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Becoming Inwardly Sound with John Ott


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CHRIS: Hey, everybody, welcome back to System & Soul. Chris White and Benj Miller coming at you today, and we're really excited because we have a friend as a guest today, and he's John Ott. And John is the operator for Exceptional Leaders. John, welcome to System & Soul, brother.


JOHN: Thank you, Chris. Thank you, Benj. It's great to be here with you guys.


BENJ: I'll set this up. So I’ve known John for over a decade, but it's really within the last kind of year that I've gotten to REALLY know John, maybe six months, and just have quickly, deeply come to love and appreciate him, his being, and what he does, which is leadership, coaching, executive coaching. But in his way of saying it: he makes work suck less by helping leaders not be jerks. And I like that. John, let's back up - How did you get to this place where you're like a young sage, not an old sage, but you are truly providing deep leadership to leaders from all across the country? So how did that come to be? 


JOHN: Well, that's a good question, Benj. You know, what comes up for me is I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and so I didn't like, pick this point and run toward it. I had a mentor who said, “If you can figure out what you're curious about and you follow that path, you'll find yourself among a group of people who are uniquely qualified to do some special things in the world.” And so, I identified three driving curiosities for me. They're around:

  1. Leadership and organizational dynamics,
  2. Personal formation and development, and
  3. Curiosity around communication.

So the three questions for me are:

  1. How is it that groups of people can work together to accomplish amazing things?
    • I'm captivated by that. I'm fascinated by that, which I think really is the study of leadership and group dynamics.
  2. The second part about personal formation, transformation, et cetera, is the question: How do people grow and change? 
    • To me, that's a fascinating phenomenon. 
  3. And then the third around communication is: How does effective communication work? How do you effectively convey ideas and thoughts from one party to the next so that the other person actually grasps what it is that you want them to grasp? 

And so I think at the intersection of those three curiosities has found me working with leaders and working with organizations, specifically leaders and organizations who want to grow and want to be uncommon people and achieve uncommon things in the world.


BENJ: That's so cool. I love how your curiosity even led you to phrase each one of those. And you've got a key question that revolves around each one of those curiosities. I love that. I'm so drawn to the second question: How do people change? But let's hold on to that one for a second. Let's go through them, because you actually have a model driven by some data for some attributes of leadership, so talk us through those.


JOHN: Yeah. So I work with - my partner's name is Vanessa Kylie - and we have a good friend named Tim Spiker. And the three of us have not only been friends but have been colleagues for at least a decade. And one of the fascinations that we share together around leadership, a conviction, I would say, that we share, is that historically, leadership is a notoriously squishy word. That's a technical term. It's squishy. 

To us, what that means is that leadership is like, everybody gets to define what leadership is in "effective: leadership, and there's not a generally commonly shared definition of that. And then, we rise and fall on our definitions.

So when we say, “is somebody a good leader? By whose definition?” And so one of the things that we set out to do was to - it's a little ambitious and may sound a little bit presumptuous - but we set out to create a model that says: “This is everything that it means to be an exceptional leader. It's mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.” This is everything that it means, and there's a lot of detail to it that we can get into another time.

But there are also some simple parts to it. And simply, we have identified the ten things that all leaders do. And I can run through those for you really quick, and I want you to pay close attention to this because there's a key question in here, and that is: “which two of these ten account for three-quarters of a leader's effectiveness?” So we're going to come to that in just a second.


Okay, here's the ten. 

  1. Communicate effectively.
  2. Unleash motivation
  3. Inwardly sound
  4. Cultivate talent
  5. Others focus
  6. Pursue vision
  7. Drive culture
  8.  Think strategically
  9. Marshals resources, and 
  10. Ensure execution. 


Now, you can dive into this some more another time, but I believe everything that a leader does will tuck up underneath those ten key attributes. The question is, “which two of those account for three-quarters of a leader's effectiveness?”

Now, what I need to say about that before we get into it, is that this wasn't something that John and Vanessa and Tim set in front of a whiteboard and said, “what do we think are the two things that drive a leader's effectiveness?” Certainly, there's a conviction there that not everything a leader does is equally important or equally valuable. I think all leaders know that intuitively.

The question is: “What are the few things that we do that truly are the most important?” And Tim and Vanessa actually did a research project based on this. And it's where the data came from, it's where the insight of two of these factors account for three-quarters of your effectiveness as a leader. And it could be a whole podcast discussion for another time about how that research all came together and what were the data sources, et cetera. 

So which two of those account for three-quarters of a leader's effectiveness? And when I asked a leader that, when I put that question in front of leaders, they have a guess. Now, both of you already heard that question. You already know what we discovered in the research project.

