How can you stay adaptable in today’s changing leadership world? Jeffrey Hull, author of Flex, says that being agile in the moment is key to managing and leading your team. Discover what it means to be a postheroic leader in a flat organization, why somatic leadership is crucial yet overlooked, and how to talk about showing up without sounding woo-woo.
Bio: Jeffrey Hull, Ph.D. is an author, educator and consultant with over twenty years experience partnering with C-suite executives on issues of high performance leadership, change management, organizational strategy, structure and culture. Dr. Hull is a highly sought-after facilitator, keynote speaker and executive coach to both non-profit and for-profit global organizations.
Dr. Hull is Director of Education & Business Development at the Institute of Coaching, McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate. He is also a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct professor of leadership at New York University.
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This transcript is unedited.
Peter: Here today with us is Jeff Hull. He’s an author and educator, a consultant and a coach. Xtrordinair. He has written the book most recently flex the art and science of leadership in a changing world and we’re going to talk with Jeff today about what he means by changing world and what he means by leadership and what the art and science is. So Jeff, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.
Jeffrey: Hi, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Peter: Tell us about the changing world, what, what’s changing in this world that you referenced in the book?
Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean, obviously there are a huge macro changes taking place everywhere around us, but I think probably the, the incident, the changes that I’m referring to in the book that were inspiring me to write the book are about the organizational landscape and the emergence, um, into leadership roles of an incredibly diverse population of leaders that we wouldn’t have really seen maybe as recently as 10 years ago. You know, the rise of, obviously everyone knows there are more women in leadership roles, um, but people of color, people from all over the world, really multicultural growth in leadership and in organizations. So there’s that huge disruption that’s taking place, um, parallel that with the flattening of organizations. You know, the old pyramids have been tumbling down and they’ve been reinvented as holacracy, cs and all sorts of our other parent permutations. But holacracy is, yeah, I think it’s a whole lot.
Jeffrey: Crecy uh, that’s that I’m completely flat organization. Zappos was one of the first to try it. A completely flat organization that’s run more like by a constitution of teams, but, you know, it’s a variation of a flatter, more networked, more collaborative. Um, organization in general. So you have those major disruptions that I think are pretty much flooding the landscape. And then I think that the, uh, expectation of the style of leadership, and I’m sure we’re going to talk about this, has fundamentally shifted in the last few years. And I know that’s part of what led me to want to write this book and do the research. I’m sure you’re seeing it as a, you know, in all of the work you’re doing as an executive coach, there’s just been a huge shift in the expectations of leaders and what it means to be effective in a leadership role.
Peter: Um, well it’s interesting. I’m curious about the idea of the expectations of leaders. And when you say that, whose vantage point you’re thinking of, meaning, who is it that’s expecting a difference in leadership?
Jeffrey: I would say it’s coming at them, coming at them from all sides. Uh, you know, depending upon the size of the organization, whether it’s a startup or even if it’s a fortune 500 company, uh, there’s pressure from the top, from the boards. Um, and from the stakeholders, the buyers, the consumers of services and products to diversify, um, to have more sensitivity to minorities, people of Color, women, people. There’s a globalization of organizations. So there’s the external pressure. Um, I was just on the phone this morning with a head of Asia for, uh, a Wall Street firm talking about, you know, the Americans need to really get their act together and understand cultural differences and be respectful and humble about the way they interact. So there’s like this whole different conversation. It would, 10 years ago it probably would have been, well, we’re sending a bunch of American ex-pats to run your division in China. Well, that’s not going to happen anymore. So there’s that external shift. Um, and then probably fundamental is the bubbling up, right? The bubbling up of millennials and the expectation of the next generation of workers. And there’s been a lot of research and writing that’s been done about that.
Peter: Yeah. You say some at some place in the book.
Jeffrey: We’re all millennials. Yeah. I mean, and I did that very pointedly. It’s very early on. Um, and there’s two reasons for that. Number one, I don’t want to take away from the fact that there are demographic differences. I think that’s well known and well studied. But what I do want to do is point out how that may not serve us very much to put people into categories because first of all it leads to stereotyping in generalizations. And I’ve worked with millennials that are as competent as over achieving, as driven, as any boomer. Um, maybe even more so. You know, the, the, and then if you add to that that we’re all using the technology. You know, even my mother is on Facebook. It’s like, so even traditional lists are on Facebook, they’re using social media, we’re all networked, we’re all using the new apps. Now, it may be true that younger folks are more savvy with that technology, but the organizations are all using it. They have internal apps, they have networking apps. So the idea that the millennials are more tech savvy, well, maybe it’s true, but we’re all, we are all dealing with the 24 hour workplace, right? We’re all dealing with the technologically networked, we’re all dealing with, um, the pressures of achievement. And time management. So I just find the millennial distinction. Uh, sometimes it’s a bit overwrought.
