learning the skills and talents that are required for your particular job or task in your particular organization, or situation, or circumstance. And step three is what I call leadership development, which is like adult development, which means, again, lifelong learning. You cannot get an MD in 2024 and presume that that medical degree, no matter how great the medical school, will stand you in good stead five, 10, not to speak of 15 and 20 years hence.

If you’re a physician or you’re a lawyer, you must take continuing education courses. You must take courses that keep bringing you up to date on what good medicine and good science entails. And so, it should be with leadership. There is no reason to assume that if I take a leadership course or a leadership training or a leadership program in 2024, there will be nothing new to learn in 2029, not to speak of 2034.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then digging into your book, Leadership from Bad to Worse: What Happens When Bad Festers tell me, any particularly striking or surprising or counterintuitive discoveries you made here?

Barbara Kellerman
I would say they’re all surprising and counterintuitive, which is to say that our tendency, and this is the human condition, again, we’re not talking here widgets, we’re talking about human beings, which complicates the situation infinitely. The surprising thing is how passive we are when we have a bad leader or manager.

Now, again, let me go back, because on one level it is not surprising. Sometimes it is costly and sometimes it is risky to take on a superior, let’s say we’re talking in the workplace, to take on a manager or a leader, or whatever language we want to use, and it’s much easier for us to simply, even though we may dislike it or even become stressed out about it, which is not uncommon in the workplace, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, sometimes we just decide to put up with it, that it’s easier to put up with it than to try to figure out how to take it on.

The problem with that, as the title “Leadership from Bad to Worse” implies, unless we take on bad leadership, again, however defined, many different ways, relatively early in the process, it’s almost certain to get worse. In other words, bad leaders, probably like bad people more generally, don’t wake up one fine morning and say, “Golly gee, I’ve been bad. I’ve been not nice to my subordinates. I really ought to be a nicer boss. I ought to pay more attention to their well-being. I ought to care more about how they feel on the job. Silly me, I’ve not been behaving very well.”

What that means is that the only way then to get these people to change is in some way to intrude on, interrupt the process. Sometimes that’s an exogenous force, something that happens from the outside. But more often than not, it is unfortunately the subordinates that need to take on the issue and need to think through, “If there’s going to be any change for the positive, how can this be done, tactically and strategically, in a way where I don’t end up cutting my own head off, that is cutting off my nose to spite my face?”

So, I would say the issue of the reluctance to look at bad leadership and try to figure out how to stop it from getting worse, that to me is on one level surprising. Although, again, I hasten to add, on another level, really quite understandable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Barbara, this is fascinating. So many things are sparking up for me here in my brain. One is the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in which he sings the song, “Someone should do something.” You know, it’s that passive sense. It’s like, “I don’t like this. It’s very uncomfortable. It’s risky. I hope something changes.” But often, to your point, it just doesn’t.

I’m thinking, you might get a kick out of this example. We had a senior executive at a, I don’t want to name names here, at a major organization that teaches leadership, Barbara. And there was another…

Barbara Kellerman
We’re going to move on, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
…senior executive who, I guess, went through a startling number of assistants, maybe six, very quickly. And they were getting the recruiters, the headhunters fired up to hire a seventh. And then before they did so, it was a peer, a fellow executive said, “Hey, you know, I’ve noticed, and I want…” And so, he sort of demonstrated how to give this feedback well.

It’s like, “Hey, I want you to understand my intention is only to serve you and to help you out here. I’ve noticed that six people have left, and there’s been a lot of sort of comments or themes associated how your behavior has been perceived as pretty disrespectful and demeaning.” And so, boom, there it is. And sure enough, like, that’s hard to say, and nobody did.

Barbara Kellerman
And you’re talking about peer-to-peer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, exactly.

Barbara Kellerman
You’re not even talking about subordinates to superior.

Pete Mockaitis
It was peer-to-peer, but that’s what it took. It took someone to sort of shake them up, to provoke the status quo, and sure enough it worked. At first, he was very upset, but then he took the feedback to heart and said, “Okay, I guess I can kind of see your perspective, and I guess I will behave differently.” And they had a good outcome, so that’s really cool.