But a lot of common incorrect answers are communicated effectively. Like, that's the most common incorrect answer. And I think people are really right on with that because they know that nothing can happen if we're not communicating effectively. Vision is another one that's really common, and it makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Because without vision, people perish. If you don't know where you're going, you're just a person taking a walk.


BENJ: Well, that goes back to your definition of leadership, too. Like Steve Jobs - is he the world's best leader? Is Elon Musk? Well, it depends on what we mean by leadership.


JOHN: That's right! And then another one that's really popular is drive culture and it makes all the sense in the world. I think there's that Peter Drucker quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That's like, well, yeah, of course, culture is super important but that's not the answer. That's not what the data said. 


BENJ: All right, so what did the data say?


CHRIS:  Yeah, tell us.


JOHN: So the two things that account for three-quarters of a leader's effectiveness are being inwardly sound and others focused. Again, this is not what we just decided the answer was. This is what the data actually said. And by the way, that data came from, not from some squishy soft industry. It came from the construction industry.


CHRIS: Oh Interesting! 


JOHN: 20,000 leaders. In the construction industry. 


CHRIS: No kidding. 


JOHN: Yeah! and their followers are the ones who said the most effective leaders are the ones who are inwardly sound and others focused.


CHRIS: I never would have guessed that would have been your target. Oh, my gosh, that blows me away. 


JOHN: Well, you might think if that was the case in a helping profession or in a therapy world,

CHRIS: Sure, yeah, that's a profit. My mind did not go to construction, I can tell you that. That's fascinating. So, inwardly sound. What do you mean by that?


JOHN: Yeah.


CHRIS: So we've got definitions for all dysfunctional messes.


JOHN: I know, right? I've got the jacket for that club, man. So inwardly sound is it starts with being self-aware, with being in an ever-deepening discovery of what it is to be uniquely you coupled with an ever-expanding comprehension of how you affect others. That's what it is to be self-aware. That's the doorway to becoming inwardly sound.

Okay, so it's self-aware, principled, purposeful, holistically healthy, and secure and settled. So you think about the best leaders you've ever followed and what we know is some of the worst leaders we've ever followed were insecure people. They lacked self-awareness. They didn't seem to have a purpose in their life beyond making a few bucks. They weren't principled. You couldn't count on them from a character and integrity standpoint and they weren't holistically healthy. They were just a rolling dumpster fire of a person. Always frazzled, always worn out. So anyway, that's how we talk about being Inwardly Sound.




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BENJ: John, I see that in this session room my indicator is typically tied to, I guess it's the fifth bullet point there about being secure, because when you see somebody in the context of a leadership conversation - we're supposed to be elevating ourselves outside of ourselves, right?

This isn't about me and the role that I sit in and the work I'm doing. This is about the organization. For this conversation we are all shareholders designing the future working issues for the company, and when you see somebody who has a defensive nature, that's my like, oh, okay, I know where you're at, it's okay but that's kind of the gauge. I don't know if that's right or wrong, but that to me is always a signal that person has some work to do.


JOHN: You're exactly right, Benj and your insight is touching into how being Inwardly Sound and Others Focused connects with and correlates to what we do as leaders.

So being Inwardly Sound and Others Focused is about who we are as people and what we do as leaders is all the other stuff of pursuing vision, and driving culture. and thinking strategically, and unleashing motivation. And so part of what I love about the interplay between the Inwardly Sound and Others Focused and System and Soul, for instance, is that the more Inwardly Sound and Others Focused we are, the more effective we will be at things like clarifying our vision and thinking strategically and getting out of our own way and truly collaborating with others for the sake of what we're up to as an organization.

My experiences over time with leaders have suggested to me that when the system isn't working, oftentimes the roots of that or the seeds of why it's not working has less to do with "we're not sure what the right strategy is." It has more to do with what's happening on the inside of the leaders around the table. You can't get to the right answer. 


BENJ: My coach has some saying - I'm going to mess it up - but it's something to be effective: "The majority of the issues in the business are a reflection of the heart of the leader."


JOHN: Man, that's a good word. That's a convicting word.


CHRIS: Yeah.


JOHN: Because I've got a business too, and it has issues. Right?


CHRIS: So if Inwardly Sound is being self-aware and how you affect others, it seems kind of obvious Others Focused, but what's the deeper meaning behind that?


JOHN: Yeah! So let me tell you what it's not and then I'll clarify what it is.