Peter: Right. Great. I agree with you. Um, I’m going to you to define two more terms really quickly and then we’re going to jump into some meat. What is the post heroic leader?
Jeffrey: Yeah, so there’s a good, nice research and jargon for you. Right. Well,
Peter: well also I think the reason I’m asking is because a lot of people have talked about this shift from like command and control to that. And I’m wondering what, like what you’re adding to that part of the conversation.
Jeffrey: Right. Well, first of all, I didn’t want to take credit for that phrase because it’s actually in the literature. There’s a lot of researchers that have done what they call studies of the posts, heroic framework or characters. Um, so I stole it from them. Um, but, but what it points to is the idea that, uh, you know, the White Knight leader who’s going to come in on the horse and save us, uh, which is what we see in every Avengers movie. Um, you know, the, that paradigm is really dissembling and that, you know, what’s, what’s meant, I think by post heroic is moving into a new paradigm and not that we don’t all deserve to be heroes and we’ll still need heroes. We’ll still need heroines. Uh, but the idea that the leader is this one stop shop for your solution. Um, you know, we have Steve Jobs, we have all these icons and that that will continue to be true. I mean, America and everyone, there are icons that will rise, but that as the exclusive paradigm of leadership, I think is on the wane.
Peter: Yeah. I think that’s a great distinction too, that there are some, you know, there’s different cultures in different organizations and that there’s some organizations that are still really reliant on this heroic leader and it actually works for them. And those other organizations that, that, and there’s certainly, there’s organizations that get caught up in it and get in trouble because of it. And there’s organizations that, that don’t. And the other thoughts that I’ve had recently is, you know, there’s this sense that all this pressure is on the heroic leader to, you know, be that White Knight. But I also think, and you, you sort of addressed this or you know, your book is all about this and some ways that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the poster rogue leader to not be a heroic leader. And that’s not easy. That’s not like we’re not acculturated to, you know, to be this other kind of leader. So k, one last definition. Um, and here’s the doozy of the mall. How are you defining leadership?
Jeffrey: Yeah, that is a doozy because, uh, you know, there are multiple great definitions out there and I can, I could read you one of my favorites and then not take credit for it. Right. Um, I mean, for me personally, leadership is about creating a space. It’s about creating an environment where the universal wee becomes a personal, we, in other words, it’s a, a dynamic in which a group of people, it could be two people, it could be a hundred people, could be 50,000 people, but they are able to come together in a space of creativity and kind of an adventure leading to creating something new in the world, you know, and they, and it’s very much my world about a wee dynamic, not an I dynamic.
Peter: And if you were to identify like a central thing that you’re adding to the conversation with flex, right, because there’s so much has been, I’ve written about leadership you’ve written or there’s a lot that’s been written about leadership. If you were to identify like the central thing you want to make sure or you’re hoping to add to this conversation about leadership, what would it be? Well, yeah, that’s a great question
Jeffrey: cause I, I mean I’ve read your book and it’s incredibly in alignment with mine. Um, I mean, I think they really a beautiful song together, but I think what I’m looking to do, I would call it the new leadership agility. Um, or maybe the next level of situational leadership. I was on a podcast the other day and someone said to me, what you’re, what you’re saying reminds me a lot of Ken Blanchard’s, um, situational work from the 80s, and I, you know, is it new? Is it different than, and what I said is I’m very much in that lineage. So it’s not in contract, it’s not against that by any means. But I think to the earlier questions you asked me about what’s new in the landscape of leadership, there’s another level of agility that’s required and it’s really high pressure, which is to be agile in the moment, not just like from one year to the next, but literally from moment by moment and day to day. And what does it take as I like to describe, to be able to move from an Alpha energy to a Beta energy, which is a receptive energy to a proact, to a directive. And what does it take to do that all in one day? What does it take to be empathic in the afternoon and authoritative in the morning? I mean, that’s a new level of agility. So I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.
Peter: I love that. And you’re not saying, and, and you’ve, you’ve said this a couple of times in this conversation so far, you’re not saying, you’re not actually saying we’re in a post heroic leadership world. I think, you know, you may disagree with me. I don’t think you’re saying that. I think what you’re saying is we are in a heroic leadership world and a post leadership world. And you know, like there you’re, you’re, you’re not saying we were that and now we’re this, you’re saying who we have to be as leaders by definition needs to be inclusive of much more than what we thought leadership was maybe 30 years ago. And it’s not that we moved from one to another, but we’ve added tools to the toolkit of what it means to be able to lead.
