The Key to Extraordinary Leadership (and Coaching)

Robert Ellis
Mar 2 · 6 min read

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.

— Joseph Campbell

Before Covid, and before I fled the City for the hills a couple of hours south of San Francisco, I would often meet my clients at La Boulangerie, a café about a ten-minute walk from my apartment in Noe Valley. I liked meeting clients in cafés because people usually talk about personal things over coffee. I wanted them to feel comfortable talking to me about personal things — like their most authentic dreams. And I had an easy way to evoke their deepest longing.

I always brought a black Flair pen and a few pristine three-by-five cards tucked into my jacket pocket or backpack. At some point in the conversation, I’d retrieve them and spread them on the table. I’d pick up a card and turn it sideways, so we could both see as I wrote.

“Look,” I’d say, “let’s keep this as simple as possible. All you’re trying to do is get from A to B.”

B is what you want to create. A is where you are now.

No one wants to stay at A. If you do, ‘stay at A’ is your B. B can be anything: clarification of your essence or purpose; a change in feeling, mindset, or behavior; the solution to a problem; the creation of a billion-dollar business. To get to B, you first have to know what B is. That requires clarity. The first question to ask, then, is, What’s your B?

If your B is to become an extraordinary coach or an extraordinary leader, you’ll need to clarify what it means to be a coach or a leader and what it means to be extraordinary.

The second thing you need to know is, What is A?

That requires honesty. You have to tell the truth about where you are. What kind of coach or leader are you now?

In my experience, once you start working on B, B changes, partly because you don’t really know what you want and partly because you learn something you didn’t know when you began the journey toward B.

If you’re doing something you already know how to do — if you’re recreating something you already know how to achieve, albeit in a different form and especially if your B is simple and shorter-term, doesn’t rely on the help of others or on extensive resources — there’s a good probability of getting from A to B in much the way you imagine. And when you get there, B will be close to the way you imagined it.

If you know where B is — it’s predictable and replicable — and you know where A is, you’re really just looking for the shortest distance between two points. It’s a project management challenge.

You’re on a path. That’s called management.

If you’re on a path, you need a pathfinder — a project manager.

Everything is familiar. It’s like being on a tour. “On the right is what I already know how to do, and on the left are some things I’ve already done, with a different coat of paint.” Yes, it’s a journey, but it’s not a very interesting one. If you’re a leader, and you’re trying to create something path-like, I encourage you to delegate it to a manager. You probably have more important things to do.

If you want to be an extraordinary coach or an extraordinary leader, you don’t want to be on a tour. You don’t want to be a tourist or even a tour guide. You want to be on an adventure. You want to be an adventurer.

When you’re on an adventure, you don’t actually want to get to B. You aim for B, but you’re really looking, not for the life you have planned, but for the one that’s waiting for you. Since you don’t really want to get to B, it’s not a goal. It’s an aim. You aim for B because you need direction. But what you really want is to get to something better than you can imagine when you set out from A. Let’s call that B-prime.

Since you can’t imagine it, you don’t really know where B-prime is. You may not even know where A is. There is no path.

B-prime is something you’ve never done before, something with the potential to have a bigger impact than B — something so aspirational that you recognize it will require a personal—or organizational—transformation for you to succeed.

You have to go on a quest.

To be on a quest, you need to know how to journey. You need to embrace uncertainty. When things are certain, there are few possibilities. When things are uncertain, the situation is full of possibilities. Anything can happen. You need to learn how to navigate the unknown, to befriend uncertainty.

That’s called leadership. Coaching is also leading.

If you know where you’re going, you’re a tour guide. A leader is someone who guides people through the unknown to something better than they can imagine.

The only way to create B-prime is to risk creating something less than what you want, maybe even much less. Let’s call that B-sub-1 or simply B-sub.

Some people call that failure. I call it a lesson.

There is no failure (at least, not in the sense of a lack of success; you got some result, so you succeeded at creating something). The only way to fail is to fail to learn the lesson. The faster you learn, the faster you can create B-prime.

There’s another possibility: drift. If you are not creating — even if only a B you already know how to create; if you are not on an adventure, learning, and growing — you’re adrift. You don’t want to drift.

Everyone is always on a path somewhere in their life (or business) and on a quest somewhere in their life (or business). Your role as a coach is to help your clients create B-prime, something that’s better than they can imagine as they begin their journey with you. Your role as a leader is to help your organization create B-prime.

After I’ve explained this, they almost always ask to keep the index card.

I’m an executive coach, founder of Futurosity, and have created a community for extraordinary coaches, Coaching From Essence. I also train coaches to do more powerful work, love what they do, and make more money so they can support their work in the world. The next intensive happens March 19 thru 21, 2021. Because I want coaching training to be available to new coaches and those that work with non-profits, tuition is pay-what-you-can. More details here.

Robert Ellis

Written by

Make a list of everything you really want but think is impossible. I coach leaders. I coach coaches who coach leaders.

Better Than You Can Imagine

A handbook for creators and co-creators—leaders, coaches, and catalysts.

Robert Ellis

Written by

Make a list of everything you really want but think is impossible. I coach leaders. I coach coaches who coach leaders.

Better Than You Can Imagine

A handbook for creators and co-creators—leaders, coaches, and catalysts.

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