You know we're really particular about words and so Inwardly Sound, if you're going to have a correlative to that, you might think outwardly focused, but outwardly focused might have us start to think about being customer focused or whatever. That's not what we mean by Others Focused.

Of course, customers could be some of the "others" we're focused on, but we mean an others-focused person, meaning we think that we believe that that starts with being humble.

C.S. Lewis, the great thinker, and writer who passed away a number of years ago had a really beautiful way of talking about humility. He said, "it's not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less." So Others Focused is really having your focus on the other people around you. And so the way that we talk about that is being humble first. That's where it starts. It's like the doorway. If you can't have a genuine appreciation for every person you ever encounter, even people you don't like, and even people who don't like you, it's very difficult to be others focused.

So humble, and then attentive, curious, empathic, and loving. Now, that one has a lot of people like tense up and they go, "I don't know about this."

The word that we actually use there is a Greek word that's called “agapon” and Greeks had four words to talk about love. We have one how we talk about our wives and we talk about ice cream with the same word, but the Greeks kinda broke it up. And the word they use, agapon, connotates the idea of unconditional love. And so what we mean by that, the way we define it, is doing what is in the other person's best interest with or without their knowledge, consistently over time unconditionally.

And any time I'm in a room of leaders and they're pushing back on this idea of love, I go, how many of you would like to follow a person of whom that statement is true?


CHRIS: Yeah!


JOHN: Every end of the room, Like man, if I was following somebody like that, holy cow, that would be a difference maker in my life and in our organization.


CHRIS: So, I'm kind of going all over the place in my head here. I've got a really interesting thought here. When I look at the two out of the ten, these two species and their definitions, and I'm asking myself, am I exhibiting some of this behavior? Am I in return with others focused? I think so, but I'm also 56. I'm also like starting a 6th company. I've been around the block, you know. I'm thinking the younger version of me has no clue about Inwardly Sound or Others Focused.

Even though when I think of some of the formal training I've had through Motorola, I think that you kind of have to have some miles under your feet to get to this point, or am I wrong? Can a younger leader really be in tune with these two and understand them and so much so that they live them? 


JOHN: Let me pile onto that question. I'm thinking, all right, if you think about the typical leader, and maybe this is the prototypical leader, not the actual typical leader, but you think about people there, whatever assessment you want to use. Their high D, their quickstart, their red, their enneagram. Seven, eight, you pick your things but they're drivers, right? And it's like, “John, I screw you, I don't have time for this. Give me three bullet points on one of those or any of those other eight because I can go do something."


CHRIS: Exactly!


JOHN: Yes! You've just told me I need to be Inwardly Sound. I don't know what to do with that.

Well, here's a question back for you. When you think about what it is to be Inwardly Sound and Others Focused, just what you know right now, when is somebody fully and finally Inwardly Sound?


CHRIS: Never.


JOHN: Never, so it's a journey. It is a journey. Absolutely! What you've just said there, Chris, because the question I was about to ask you so if you never get there, why try? Why start?


CHRIS: It's not about the end. 


JOHN: Yeah.


CHRIS: It's about the journey of growth.


JOHN: There's no one, think of it, if we sat here and thought about who's the most Inwardly Sound and who's the most Others Focused person I've ever known in my life, is it possible that, that person could be more Inwardly Sound and more Others Focused? 


CHRIS: I mean, I think of my mother the way she raised us eight boys, I think of some good bosses that I've really had who maybe I didn't know. They might be Inwardly Sound or Others Focused, but they trained me, they gave me a level of authority. They got out of my way and I did my thing. 


JOHN: Yeah.


CHRIS: And I used to wonder, gosh! I don't communicate like that much with my boss, but maybe what I was experiencing was a boss who was like, they got their sound on the inside and they're just, "you're doing your thing, Chris. I'm going to make sure I give you the necessary tools, resources, time, and attention, but I'm pretty much going to stay out of your way."


JOHN: Yeah! Even those folks could become a little more Inwardly Sound than Others Focused. All I'm meaning to say there is that this is a journey. It's a lifelong thing. So if it's a journey for everybody, it's a journey for everybody.

And so one of the things I love about the insight that the data showed us is that it's not about what your temperament is, and if we can get into this another time because we, it was Vanessa who inspected all of these different facets. Is it about your temperament? Is it about your education? Is it about your gender, your tenure? Is it about where you live in the country? Is it about all of the things in the data kept saying?

No, it's not about any of those. So the great news is, if you're an eight on the enneagram, if you're a high D, if you're an introvert, if you're an extrovert, if you're a man or a woman, if you're a person of any ethnicity, what the data tells us is your very best chance of being an exceptional leader is being more Inwardly Sound and Others Focused.

