Amy Jen Su on becoming the leader you want to be: An interview by Bob Morris

For almost two decades, Amy Jen Su has worked with CEOs, executives, and rising stars in organizations to sustain and scale their “highest and best” as they lead organizational change and transformation. A seasoned coach for industries such as biotechnology, private equity, software, technology, and media, Amy understands the excitement and challenges of fast-paced businesses out to make a difference in the world.

Her new book, The Leader You Want to Be: Five Essential Principles to Bringing Out Your Best Self – Every Day, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in October 2019. She is also co-author of the Washington Post best seller and HBR Press book, Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence with Muriel Maignan Wilkins. She is a frequent contributor to and has been interviewed by media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Spirit Magazine, and Newswire.FM.

Amy’s previous business experience includes serving as a management consultant for Booz Allen & Hamilton where she advised senior executives of consumer products and retail companies on new growth strategies. She was also a strategic planner for Taco Bell Corp helping to launch Taco Bell into non-traditional points of distribution. Amy holds a MBA from Harvard Business School and BA in Psychology from Stanford University, graduating from both with honors and distinctions. Her additional certifications and background in Integral coaching, yoga, and the Eastern philosophies provide for a unique high impact, whole-person approach to executive development.

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Before discussing The Leader You Want to Be, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

As I think about the influences on my personal growth, the adage “it takes a village” comes to mind given the teachers who have provided counsel along the way.
The first is New Ventures West where I completed my coaching certification 20 years ago. My teachers, James Flaherty and Sarita Chawla, set me on the path. I learned that in order to coach others, I had to first work on myself. They taught me to “witness” myself without judgment and to “see” the habits and behaviors which were getting in the way of being my best self.

Additional teachers include Barbara Stanny who helped me to craft a life vision back in 2010 which still serves as a guiding compass and Glenn Hartelius who has been an important spiritual guide through many chapters of life. Who I am today and the work that I do — has been influenced by many others.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

As with much in life, we are sometimes unable to understand the purpose of a certain situation until years later. That situation came for me back in 1997. I was in a job where I was a square peg in a round hole – working 100 hours a week, traveling, and suffering from chronic back pain. I was not the person or leader I wanted to be.

It was the winter holiday and my family had convened at my brother’s home. While it was the holiday season, I was predominantly consumed by my own stress.

My parents called my brother and me out into the living room. And, it was there, they shared that my mother had been diagnosed with late stage cancer. While I spoke to my mother frequently by phone (often to vent about work!), she had not shared her news out of fear it would cause me more stress.

In retrospect, I wish that I could say I changed in that moment. I wish I could say I figured it all out. I can’t. However, that moment did create an important crack in life and provided a needed wake-up call.

What seemed like something terrible at the time – turned out to be something I now look back on with gratitude. My mother – the most courageous, resilient person I know – is still with us today. It reset the career course which I am now still on helping others to be who they are meant to be, make the impact they are meant to make, and be their best selves.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

I wish I knew two things when I started full time in the business world. First, I wish I knew that good work does not speak for itself. Second, I wish I knew how critical self-care is to long-term effectiveness and success.

On the first point, I had likened work to being in school with a faulty assumption that as long as I put my head down and worked harder than others, I would always be rewarded. However, as I watched peers in business get promoted around me, I realized that technical capability and being the best “worker-bee” were not enough. I learned the hard way that in addition to your technical or functional expertise – how you show up, how you communicate, and how you bring others along become critical ingredients to career progress.

On the second point, I didn’t realize that self-care needs to be part of the job. In the business world, there will never be enough hours in the day and there will always be other people’s demands, and expectations. In those early jobs, in a desire to “please” others, I too often “pushed through” my body and back pain to get the job done. I have come to realize that self-care is directly tied to sustained high performance. Part of my mission now is to help others discover the conditions and practices which help you to be your most authentic, effective, and constructive self.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I am such a fan of this quotation which describes so well the concept of servant leadership.

Being a servant leader requires important evolutions in your mindset. The progression I hope to help others make includes: “I want to raise my game” TO “I raise my game as I raise the game of others” TO “Together, we rise”.

Servant leaders ultimately are called to and can see the north star; value and capitalize on the strengths of all, and as the quotation here says helps to create an environment and culture such that “the people will remark we have done it ourselves.”

