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From “Mommy” To “Drill Sergeant” And Back Again: Why Leaders Must Be Flexible


by Christine Comaford, author of “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together

Leaders to know two things about their communication with employees:

One, you absolutely must be able to influence people. Barking commands and strong-arming don’t get results. What does get results is communicating with employees in a way that provides the three things all humans crave: safety, belonging, and mattering. This is how you build rapport, the ultimate precondition for influence.

Two, if you want to achieve any of the above, you can’t keep pulling from the same old tired bag of tricks. To influence, you must be flexible!

Most of us are highly predictable. We react in predictable ways, we have predictable patterns of behavior, we have predictable speech patterns. No wonder it’s so easy for people to peg us… and no wonder we so often fail to truly influence others.

Leaders often inadvertently push people into what I call “the Critter State” — their primitive fight-flight-freeze survival mode. When we’re stuck in this state, we can’t think clearly. We can’t innovate. We can’t collaborate. We can’t do much of anything except revert to behaviors that make us feel “safe” in the moment.

Only when we can make employees feel that they’re safe, that they belong, and that they matter — a condition I call “the Smart State”—will they be able to see a brighter future and feel driven to create it.

Because people are deeply complex and there are so darn many of them, no single way of communication style is going to get the results you want in every situation. That’s why I’m such a big fan of behavioral stances, which I learned about from the Hoffman Institute and various teachers including Milton Erickson, Tony Robbins, Jerry Jampolsky, Bryan Franklin, and many more.

The following behavioral stances can be mixed and matched for maximum influence, maximum rapport, and maximum outcome. When we use different stances in different scenarios, we get different results.

Here are six stances:

• Mommy: Supports the recipient fully, sees and acknowledges how great they are. As a result, the recipient feels huge.

• Anthropologist: Behaves with major curiosity and high inquiry. This stance asks lots of questions and is continuously curious, at times even fascinated.

• Drill Sergeant: Hard core, tell-it-like-it-is, no sugarcoating. This stance is supremely direct, but not mean.

• Professor: Cool, high advocacy, factual, “this is how it is,” “when you do X, you get Y.”

• Best Buddy: Highly empathetic: “I’ve been there; I know how hard it is.”

• Guru: The wise knowledgeable one, often used by consultants, has a touch of Professor but is less linear and more about overview. It has a touch of warmth and heart. This stance is the expert with a heart and high enrollment.

You may recognize your go-to stance in the list above. Yet to use the stances to their full advantage, you need to be able to combine them.

Let’s say a team member has performed well in the past yet has repeatedly struggled for a prolonged period of time. You might use the following approach:

Leader: “Pierre, you are a huge asset to this organization; your performance has been exceptional in the past. I know how great you are [Mommy]. But we’ve had this conversation twice already and nothing has changed. We need you to start delivering now [Drill Sergeant]. Hey, I’ve been where you are…I know how hard it is when you’re having the personal life changes that you are [Best Buddy]. Please help me to help you bring the awesome guy I know you are back [Mommy].”

Leader: “Susan, I’m curious as to why we aren’t getting the results we had wanted in our recent marketing campaign. What do you think got in the way of our results? What could we have improved [Anthropologist]?”

Based on Susan’s response, you could either use Professor with a prescriptive solution — if she is in her Critter State — or, if she’s in her Smart State, Guru could be used to work together on a solution.

The key is that two stances build connection and safety (Mommy and Best Buddy), two stances spur action (Drill Sergeant and Professor), and two stances help people solve their own problem (Anthropologist and Guru).

While Mommy and Best Buddy do create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering, they only set the stage. They need to be combined with one or more of the others to help employees know what to do next. It’s knowing which stance is appropriate when, and being able to leap nimbly from one to another, that makes leaders successful.

Most people take on only one or two stances. That’s very limiting. Mastering all of these stances—especially those you find uncomfortable at first — will dramatically improve your ability to influence others.


Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of “Rules for Renegades : How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality“. Her latest book,”SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together“, will be released in June 2013. She is best known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable revenue, deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable growth.




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