In other words, it's you being a better version of you, you don't need to be anybody else. You need to become more Inwardly Sound and Others Focused.


CHRIS: So really, it's not about experience. It's about choice, right? Like, once again.  


JOHN: 100 percent right.


CHRIS: I dial myself back to my early entrepreneurial years and the type of leader I was, but, so that just really crystallized it for me, because it's a journey, and we're all on this journey, different points along the way.

But if our mindset, it's that choice, right, if we make that choice, if we know these two attributes are what make up a great leader, then it doesn't matter what age you are.


JOHN: You're exactly right and, Chris, I'm so glad you use the word choice, in part because of the deep conviction that we have. And part of the reason we named our business Exceptional Leaders is that it's really about common people choosing to be uncommon leaders.


CHRIS: Right!


JOHN: It's choosing, right? And so how do you do that? Well, it is a lifelong journey. And a really, really simple way to start, is to take the terms that we use to define being Inwardly Sound and Others Focused, and in fact, how about this, it's even simpler than that.

You can simply take the word Inwardly Sound, and the word Others Focused, you can write those down, and you - whoever's listening to this right now - you can write down for yourself what you think that means.

And then ask yourself: What's a part of being Inwardly Sound or Others Focused that I think I could be a little bit better at?

What if I could be 5% more Inwardly Sound, 5% more Others Focused?

What's the one thing that if I gave some attention to, it might help those things be more true of me? Anybody can start there.


CHRIS: That's right. 


JOHN: You don't have to hire me as a coach, you don't have to hire anybody as a coach. You don't have to read another book if you don't want to,but just keep asking yourself those questions.

I certainly can do all those things if I want to. But there's nobody stopping you from being more Inwardly Sound and Others Focused.


BENJ: So this sounds like a perfect time to get back to my first curiosity. If we do that exercise, which I want to encourage everybody to do, what is the 5%, you know, by the end of this year, where I could grow my sense of being Inwardly Sound that leads us to personal formation? And John, how do people change?


JOHN: Well, that's a good question Benj. Once again, that's a good question. This is one thing I love about the questions is that the question itself is super simple. And the exploration of it will provide more than a lifetime of discovery.

One quick side note, I'm going to share with you guys a little one-pager that's got the terms that define being Inwardly Sound and Others Focused. And if there's a way that you want to share that.


BENJ: Yeah, share with our listeners.


JOHN: Yeah. And they can go through there and use it almost like a heat map, but that's one of the things that I do, is I look at it from time to time, which one of these jumps out at me, I'm like, needs a little attention.

CHRIS: Right.


JOHN:  Okay, so anyway, back to the question of how people change.

A question I love to ask leaders is, "think about where you were 10 years ago today, think about who you were 10 years ago, today."

And then, "what are the things that have contributed to you being a different person now than you were then?"

And you could take this and do this reflection for yourself, I invite you to do it. It's something we do when we get groups of leaders together. We do this and it's a really fun, meaningful interaction, as people chart out all kinds of stuff, you know, and then we kind of take that and categorize it in terms of, "what are the things that cause people to grow and change?"

And what we've identified is, and I can share this with you today, a little diagram, and people can check this out and reflect on it and see to what extent they think it's true.

Fundamentally, there are few things that contribute to the growth and development of people.

First, is the things that we think about, it's essentially:

What's the mental map of the world that we carry around?

What's our mental map of the nature of reality?

Because everything we do is in response to what we believe is true about the nature of life. If we didn't think it was going to get us the outcomes that we were aiming for, we wouldn't do it. 


CHRIS: Right.


JOHN: And it's based on that mental model of what is true. So with the things that we think about, results, and the actions that we take. And then we tend to hang out with people who think and act the way that we do. And then we spend a lot of time thinking and acting and relating along those lines.

And we tend to do that unless and until a disruption enters our lives. And that disruption can be something positive or negative, it could be that we win the lottery, or that somebody we love dies, or that we got a promotion or a demotion.

Okay, so how do people change the way that we work with the way that we work with ourselves?

The way that we work with others to initiate meaningful change is that we intervene by offering new things to think about, new insights that help to shape that mental model to something that's actually more accurate and reflective of the nature of reality.

The second thing we do is we give people new things to try, new activities to engage in. There's a guy named Andy Stanley, who a lot of folks have heard him teach before. And he says, "to understand why, submit, and apply”. In other words, sometimes we act ourselves into a new way of thinking as opposed to thinking ourselves into a new way of acting.