Jeffrey: I would say everything you just said is absolutely true. And, yeah. And the reason I say that is that, um, on the one hand I was very clear cause there are other books that do a bit of this trash, the Alpha kind of energy. Um, and I was very clear in my book that that was not my intention. It’s not about taking down the Ho the heroic or that that’s the doom. So I’m very much in sync with what you just said, but I would also add, and I would probably say, and I would also add, yeah, exactly. Um, I would say there is a movement toward a more collaborative, consensus driven, inclusive, um, style of leadership. And the reason for that is because of all the things I mentioned at the outset. And then I would add to it, there’s a desire on the part of many organizations to have greater levels of innovation these days. Creativity, it’s becoming the huge key distinction that’s gonna help. So creativity requires being able to hear from everyone. And that’s where the Beta lab, the Beta energy is really valuable.
Peter: You know, it’s interesting because I know an organization where they really are this, you know, kind of environment where there’s no leaders, everything’s everything, self operating teams. And even the way the teams get assembled is, you know, not with leadership and, and very problematic and yeah, and, and actually what happened, you know, this organization too. But what happens is, what I find happens is that defacto, either there’s a tremendous amount of ambiguity or the fact of this non-leadership culture ends up becoming a very, um, almost fascistic leaders of culture because when, when groups and teams have no leadership in them and don’t make decisions, everything rolls up and the final decision gets made by the person who’s running the company. And it’s like, it’s almost this juxtaposition or is this, you know, this is kind of the irony of leaderless teams, which is that they end up defaulting to oftentimes a single leader who’s, you know, holds the purse strings and calls the shots.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I totally agree. And I am a very aware of that. There’s like that risk factor when you, when you take away the pyramid or you take away some of the hierarchy. And I would say that part of that is a transition phase in our culture. Like there are very few people that are mature, self-aware, emotionally courageous, that that’s what it takes to step up and lead. And if you’re going to have an environment where you’re asking everyone to step up and lead, the level of emotional courage is multiplied. Right? And unfortunate. Unfortunately there are very few organizations that are really ready for that. Um, and in fact that gets back to, I think one of the core themes in your book and also one of the core themes in mind, which is we all have to learn how to coach ourselves, right? You know, we need to look at the ability to develop feedback loops, right? Right. To have self-awareness be really core to your growth and you, you read about that and I write about that. We do it a little different ways, but that way we may ultimately get to a place where we could have a leader, fold team, not a leader, less team.
Peter: Okay. Let’s get into some of the meat of the book. You break it up into mental leadership, emotional leadership, and sematic leadership, and you have your fierce model, which fits into each of those categories. And why don’t you give us a brief overview of like mental, emotional, somatic, and I’m very happy to see you writing about sematic because you don’t, you know, you hear people talking about mental and emotional, but sematic is often not a part of the picture. So I just kind of want to, you know, super briefly, just talk about each of those and let’s go into sort of fears.
Jeffrey: Great. Yeah, I mean it was extremely important to me to make as explicit as possible that there are core energies that lead to effective leadership and only one of them is cerebral. You know, there’s a chapter in my book called we are more than a brain on stick, you know, in our culture, that is where we tend to go.
Jeffrey: Right? And that’s, I think part of the reason why you wrote your book is like the being able to connect with your feelings, being able to regulate them, being able to express them. It takes courage, it takes awareness. I wanted to be explicit that that’s core to the energy of effective leadership. Rational, yes, of course. Motional yes, of course. And then the third of the sort of triumvirate is recognizing that your presence is a physical presence. Always the body comes along with you whether you like it or not. So integrity, trust, behavior, all of eye contact, what you’re doing, you know, I’m moving my hands too much right now. So you know, it’s like that. It’s very granular and how we show up in our physical energy is really key to your success. So that was why I wanted to make sure that we’d covered those three dimensions.
Peter: So I want to start with them backwards. Cause first of all I want to make sure that we get to sematic. And second of all, I also think that I want to take what’s often demeaned as the least important and actually highlighted as the most important because I think it’s most missing. So, so does that work for you by the way? Cause I know that a structure. Okay, great. Totally. So let’s go into sematic and you break it up into sort of collaboration and engagement and, and also you, it’s interesting because sematic, you know, I really think of sematic as the physical body and, and you know, I do some sematic coaching around, you know, with core energetics and, and, and, and, and almost energy work. And if that’s super woo woo to people, as soon as you say energy work, it’s like super [inaudible]. And yet someone walks in a room and you could feel it.
