Coaching the Inner Self

When Sam Waterston was preparing to play the role of Abraham Lincoln—one he has played several times—he decided to visit the Library of Congress while he was in Washington, D.C. While there, he had the opportunity to see and physically hold some of Lincoln’s letters. He even held in his hands the contents of what was found in Lincoln’s pockets on the night of his assassination. It was an experience, as Waterston explained to Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, that helped him ground his performance and ultimately connected him to his character.

Connection is essential in acting. Actors have many techniques for finding a link to their character. Often directors help them discover. In his bookA Sense of Direction, Willliam Ball, a noted stage director, talks about the objective. One could call it motivation, but labeling it an objective makes it more tangible. Ball argues that the operative word for actors in finding their objective is “want.” 

What does the character want in life – wealth, a family, peace in the world? Knowing that objective grounds the actor in the reality of his character. Knowing what the character wants enables her to learn to act the role and play specific lines or do a bit of stage business.  Directors, as Ball argues, should not give actors their objectives. Actors need to come to their own conclusions in their reading of the script.

Connection + objective

The link between connection and objective is essential in executive coaching. As with stage directors, their role is to facilitate self-understanding so that individuals come to their moments and levels of self-awareness. 

Some actors create their backstories, either doing it by themselves or, in certain instances, with two lead characters developing it collaboratively. Thoroughly knowing their characters prepares them to play the role with a degree of authenticity, something that resonates with audiences.

Similarly, coaches prepare individuals with tools such as assessments and feedback. Assessments enable the individual to uncover his tendencies and biases that result in behavior. Feedback is a kind of backstory; it observes what you have done and how you connect with others. 

There also is the technique developed by Marshall Goldsmith calls “feed-forward,” which is the process of the coach, together with trusted stakeholders, giving an individual “notes” (an acting term) about his progress through the coaching process. These notes enable the individual to determine his progress in real-time.

Cautionary note

There is a significant difference, of course, between acting and coaching. One is for pretend; the other is for real. And when the two become confused, that is, the actor believes he is his character, or the coachee “acts” his role, the outcome is inauthenticity, the opposite of what’s desired.

Discovering your character

A comparison between the two disciplines is helpful, however. They want an actor strives for is the same as the behavior change a coachee aspires to. Both require work, and here are some questions borrowed from the acting world that can help an individual discover herself more genuinely.

  • What gets you up in the morning?
  • What is holding you back from what you want to achieve?
  • What do you need to STOP doing to achieve your goals?
  • How can you enlist others to support you in your change efforts?
  • How will you measure the success of this coaching process?


These questions are only a starting point. Together with the coach, the individual can come up with other questions that will enable more significant degrees of self-awareness.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart,” wrote a father of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Karl Jung. “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Know yourself, and you know the world—and what you can accomplish in it—better.

First posted on 00.00.2022

Five Ways to Put Intuition to Work

“It’s difficult writing a cookbook with someone who is not an intuitive cook. It’s like making love to a German.” This line is uttered by Julia Child’s French co-author, Simone “Simca” Beck, who is exasperated by Julia’s sense of exactitude. Simca prefers, as she says, “je ne sais quoi.”

The line, which is said in the new HBO series, Julia, is played for comedic effect, but it does get to the heart of why we sometimes struggle. It may because we value methodology over our intuition.

Julia Child herself was a gourmet cook, but it was something she worked hard to master. Like her husband, Paul, she worked in the OSS—the precursor to the CIA. Post-War, Paul transitioned to the State Department and was stationed in Paris, where Julia attended the Cordon Bleu School. Eventually, she wrote a book, Mastering the Art of French CookingThe title implies that cooking is not always precise; there is an art to it. The art emerges from experience and, in time, intuition about how to do it better.

Art of management

There is an art to management as there is to leadership, too. Management is the practice of administration; leadership is the art of inspiration. Good managers practice both. They care for their teams by putting people into positions where they can succeed. Experienced managers have a feel about how things should work, and they share their understanding and intuition with others.

Intuition in business comes from seeing things that others do not. For example, one CEO I worked with had the uncanny knack of looking at a spreadsheet and opportunities where others did not. His insights came from his understanding of business and intuition, which lent him the ability to sift peril from potential as the resolve to act. Was he always right? Of course not. But correct enough to grow his business substantially.

So how do the rest of us maximize our management intuition? 

Learn the game. Know your market and how your business serves the customers. Find out what your customers not just want but desire to use or own. Think a step ahead.

Study “the chessboard.” Know the game you are playing. Too often, we are so close to the action that we cannot see the knights from the bishops or the king from the queen. This perspective means you see your competitors, but you fail to understand their intentions. 

Trust your gut. Pull the trigger. Second-guessing yourself is your prep. Decide and move quickly.

Fail fast. If circumstances change, be ready to act again. Surround yourself with people you can trust. These are the people who can tell you when you are wrong, even when you do not want to listen. Respect them enough to pay attention to what they say.

What it takes to lead

“Management is about arranging and telling,” best-selling author and management theorist Tom Peters wrote. “Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” Managers get their ducks lined up and then encourage them to fly. 

However, neither can happen without an intuitive sense of how organizations work and how people in them respond to stimuli. Intuition and discipline, therefore, go hand in hand.

First posted on 4.18.2022