So, yes, it does take something, and I think often, if there’s not a brave someone somewhere, it will just continue. What’s that famous quote? “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for the good people to do nothing,” Edmund Burke.

Barbara Kellerman
Yeah, that is a famous quote and it’s very much what I believe to be true, although I’m always very careful, Pete, as I suggested a minute ago, to not blame the, you know, I don’t want to blame the victim, I don’t want to blame the subordinate, because often people need and want to hold on to their jobs. Often people are really quite scared of doing that. It is, of course, as your example suggested, easier if it’s a peer as opposed to a subordinate.

But in the book, Leadership from Bad to Worse, I have examples of exactly that, including in the corporate sector, how, unless it is stopped, it almost does get worse. And one other comment on that is it’s much easier to stop it early in the process. When you start noticing somebody is not behaving well, however we want to define that, it is easier to say something, to do something earlier on.

The longer bad is able to take root, rather like a plant, the deeper those roots go and the harder it becomes to uproot them. So, without taking the plant analogy too far, I think you get the point that the longer this goes on, and the more entrenched everybody becomes, the more difficult and, indeed, sometimes often painful it is to upend what’s going wrong, to change it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And it just makes the conversation itself harder, like, “How long has this been going on? Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” That’s tricky.

Barbara Kellerman
Exactly. By the way, if I can add one other thing here, Pete. I mentioned in passing earlier that my interest in leadership is matched every bit by my interest in followership. So, what do I mean when I use the word follower? As you may know, if you’re in the leadership field, and your listeners will know who are familiar with the leadership literature, that’s a kind of loaded word, follower, because it presumes among other things that followers always follow, which is not actually how I define the word.

Followers, most of us, by the way, generally follow. We are socialized to follow. We’re rewarded by our parents, by our teachers, by our bosses, if we’re good followers, meaning relatively obedient most of the time, again at home, in school, in the workplace. If we disobey too much of the time, that’s not good. But in order to understand the leadership dynamic, the dynamics of power, and the dynamics of authority, and the dynamics of influence, it is impossible to understand them if you focus only on one half of the dyad.

You cannot have a leader without at least one follower, and I have argued now strenuously for several decades that, therefore, the understanding of what happens, let’s say, in the workplace, it is impossible to get it by looking only at the person or persons at or near the top of the hierarchy. It is important, equally important, to understand why everybody else in the workplace is behaving the way they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, that makes sense. You mentioned tactically, strategically responding. I definitely want to spend some time on that. But first maybe you could clue us into what are some of the telltale signs we should look out for? Like, what’s truly bad versus something I just kind of don’t like and doesn’t jive with my personal preferences?

Barbara Kellerman
So, the word bad, Pete, is inordinately interesting. So, it’s childlike, right? “You’re being bad,” says a parent to a four-year-old. Conversely, “Oh, what a good little boy,” or, “What a good little girl.” So, when I wrote the book “Bad Leadership,” I wrestled with that, “How do I define bad? What does that mean to be bad? Is there a better word in the English language than bad?”

You earlier used the word, for example, toxic. Well, not all bad leadership is toxic. There’s a lot of bad leadership. Toxic, of course, means poisonous. There’s a lot of bad leadership that is not poisonous. It’s just bad. But it’s not so bad that it is toxic. And I was interested, and I remain interested, in what I call the universe of bad leadership, all kinds of bad. A little bit bad, a lot bad, evil bad, as I said earlier, but not so bad too.

So, I not only developed the seven different types of bad leadership, to which I referred earlier, but I also defined bad, or bad to good, if you will, along two axes. And these axes have stood, dare I say, the test of time. There are two of them. You can think of them as intersecting if you want. So, one axis is from effective leadership, which is, needless to say, good leadership, to ineffective leadership, which is, needless to say, bad leadership. It’s better to be effective than it is to be ineffective.