Peter: And the question is, what is it that you’re feeling? Right? Or if someone walks in the room and you don’t even notice, and the question is what’s going on? And so, and you know, someone’s angry and you can feel, so there’s like no doubt that from a, you know, you know, on a, on a basic level, we all have an experience of, you know, whatever you want to call it, but I’m going to call it kind of the energy aspect of it and the physical sensing aspect of it. And, uh, and, and then, and you also talked about, you know, trust and integrity as going into this category. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts around that.
Jeffrey: Well, no, I completely agree with you. And I think that, um, you know, one of my colleagues the other day who just finished reading my book, she said to me, Jeff, why did you wait until you get to collaboration and engagement before you talked about sematic? Um, and I, I said to her, well, first of all, that was somewhat arbitrary because of course, every aspect of your presence is some somewhat somatic, right? But when it came right down to it as a leader, when you collaborate, you’re not alone anymore. When you make a decision, you can be alone. When you’re having a feeling you can be alone. Not always, but when you’re collaborating, you can’t be alone.
Peter: Although arguably when you’re having a feeling that’s true. It’s almost entirely sematic. I mean emotional is almost entirely about it.
Jeffrey: But I was just talking, you’re absolutely right, which is why it is somewhat arbitrary. But I guess what I was trying to get at is this somatic component of your leadership starts to be crucial when you’re collaborating and when you’re engaging. You know, I mean I get so frustrated with people that simplify this theme of engagement. Like we need to recognize our employees. We need to be at work give. Yeah, exactly. All of which is true. So it’s not that that’s not valuable, but if you walk into a room and start recognizing people with your eyes sort of half open and glazed and your body’s just sort of turned and you’re like, Oh yeah, Mary, Yeah Mary, like people are not going to feel recognized. It’s all about your physicality, the energy. So that’s why that became so important in those demands.
Peter: So I’m curious about how you approach that in organizations. Cause I think, I think there’s a safety in talking about it as collaboration and engagement. Right? It’s like a little bit safer because those are very accepted terms and organizations and people could talk and also give examples. Yeah. Yeah. Well, and that’s what I’m curious about. I’m curious about, you know there’s, there’s a way in which in organizations, in organizational life, I should say your body is your own. So like I could talk to you about the way you think. I could talk to you about the way you speak. I could talk to you maybe even in a risky way about the way you wear your emotions on your sleeve and that might impact it. But to actually talk to someone in an organization, and I’m not, I mean we’re sort of privileged you and I in that when when people bring in a coach or they work with coaches, they tend to be more open to this.
Peter: But when you’re talking to leaders, right? Cause this book is really written for leaders and you’re talking to leaders and we’re telling them, you know, not only your body but the bodies of the people who work for you. They’re part of the equation. And there’s a lot of politics to talking about the body in organizations and it’s difficult on a lot of levels. So I’m curious how you coach people to, um, you know, as leaders of leaders, even how, how to help people, um, and, and how to talk about your peoples’ bodies and the way they show up in the world physically, how to do that in an organizational setting where it might be difficult.
Jeffrey: Yeah, no, I completely agree. It is challenging. And what I typically do is sort of gauge the level of safety, right? Cause it varies. Some people are very open to it and they’re like, Oh I, I read an article that, you know, 80% of communication is nonverbal. So give me some feedback. You know, some people are very open to it right away. Others are kind of like, Whoa, what are you talking about? So it varies. But I would say my rule of thumb is start from the outside in and then from the inside out. And by that I mean, and you’ll see this in the book, if you remember about engagement, I had sort of concentric circles of engagement and sometimes I start from the outside and move in and sometimes I start from the inside and move out depending upon the receptivity of the person that I’m working with.
Jeffrey: But the overall gestalt or context is that people are usually comfortable with discussing the environment. So I’ll say to them, what was the environment that you created in that brainstorming session? Where did you hold it? Well, what time of day? How many people were in the room? How did you set up the space? Did you sit in a circle? Did you have tables in front of you blocking each other or did you take this take, take the tables out and be fit sitting directly across from each other? Did you go outdoors? Did it cross your mind? And maybe take the whole group out outside to sit in a circle. And people would look at me like, what? What are you talking about? I’m not going to do that, you know? But that gets them starting to think about the energy of this space. What is your intention?