The big paradox in servant leadership is that it first takes building a healthy and high-functioning ego to be able to transcend the ego for a greater good. Servant leaders are often those who have reached the pinnacles of conventional success and at some point in the journey feel called to channel their talents, skills, and networks toward serving a higher purpose.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

I agree with the part of Toffler’s quotation regarding the importance of learning, unlearning, and relearning especially as you consider the rate of disruption and change across many industries today.

Too often, I have seen professionals let the discomfort of “imposter’s syndrome” get in the way. Rather than assume you should have all the answers, recognize that in every job, there is inherently some part where you are ready to “lead” and some part which requires that you have to “learn”. We are all always sitting on what I call the “lead-learn” curve.

On the lead side of the equation, remember you are not starting at zero. Instead, be intentional about. What are the skills, knowledge, and expertise you have today and can bring to the table?

On the learn side of the equation, be intentional and have a plan: what additional knowledge of the business or industry do you need now? What skills would help you to be more effective? One of my favorite terms – the “beginner’s mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. It reminds us to hold an open attitude and stance even when you are at a mastery level.

Now please shift your attention to The Leader You Want to Be. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Back in 2017, Harvard Business Review and I partnered to deliver an “HBR Facebook Live” entitled, How to Manage the Workload of Being a Leader. To my surprise, we reached over 175,000 viewers that day. The questions and comments we received matched my own experience out in the trenches every day.

I felt called to synthesize everything I had learned over the last two decades of coaching professionals on what it takes to scale and sustain a best self especially in the context of an outer game that is changing, moving or getting more complex.
I am the first to admit I don’t have all the answers and honestly, this book is as much about my own daily struggle as a leader trying to make a difference while holding it together. I wanted to put to words for myself and for others – a systematic way of redefining and reinventing oneself as needed so that you can take on more responsibility with greater ease and flow.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

One of the head-snapping revelations for me was writing about the “four pitfalls of doing”. What I realized was that in response to some sort of challenge, anxiety, or uncertainty, it is natural to turn to our go-to forms of relief.

All coping mechanisms do in fact offer some sort of short-term benefit and are meant to protect or make us feel better. Inevitably, they reach their limits, and if relied on too long, lead us into a deeper hole.

The four pitfalls I hope that readers become aware of are:

o Just do more: the faulty assumption being – if I do and take on more – somehow, I’ll be okay

o Just do it now: the faulty assumption being – if I let adrenaline run the show and handle that fire drill right now, the list of never-ending to dos will come to an end

o Just do it myself: the faulty assumption being that in the face of uncertainty or need for control, the fact that I can do something better or faster or others means I should do it myself

o Just do it later: the faulty assumption being that I can keep putting off my own life, joy, and health and will eventually get to it later

My hope is that the book gives readers a way to transform each pitfall into a high-performance mindset:

o Just do more IF it adds value versus being focused on volume

o Just do it now IF you assess that this task does require a sense of urgency and recognize the distinction between that and an emergency

o Just do it myself IF in fact it is your highest and best use and it gives you energy and juice

o Just do it later IF it’s something where saying no or putting it on the back burner opens space and time for what it is most important

You focus on leadership in two modes or states, what you call A and B. What are the defining characteristics of A?

The defining characteristics of Leader A mode include the part of ourselves which is able to hold a broader perspective, doesn’t resist the moment and can ride the wave with more ease, effectiveness, and resilience.

When we are able to hold this broader perspective and lens, you are more able to operate from a place that feels authentic and alive. When we are in Leader A mode – we are more able to face reality, face our feelings with a greater forgiveness and compassion, and still take action from a constructive, productive, and purposeful place within ourselves.

To reduce the percentage of time and energy you feel consumed in Leader B mode, I suggest considering three important areas.

The first is self-awareness. Intentionally spend two weeks observing yourself in action and note those times when you were particularly effective and at your best in Leader A mode and notice what mindset, choices, and behaviors you demonstrated? Then, notice in what situations and under what conditions you were in Leader B mode. Coming to see and understand ourselves is the first step.

The second step is to make self-care a priority. We all know it is far easier to show up as our best selves after a good night’s sleep, eating well, or getting exercise. Therefore, before important presentations or meetings, I always advise my clients to limit their caffeine, sugar, or alcohol. Get in a run when your stress feels high. A key part of being in Leader A mode is knowing which situations demand you to be present and effective and then, making the best choices to meet those moments head on.

Finally, bring more self-compassion. Research time and again shows that highly ambitious, successful people tend to be more self-critical, and place greater demands on themselves. They bear the weight of accountability more strongly than others. Therefore, rather than asking yourself: did I do this right or wrong? Ask yourself: have I done this as authentically, effectively, and constructively as I can? What would a friend say to me right now?

In my reviews of your brilliant book for Amazon US, UK, and Canada, I suggest that leaders in mode A seem to be in what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi [pronounced “Mee-high cheek-sent-mee-high”] characterizes as “flow.” That is, a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Do you agree? Please explain.

I am so grateful for this connection you have made to the state of flow as that is to me the pinnacle of being in touch with and connected to the essence within ourselves – and when we are in Leader A mode.

One of the concepts I had in mind while writing the book was wu-wei which comes from the ancient Chinese belief system Taoism and can be translated as “actionless action.” This effortless action is similar to what you have described as flow or what clients have often shared as feeling “in the zone”.

Being in flow or wu-wei is ultimately about living in a state of alignment or harmony, with others as well as within ourselves, and from a leadership standpoint it is one of the most rewarding outcomes of the long-term practice of leading from a Leader A mindset.

When we are not resisting the moment – no matter how challenging it is – but rather we meet the moment with openness, humility, and a willingness to see and be with what is – then effort become more effortless, the value you provide is invaluable, and it’s easier to enjoy a greater sense of fulfillment and ease.

You suggest five principles to serve as the foundation of leadership development. Can you share more about each one?

The five principles which serve as a foundation for leadership were intentionally designed to address the whole person, the outer and inner world of a leader. My hope is that the five principles help readers to not only increase their performance but also their own personal satisfaction in work and in life.

They are:

o The power of purpose: with the key principle being to reset your compass. It is easy, in the face of heavy workloads and other people’s demands, to feel like you’ve been ejected from the driver’s seat of life. Being connected to your purpose puts you squarely back in that driver’s seat – giving a greater sense of control, lifting you out of the day-to-day grind, and providing a way for sorting your yes’ and no’s more strategically

o The power of process: with the key principle being to reboot your personal operating system. To really operationalize your purpose, you have to keep updated how you manage your calendar, your time, and your energy

o The power of process: with the key principle of raising your game by raising the game of others. The reality is no matter how effective or productive you are, you will eventually be capped by your own capacity. Unfortunately, as much as we might like to, we can’t clone ourselves

o The power of presence: with the key principle of don’t scratch that itch. It’s critical as a leader that you are able to stay present and self-regulate even in the face of tremendous pressure, discomfort, or challenge especially when you are responsible for decisions that impact many others

o The power of peace: with the key principle of loosen the grip. When we are not at peace – we risk actions stemming out of striving, agitation or reaction. We are more focused on proving ourselves, proving we are right, or feeling the pressure to show we have all the answers. This stance shuts down our capacity to learn, to listen, or to be fully present with others

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Leader You Want to Be will be most valuable to first-time supervisors? Please explain.

First time managers need to recognize that the shift from being an individual contributor to manager is one of the hardest career passages and turns to make.

Managers deal with more stress at work as the role fundamentally changes the way one needs to distribute their time, focus and energy. As a first time manager, you will now have more people interactions and dynamics to deal with, more increased accountabilities, and more time pressures balancing the dual role of being both a player (of your own work) and coach (to other people’s work).

It is a time to especially be intentional and mindful towards how you define the next best version of your best self in a new and expanded role.

C-level executives? Please explain.

For C-level executives, one of the book’s underlying themes is we must understand the impact and effect we have on others. As a C-Suite executive, you are one of the key people out in front, one of the key leaders everyone sees. You are part of an executive team which helps to sets the vision and goals and also part of the group who sets the tone and the culture.

Much like a pebble dropped into a lake, your leadership ripples out in ever-widening circles to touch team members, divisions, and your organizations. The question I hope that executive leaders ask themselves as a result of reading the book is: what do you want that ripple effect to be? What is the difference I want to make? The answer to that is very different depending on if you are in Leader A versus Leader B mode.


Amy cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.



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