The other axis, again, very simple, but simple is good when we’re talking about such complicated subjects. The other axis, the second axis, is not effective to ineffective, it is ethical to unethical. So, a leader is presumably better if he or she is ethical than if he or she is unethical. Now, to go to your question, since I’ve defined these as two different axes, one is ethical to unethical, the other one is effective to ineffective, you can even understand intuitively that one can be along a continuum.

So, sometimes, really very ethical, but sometimes, and this is again the human condition, not uncommon. For example, lying. We, generally, think that lying isn’t so great, but lying, we have a higher tolerance for lying now than we did, and most leaders lie a little bit. Some leaders lie a lot, and people don’t seem to mind necessarily. But that’s what I mean about two core components of being bad, being good. One, again, ethical to unethical, the other, again, effective to ineffective.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. Well, so then, in a way, that can surface things pretty clearly, like, “Oh, this guy who’s really a jerk and screams and pounds his fists a lot, he’s kind of getting some results in terms of folks hop to and do what he says, and do what he says quickly, and work long hours, and make stuff happen.” So, in a way, that’s effective, at least short term, but it doesn’t feel ethical in terms of dignity and respect and kindness and the golden rule sorts of things.

And so, that’s kind of handy. It’s like, “are we generating results, effective and ineffective? And does this seem to violate the world’s wisdom traditions about the dignity of the human person and treating others the way you want to be treated?” that’s more on the ethical, unethical side of things.

Barbara Kellerman
I cannot support your point enough, Pete. Muddling those two criteria for being bad or good is a big mistake for just the reason that you say. It is really possible. I mean, lots of people didn’t like working for Steve Jobs. He wasn’t adorable. He wasn’t always nice to people who worked for him, but he was, as you say, incredibly effective, brilliantly effective, a genius at being effective as a leader.

By the way, this lesson was taught to me very early in my career as a so-called expert in leadership. When I was giving a talk, I was still a young scholar, and I said something about Hitler being a bad leader, which I thought was self-evident. But I remember to this day, somebody standing up in the audience and objecting to what I said for exactly the reason that you just said.

That person pointed out, and I’ve learned my lesson since then, that, again, I’m not assuming your audience are not experts on German history, but the truth about Adolf Hitler is that between 1933, when he first came to power, and 1939, when the Nazis marched into Poland, he was a brilliantly effective leader.

He was an extremely good leader between ’33 and ’39, if you define good, again to the point that you just made, Pete. If you define good as being effective, he was a good leader between 1933 and 1939. Not ethical, but very, very effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a handy framework we got there in terms of “What kind of bad am I looking at?” And so, let’s say, we see on either side, “Yup, we got an ineffective leader here,” or, “Yup, we have an unethical leader here,” what are some of the strategic or tactical steps we should take if we find ourselves in that position?

Barbara Kellerman
So, one of the reasons I’m interested in followership is because of what in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a phrase particularly associated with the women’s movement, was called consciousness-raising. Raising our consciousness about the possibilities, in this case, of action. So those of us who are employees, or subordinates, or ordinary people working in a group or large organization, whatever it may be, tend not to be aware of the possibilities that we might actually be able to act in an effective way, be agents of action.

So, if you talk about strategy, it’s one of the reasons I’m so big on followership. It’s one of the reasons I would wish in a perfect world that good followership, how to be a good follower, would be taught every bit as much as how to be a good leader, because ordinary people need to understand their own agency. If we don’t get the fact that we may not have power and we may not have authority, and, by the way, I distinguish, as some of your audience may have picked up, I distinguish among power is one resource, authority is another resource, influence is the third. So, I distinguish among power, authority, and influence.

So ordinary people, that is, workers in a large organization or even in a smaller group, subordinates, whatever you want to call them, may not overtly have much power or overtly have much authority, but that doesn’t mean that they need to think, or that we need to think of ourselves as being without agency. So, consciousness raising about the power, you can call it follower power if you want, that, to me, is step one.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. So, once we have that awareness, what are some of the best possible moves?

Barbara Kellerman
Well, I’m always leery of putting people in bad situations. Whistleblowing, for example, has rather a romantic note to it, “Oh, my God, so-and-so’s a whistleblower. How great is that? They opened a can of worms at work and it deserved to be opened. Thank goodness somebody had the courage to do that.” In fact, in real life, it’s quite dangerous to be a whistleblower.

