The ‘inner game’ of leadership

Skills are important but personal qualities matter more

In their book, “Mastering Leadership,” Robert Anderson and William Adams contrast the “outer game” of leadership, including technical and managerial competence, with an “inner game” that is more about internal traits and values. They observe, “Great leadership is connected with the deepest parts of ourselves. It has more to do with character, courage and conviction than it does with specific skills or competencies.” 

In a similar vein, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their book, “The Leadership Challenge,” observe that, “Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart.” They summarize research that says: “For the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is honest, competent, inspiring and forward-looking.” 

Drawing upon these and other sources, as well as experience, I put together a list of leadership inner-game qualities. While there are certainly more (and I welcome reader suggestions!) this is my list:

 • Passion and positive energy

 • Self-management, personal discipline and setting high personal expectations

 • Authenticity, integrity and honesty

 • Purpose and vision

 • Courage and risk-taking

 • Self-awareness (including strengths and weaknesses)

 • Selflessness and humility

 • Emotional intelligence and mindfuness

 • Flexibility and adaptability

 • Competence and wisdom 

 • Intuition and creativity

 • Self-confidence

 • Inspiring

 • Forward-looking

 • Decisiveness

 • Compassion

Let’s face it, reading this list is pretty daunting. Few of us can ever fully live up to it all, so this can seem discouraging. However, I like to think of weaknesses as a growth opportunity.

I did some analysis of my own inner-game capacity, including seeking feedback from colleagues and completing various leadership assessment tools. I am strong in positive energy and courage, but could use more humility and emotional intelligence. So that gives me some areas to develop. 

While all the items on the list are important, three are most critical. First is positive energy — I don’t think you can ever have enough! Employee moods may track those of the leader, impacting productivity and results. When I am having a bad day, I try to hide in my office to avoid infecting others with negativity.

Second is authenticity. When leaders don’t communicate honestly, this undermines staff commitment and job performance. Research shows that only 40 percent of employees have a high level of trust in their management and organization. Saying one thing and doing another, or not standing by stated values “when the rubber hits the road” are quick ways to undermine trust.

Third is self-awareness, understanding your own motivations and behaviors and how they impact others. This is foundational for high-level leadership. For example, recalling the prior example of losing trust, few, if any, leaders intend to do that, but a lack of awareness of how your specific actions can negatively affect the team can lead to that unfortunate result. With more self-awareness, leaders can avoid such serious pitfalls.

Developing as a leader is about continuous personal growth, including the courage to change. Leaders (and everyone, for that matter) need to be lifelong learners embracing continuous self-improvement. Lauren Keating, Peter Heslin and Susan Ashford write in the Harvard Business Review that “leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.” Asking yourself during your workday, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to maintain focus on your personal development. 

Growing the inner game also requires an openness to seeking feedback from others, including peers, bosses and those you supervise. This can seem a bit daunting at first, but a willingness to learn what others see has the added benefit of strengthening relationships with your colleagues. Reflecting on your experiences, including what might work better in the future, is essential to growing your leadership inner game.

For further thought: Reflect upon your work and identify some strengths from the inner-game qualities list as well as a couple of areas that you could develop more. Think about how you can apply your strengths to building up the areas needing more development. Validate your list by asking some trusted colleagues for input. Identify and implement some specific strategies to strengthen your personal leadership effectiveness and continue growing as a leader.  

Douglass P. Teschner, founder of Growing Leadership LLC, Pike, works with nonprofits, governments and businesses on improving performance, leadership and building sustainable cultures. He can be reached at

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice