Mastering Leadership Transcends Skill Alone

Hone your inner game and outer game.

By Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

Mastery in anything, from sports to the arts to leadership, requires well-practiced capability mediated by a highly mature interiority—a well-honed Outer Game arising on a highly evolved Inner Game. Both are essential. Masterful leadership is Conscious Competence.

We are always playing two games—an outer and inner game. The outer game of leadership consists of using all of our knowledge and experience, as well as our technical, managerial, and leadership competence, to accomplish results. The all-consuming outer game is obviously where most leaders spend most of their time, since the day-to-day requirements of the outer game are fierce and the learning curve is steep. Developing well-honed capability to think and act effectively, skillfully, and competently in different situations is a baseline requirement for effectiveness. We ignore honing this outer game at our peril.

Most efforts to develop mastery in leadership focus on the outer game of competence with little focus on the inner game of consciousness. Yet what we hold in our consciousness tends to manifest, meaning that the inner game runs the outer game. Until we take a more balanced approach—one that evolves both the inner and outer game (consciousness and competence) simultaneously—we will falter in developing leaders at the accelerated pace required.

How mature is your inner game for the stage you are playing on, or aspire to play on? Is it mature enough to handle the pace and complexity of leading your organization through the volatile whitewater

that most managers and leaders are now navigating?

In his book, Playing to Win, Larry Wilson distinguished between two games. Are you stuck in a Play-Not-To-Lose game? In this game, we strive to win by trying hard not to fail. This is essentially a defensive game—the way we play when our inner game is functioning from a Reactive Mindset. When we live and lead from a Play-To-Win game, we play full-out, as if we have nothing to gain or lose. We play this way when our inner game matures to what we call a Creative Mindset.

Competence is necessary to be effective in senior roles; however, competence alone is insufficient. Great leadership transcends skill, capability, and competence. It includes integrity, honesty, passion, vision, risk-taking, compassion, courage, authenticity, collaboration, self-awareness, selflessness, endurance, humility, intuition, and wisdom. These are qualities of the inner game. Great leadership is connected with the deepest parts of ourselves. It has more to do with character, courage, and conviction than it does with specific skills or competencies. Mastery of leadership requires that we work at these depths and mature the inner game of consciousness.


Become Effective in Three Areas

Today leaders need to be effective in three areas:

  1. Leadership Process. This is the science of leadership and the domain of management. Leaders are responsible for the allocation and effective use of resources: people, time, and money. To effectively utilize resources, leaders deploy management systems that include business cadence, strategy, direction, execution, process, metrics, and decision making. Without effective leadership process in place, the business is not organized for success.
  2. Leadership Competencies. These are the competencies required for a leader to be successful in his or her role. We describe this as the outside game of leadership. Certain core competencies strongly correlate with effective leadership.
  3. Leadership Consciousness. This inside game includes a leader’s interior operating system—what drives the leader, how they define themselves, what is important to them, and what they believe.

In high-pressure leadership roles, we often assume that the outer game is the only game that matters; however, what is happening beneath the surface is mediating and organizing the effectiveness of the outer game.

The inner game consists of: our meaning-making system—what we use to make sense of the world; our decision-making system—how we analyze, decide, and act; our values and spiritual beliefs; our level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence; the mental models that we use to understand reality, think, act, and create; and the internal beliefs and assumptions making up our personal identity—the system that we use to know who we are, and to define and deploy ourselves into circumstances. Together, these elements make up the complex internal system by which we relate to the world.

The better the outer game and the more mature the inner game, the more effective we are. Mastery is a well-honed outer game arising on a very mature inner game.

The dominant approach to leadership development targets a competency-based outer game. We measure competencies, provide feedback, and create action plans. While this approach is helpful, it seldom produces breakthroughs since it ignores the inner game. Moreover, while we may need help with learning a new competency, we often need more help with our inner game. We often get stuck at the level of the inner game. When inner game is letting them down, because the inner game goes on beneath the surface, it is usually the last place they look for breakthroughs.

A breakthrough in the inner game can result in sudden shifts in the effectiveness of the outer game, which, in turn, can result in big performance gains. We incur huge opportunity costs when we ignore the inner game or treat it as irrelevant. Individual and collective leadership effectiveness emerge when we explore how our inner game is being played.

Again, what we hold in our consciousness tends to manifest, individually and collectively. The outer world shapes itself to the inner world. Consciousness creates reality. Everything emerging in our enterprise has its source first in thought.


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Excerpted from Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results, by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams (Wiley, 2015)


Bob Anderson is Chairman and Chief Development Officer and Bill Adams is CEO of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group. They are coauthors of Mastering Leadership (Wiley). Visit or

Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

Author Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

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