Another way that we intervene is we have a different group of people that we hang out with. So who are people who are thinking and acting differently, who are we trying to, that's a tremendous way to initiate change. So it's the power of a meaningful relationship.

And then all of that takes time. It takes time, we believe that lasting change happens over time, not overnight, that change happens in biological time, not technological time, that we as people are biological in nature, and it takes us time to change. So, those are the things that we believe contribute to meaningful change.

That probably sounds really conceptual and high level, and not very practical for certain folks. But we can get into more of the granularity of how that actually works. 


BENJ: What is the answer, you know, when you first have posed the question, like when you think back on your life, what has caused you to change?

I just saw my notepad, I wrote down heat, like when you think about that, like the steel gets bored with it, it changes when you heat it up.

And it's really hard life events are the things that have grown me and changed me and forced me to think differently for me to buy things when I didn't know what would work, right? Forced me to have conversations with people that I might not have otherwise. So like, I wrote down heat, and then you kept talking and I'm like, "Oh, my goodness, all of these factors going into the heat," you know?


JOHN: Right. That's right. And they push us outside of our comfort zone. And that's where the magic happens. It's being just outside of our comfort zone.


CHRIS: Yeah, yeah. Muhammad Ali said, "if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough.”


JOHN: That's a good word. That's a good word.


BENJ: So John, for the sake of time... But I literally feel like I can hang out with you.


CHRIS: I know this. 


JOHN: I do too, guys.


CHRIS: There's a comeback. I'm telling you right now, Johnny, you're coming back.


JOHN: Sounds great. Man. I'd love it.





BENJ: Got good news for everybody listening out there. We are at the beginning of a long relationship with Exceptional Leaders, with John and his team.

As it relates to System and Soul, you know, we have when we look at the people component of our model, and we look at what made up there, and you know, the word leadership's right there, we've said since the beginning 80%, how you lead yourself. And nothing resonates with that more than being Inwardly Sound and Others Focused.

So you know, this is going to be a long, long relationship. But if people can't wait to get more, tell them, give us a little bit about you, and what it looks like to work with you or your organization. How do you engage with people?


JOHN: Yeah, so there are really two primary ways that we engage with leaders. It's either as individuals through the form of executive coaching, or it's with teams through the form of cohort-based team development.

There's nothing that we do with leaders in the form of coaching or cohorts that is less than nine months. It's all longer form again, because lasting change happens over time, not overnight.

So you know, executive coaching looks like working with the leader, and no surprise. Of course, we're looking at what is going on in the leader's life, but we're also looking at who the leader is, and all of our approaches, whether it's individual or cohort-based, are rooted in this idea of Integral Development for leaders.

What Integral Development means is that we don't work with just a topic or just an issue. We work with the whole person. Because how we do anything is how we do everything, as people. And so, you know, if there's a particular issue like I was working with a company, and they had an issue that they did in an IDS session where they identified that they are an interrupt-driven organization. And so we get into that, and we start plotting out what are all the issues related to that? And we said, well, what are the root causes of that?

And what it came back to, and I admire these two leaders, for their humility and their self-awareness and their being secure people to allow their team to speak in this way. The team came back around and identified these two key leaders, one of them is the visionary and the other one is a key influencer on the team. They are the ones who seem to be interrupt-driven. And we dig into that, like what's going on there. And it comes down to they are both afraid of disappointing their clients. Well, now all of a sudden, it's like, Well, okay, so what's underneath that.

And that's what we get into in the coaching relationship is what is underneath that, that has you afraid to disappoint your clients, can we see if we can identify that, because if we can get down into that together and start to give you greater freedom, as a leader from whatever that is.

Not only are you going to address the interrupt-driven nature of your organization, that's going to be a tide that floats all boats in every area of your life, I guarantee you that showing up not just at work, but at home. And it's not just showing up in this way showing up in a lot of ways.

So it's becoming more Inwardly Sound and Others Focused for the sake of everything that matters to you, not the least of which is the commercial success of your organization.

When we're doing the work, if we're going to offer you new things to think about, we're going to offer you new people to interact with, we're going to offer you new actions to try and we're going to walk with you to be present with you along the way.


BENJ: So I know you enjoy John and I know that you know leaders that could benefit from listening to this last half-hour conversation. So be a great friend and pass this on to somebody. John's information and the note cards that he was talking about will be in the show notes, and we will look forward to seeing you next week for more System & Soul.


Learn more about Exceptional Leaders here, or connect with John on LinkedIn here.

Download a PDF on this topic here.

Download a PDF on "How We Change" here.


This episode is sponsored by Keystone Search.