There are books on, if you’re going to be a whistleblower, you want to be a whistleblower, you better know the law. You better be sure of the financial resources you have because your agent, your organization, your company might sue you. So be careful. So, step one is to be careful. Step two is, in general, do not act alone if you can possibly help it. Step three is to start at the lowest level of action.

So, to use an example that you used a few moments ago, you said one peer came up to another peer, one boss to another boss, one manager to another manager, and said, “You know, you’ve lost six assistants in the last whatever,” let’s say it’s 12 months. “You might want to take a look at how your assistants are feeling, about being your assistants, about your attitudes and behaviors toward them.”

So again, “How do I do this at the lowest level?” which would be presumably a simple conversation, possibly between the subordinate and the superior, friendly, cordial, trying to raise issues that have perhaps nobody’s raised before, or to do it in a way that the superior can actually hear. Step four, five, and six is, at certain points you have a choice. Are you willing to risk your position, possibly even your job, assess your costs and your benefits. Don’t be dumb, even if you want to upend bad, however defined. Be careful, be aware of your own self-interest. Do you really need the job? Or is your talent sought elsewhere? And are you willing to lose your job over your intervention or over your action?

If you are not, you better assess your risks. You better be careful. But again, if at all possible, do not act alone. Get allies and consider tactically what your various venues are for possibly saying something and doing something. And that could include everything from several of you going to the person who is not acting the way you wish, to going around the person, possibly to a peer, possibly to a superior. So, there are all kinds of ways of doing it, but I never, ever want to make it sound simple, and I never, ever want to put people at risk professionally if, in fact, they can’t afford, literally or figuratively, to be at risk.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Barbara, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Barbara Kellerman
Well, I guess the last thing I’ll say, Pete, is that although our conversation has focused on the workplace, the work I do, I think of it as trans-sectoral. It applies as much to the public sector as to the private sector. It applies as much to Western Europe as it does to the United States. And, in fact, what’s interesting about our field, if I can assume you’re in my camp of being interested in these issues of leadership, is that for all the differences between, let’s say, Americans and Argentinians, or Americans even and Canadians, there are profound similarities in the human condition.

In the end, we’re all human beings. We all relate to power and authority and influence in similar ways, and that’s worth bearing in mind as we focus on the differences among us. It is, in this field, perhaps the similarities that are the most striking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Barbara Kellerman
One of the courses I taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and it’s arguably my favorite, is a course called Leadership Literacy. So, there is a great literature on leadership where people have thought about these issues since time immemorial. I earlier mentioned the names of Confucius and Plato, but if you simply go to some of our own, and by that, I mean American founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers.

Men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison. These men thought long and hard about the issues that you and I are surfacing. So, one could do worse than to go back to some of the classics of what I call the great leadership literature, of which I’ve just given you a small sample.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear yourself quoted back to you often?

Barbara Kellerman
I hear that people are happy to have me surface subjects such as bad and follower. Those are the ways, as I said earlier, that I distinguish myself most from my colleagues, and people are relieved to hear a discussion, an honest discussion, of how to tackle bad, again, however bad is defined. People are relieved, eager to hear about their own possibilities for exercising influence even in large organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Barbara Kellerman
I’m available on email. I have a website and I am, by the way, a regular blogger. I’m also on LinkedIn, so happy to connect to members of your audience. And I can be found easily, if somebody looks hard enough, and I have many, many books on leadership and followership. They’re mostly available, of course, on Amazon. So, if people are more interested, I’m sure they can find both me and my work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Barbara Kellerman
Become aware of your own potential influence on the people and on the situation within which you find yourself. And becoming contextually conscious, conscious of your own role, it is amazing. It is amazing how that empowers people to act.

Pete Mockaitis
Barbara, thank you. I wish you many pleasant encounters with good leaders.

Barbara Kellerman
Or effective ones with bad leaders, right? Either one or the other. Thanks very much, Pete. Good to talk to you.