Iceberg Model for Leaders

Want to increase your impact as a leader? Go below the waterline.

As a leader, you’re well aware that challenges at work (and in life) are a given. From tight deadlines and budget demands to HR issues, it can feel like the minute one issue is solved, another is there to take its place.

Instead of emphasizing how to avoid disagreeable situations, what matters more is how you respond to life’s changes and challenges.

In leadership and in life, we all face challenging situations.

What about you? Can you recall a time recently when you faced a distressing situation? Maybe:

  • You took offense to something that a colleague said or did.
  • A disagreement at work escalated into an all-out conflict.
  • At a key meeting, you felt ignored when you shared your insights.

When we encounter a challenge, many of us respond with the familiar fight, flight, or freeze approach (or a combination of all three!). After the dust settles, we may find ourselves saying things like:

  • I can’t believe I said that. What was I thinking?!
  • I know I should have responded more effectively, but I just had to get out of there fast.
  • I wish I could have done something differently, but I just shut down.

At the height of the challenging circumstance, you’ll likely experience some unpleasant physical symptoms, such as:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Facial flushing; an influx of warmth
  • Muscle tightening and/or clenched jaw, fists
  • A knot or heaviness in your stomach
  • Breathing troubles – hyperventilation, rapid breathing

Impactful leaders know this simple secret.

Consider this question posed in a 2014 McKinsey&Company article, Lead at your best:

“Instead of that “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, what if you could pause, reflect, and then manage—creatively and effectively—what you’re experiencing?”

The most influential leaders worldwide know that you can choose to respond more effectively. As you deepen your capacity to better manage your reactions, you’ll also inspire others to follow your lead.Iceberg Model for Leaders

You might be thinking, “That sounds great – but where do I start?” The answer is more straightforward than you think. It all starts with a simple metaphor about an iceberg…

We humans share an interesting similarity with icebergs. Moving along the open waters, at first glance it may seem that what you see is what you get – just a towering piece of ice broken off from a glacier.

The waterline only represents the tip of the iceberg (literally).

It’s when we take a moment to consider what’s going on below the waterline that we increase our ability to understand our behaviors.

In ourselves and in others, we tend to observe surface behaviors and actions. That approach isn’t particularly effective. Why? Because 90% of what’s really happening – what drives human behavior – is happening below the waterline.

With this analogy in mind, think about a time when you responded in a less than desirable way. Let’s explore what’s happening beneath the surface.

McKinsey authors Barsh and Lavoie present some thought-provoking questions that I’ve summarized below, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire article to deepen your perspective even more.

To be an impactful leader, go below the waterline.

1) Start at the “tip of the iceberg.” How are you behaving? What are you saying? Think about the impact your words and actions had in that moment…and beyond.Effective leadership

2) Dare to descend below the waterline. Be honest. What thoughts and feelings did you have, but kept to yourself? Were you influenced less than productive (but very common) desires to be liked, seek approval, or conform in some way?

3) Make a bold move by navigating deep waters. Ask how you can you bring your values into this situation. Meaning, what matters to you? What are your beliefs related to this event – and about yourself and others? Might these have shaped your response?

4) If you’re ready, dive even deeper. What are your underlying needs? What might be at risk for you in this situation? Can you define what your deepest desires are?

How often have you heard cliché statements such as “like attracts like” or “what you fear, you create”? Actually, there is truth to both statements.

Transform unproductive behaviors while deepening your leadership capacity

Say for instance that it’s important to you to be seen as calm and competent, and you often worry about “coming undone”. At work, a major project deadline is missed. Before you know it, you’ve just unleashed some harsh comments to a team lead in the heat of the moment. Your greatest fear just happened.

Enter: the iceberg metaphor. Using this technique can help you transform unproductive behaviors into ones that are better aligned with your core values and that produce more desirable outcomes. There’s a bonus, too: you may find that you experience a deeper understanding of yourself – and of those you lead.

Over the next coming months, I’ll be taking a close look at this topic, sharing tips and tools that will inspire you to think differently. So, stay tuned!

Take action today: try this quick leadership tip.

I’d like to leave you with a simple tool that you can start using right away: Before your next meeting officially begins, check in with everyone present. Have each person share a tidbit about what might be happening “below the waterline,” starting with yourself.

Doing this encourages more open, honest conversation while deepening everyone’s understanding of how their colleagues may be feeling. As you make this a habit, you’ll notice that meetings become more productive. Now go on, try it today!

If you’d like a quick burst of leadership inspiration delivered fresh to your inbox each week, be sure to sign up for my weekly Bolder Moves Messages here.

Colleen Slaughter Raue, Managing Partner of Authentic Leadership International

Colleen is a transformational leadership coach who guides international leaders as they attain the clarity, courage and self-confidence necessary to realize higher levels of productivity and fulfillment in both their personal and professional lives.

Her purpose is to facilitate her clients’ transformation from limiting beliefs and self-doubts into a deeper, more powerful knowingness of how much they – and what they envision for themselves – truly matter.

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