Jeffrey: Your intention is to have engagement and commitment and innovation and creativity. Well the energy matters. And so then if they’re like open to that idea, like thinking about that, preparing for the space, preparing for the time. You know like in the old days when we used to take groups off for retreats with, why did we do that? Right? I mean there’s a reason why people go on outdoor kinds of things. So I get them into that conversation and then move them towards the inside. Like, okay, now that you’ve discussed the space or who is in the space, my eight people are in this space. Well how do they all show up? Are they on their phones? Are they distracted? Do you allow them to all bring computers? You sit around a table with eight computers so that everybody’s looking at a screen, you know, cause you can see you go further and further towards the individual and eventually how do you show up? So that’s,
Peter: and do you get into a point where you say to someone, look everything about your, um, where you might say to them, are you angry because your body is reading angry? Like you appear angry? Is that your intention? Like is that what’s really going on? Is that what you want to project? And they might go, what are you talking about now I’m angry. I wasn’t angry before, but now I’m angry. And uh, and, and you know, you might talk to them about kind of what you’re seeing in their bio. You might ask them what they’re feeling in their body. Do you get to that point in the coaching?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Yeah. If you remember, there’s a case study in my book where there was a disconnect between the CEO from the neck up, uh, who was very confident and then he’s like shaking his legs. Uh, and it was crazy, really consistent. Like it would always happen. And I finally, I mean the, the one distinction between the way you articulated it would be, I said I would use the pronoun I like, I would share my experience. I just, I just, at this moment, I just have to let you know that what you’re doing with your legs is actually making me nervous. And so he was like, what, how could I be making you nervous? And I’m like, well, let me explain to you how it’s landing on me. So that, you know, he was still a little bit defensive, but I didn’t say you, I basically said I’m experiencing, but I have had clients cause you, you know, I’ve had leaders who have that dynamic with some of their staff, like Chap, how do I tell the people on my team that they need to pay attention and not look at their phones? You know, how do I tell them without coming across like I’m bossy. So that, that, that issue definitely does come up more and more these days.
Peter: Okay. Give us a sentence or two on the emotional you talked about as emotional intelligence and realness and you know, there’s obviously an echo to our conversation just now and, and uh, you know, the somatic piece and the emotional,
Jeffrey: right? Right. Well, yeah, I mean they all overlap. So in some ways some of these categories can be a bit arbitrary, but it was really just for simplicity, stake for being able to focus on particular domains. But I would say that the key here is that agility of recognizing that the value of expressing being with which you write about having courage to incorporate the emotional component of the experience that people are having, it just creates a more real authentic experience for you as a leader and for your team. And that is sort of antithetical to what we consider to be sort of the traditional Alpha style leader who is more stoic and who sort of keeps the emotions out of it. Um, so developing, again, my theme is you don’t have to become an emotional basket case. You don’t have to become drowned diplomatic. Right? But you have to start to recognize that those things are happening in the background all the time anyway. Right? And being more open, being more human, being more trusting of yourself and of others, which takes courage, which is your theme, right? Is what creates that sense of safety and connection. So it does look like maybe being a little more emotional or being a little more vulnerable and coming to see that as a strength.
Peter: Right? I’ll also often talk about, you know, there’s huge distinction between what you’re willing to feel and what you do about it. Right? Like, I could feel very emotional without necessarily expressing emotion and not repressing it. I’m willing to actually feel it, but the impact I want to have would suggest that I probably shouldn’t share it in that moment. So there’s, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s making and you go, you know, you talk about that in terms of the mental piece, which is the flexibility and the intentionality and like being flexible about what you do with that and being intentional and, and also recognizing the difference between intention and impact.
Jeffrey: Totally. Yeah. I mean, again, it’s about being this, this what I’m calling sort of the new level of agility is being able to recognize the value of moving, how you show up literally minute by minute, day by day. Right? Um, and I, I think it’s an aspiration for all of us. I’m not by any means saying that even as a coach I’m able to do it. Um, but you know, it is sort of the owl. It is a very um, classic outcome of mindfulness. You know, the more, the more present you are, the more awake you are, the more you’re going to be able to be flexible and respond in a lot of different ways. So they all go together.
Peter: And to me I always talk about like, what is, what is, here’s the number one question you should be asking yourself every minute of the day, what is the outcome I want in this situation? And then you choose how to act based on that outcome, which could be totally different than you were acting a minute ago. Exactly right. We’ve been talking with Jeff Hall, his book is Flex the art and science of leadership in a changing world. I love what you write about a Jeff and it’s Super Fun to talk with you about it and uh, we need to spend more time together. So thank you very much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.
Jeffrey: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.