Leader, How Wide is Your Window of Tolerance?

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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I have been doing a number of 360-degree feedback-type assessments and follow-up coaching with leaders over the last year, and I have learned several things that have been surprising. Let me share a couple of these surprises with you.

For context, in these assessments, the leaders’ subordinates, peers, and superiors evaluate the leader across a wide range of questions focused on evaluating their vertical development and mindsets, generally on a scale of 1-5.

First Surprise

The first thing that has surprised me is that the difference in scoring between the bad leaders and good leaders isn’t huge. Bad leaders are not getting 1’s and 2’s (for the most part). They are getting 3’s and 4’s. Good leaders are getting 4’s and 5’s.

Often, when I look at these numbers, they don’t look like a big difference, but the feeling of working with a “3.5” leader compared to a “4.5” leader is like living in a frigid area compared to living in a nice temperate area. It is a very different experience for those in that leader’s sphere of influence.

Second Surprise

Bad leaders are not bad the majority of their working time. Most of the bad leaders are good and nice people.

The reason they create a frosty experience for those in their sphere of influence is because, at times, maybe even 5% of their working time, they get thrown outside of their window of tolerance. When they are there, they become self-protective and resistant and they make short-sighted decisions that negatively impact those around them.

bad leader

Comparing these bad leaders to good leaders, it is very obvious that the good leaders have a much wider window of tolerance. This allows them to:

  • Not be scared of failure and be willing to innovate
  • Be open to ideas and admit when they are wrong
  • Be ok with having short-term problems in the pursuit of long-term goals
  • Be more focused on elevating others as opposed to protecting their time and/or image
  • Be balanced, centered, and present, even when stress, pressure, uncertainty, and/or complexity is high

Moral of the Story

The difference between bad and good leaders is not a difference in their knowledge, skills, and competencies.

The difference between bad and good leaders is actually a difference in the quality of their neurological and stress-response system. Compared to bad leaders, good leaders have:

  • A stronger neurological and stress-response system, which in turn…
  • Allows them to have a wider window of tolerance, which in turn…
  • Allows them to more effectively navigate challenging situations in a healthy way as opposed to an unhealthy, self-protective and resistant way

nice leader

What Do We Do About This?

If we can understand that the difference between good and bad leaders is foundationally rooted in the leaders’ window of tolerance, this means that leaders’ window of tolerance should be a primary focus of development programs.

How do we expand leaders’ window of tolerance? This requires vertical development efforts. Such efforts are focused on elevating leaders’ ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways.

This differs from traditional development efforts, which largely focus on horizontal development. Such efforts are focused on enhancing the knowledge, skills, and competencies of leaders.

If you want to learn more about vertical development, you can download my Vertical Development White Paper.

And, if you would like me to help you vertically develop your leaders, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

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