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Episode 40

The Two Keys To Effective Leadership

July 3, 2019
59 minutes

Increasingly, neuroscience is providing answers not only for our behaviour but also for much more subtle experiences that one might term “mystical”. So what’s that got to do with coaching?

In this conversation, leadership consultant Mary Beth O’Neill unpacks combining behaviourally specific coaching with mysticism, leading with backbone and heart, and how to ease leaders into more expansive states of awareness.

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Connecting to the Greater Self

As executive coaches, Mary says, we are like horse-whisperers to anxious leaders; our job is to help leaders deal with their challenges by helping them confront them and their teams calmly. To do this, we need to have a good connection to that something that’s greater than us.

Every leader is on a hero’s journey, and we stand for a presence that champions the hero’s journey part of what they need to change. Even if we speak to them in regular corporate language, it’s helpful to be aware of the deep inner processes that they are moving through as we accompany them.

So how do we connect with this deeper self? It requires getting some more distance from the left-brain analytical state. To calm down and get into a more dream-like state, where alpha and theta brain waves arise. This promotes positive, higher frequency state moods such as goodwill, generosity and gratitude. One of the best ways to do this is meditation.

Behaviorally Specific Coaching

When we’re giving a leader feedback that they might find hard to hear, it’s best to give some positive feedback first, then give feedback on their way of being and be as behaviorally specific as possible.

What’s really powerful is to share how we’re experiencing them in the moment and link that to their external world. This anchors you both in the present moment whilst giving them (potentially) some insight into how they show up in the world.

It’s helpful to make the conversation as playful, light and humorous as possible, and to make sure they know you’re always on their side, so that even when you confront them with things they might find difficult to hear they are less likely to be defensive.

Neuroscience has shown that when anxiety goes up, thoughtfulness goes down. So us being calm helps them calm down, and from this space it’s easier for them to be compassionate towards themselves and others. Our job is to hold the perspective for them that they’re way more resilient than they feel.

Leading with Backbone and Heart

Mary believes that they key to effective leadership is to lead with backbone and heart.


  • Being able to clearly articulate what they think, feel and want
  • Being able to maintain that stance in the midst of others’ anxiety
  • Being able to see what the dysfunctional patterns they’re going to have to challenge are


  • Being able to have empathy and understand others’ perspective
  • Being able to let others know they’ve been deeply heard
  • Being willing to be affected by another person’s perspective

There are three questions that can also be seen as steps to facilitate this learning:

  1. How do I face the leadership challenges I tend to avoid?
  2. How do I use my authority humanely?
  3. How do I help my team get to the next level?

Resources mentioned:

The Hero with a thousand faces, Joseph Campbell
Breaking the habit of being yourself, Dr. Joe Dispenza
You are the placebo, Dr. Joe Dispenza
Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, Mary Beth O’Neill
Freebie: The seven red flags of leaders’ avoidance, Mary Beth O’Neill

About Mary

Mary Beth O’Neill

Mary Beth O’Neill is a leadership consultant, executive coach, author, leader of the Executive Coach Training Series, and owner of MBO Consulting. She leads the Executive Coach Training Series for experienced executive coaches, organization consultants, and HR professionals. She has been a graduate faculty member for 23 years in the master’s program in Leadership and Organization Development at the Leadership Institute of Seattle (LIOS).


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