Provision #686: Nerve Matters

Laser Provision

Last week I wrote about the importance of being nice for effective leadership. Too many leaders skip over that part of the leadership task. As a result they get themselves in trouble as trust erodes and relationships deteriorate. But nice is not enough. Great leaders also need the nerve to stand up for what is right and to make sure things get done. Mary Beth O’Neill refers to this as leading “with backbone and heart.” Want to know how the combination works? Read on!

LifeTrek Provision


I only received one reader reply in response to last week’s Provision, and that reply only contained two words: “Nice catch.” He was referring to my one-handed catch of a foul ball, while holding my infant son in one arm, at a Chicago Cubs game in 1984. Thanks! We returned to Wrigley Field last week to watch the Cubs lose to the New York Mets by a score of 18-5. Ouch! It felt just like old times, only in this case I didn’t come home with a game ball.

Now I am writing this Provision on the 9th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States of America. It has been made more somber, for me, both by reading a tweet, at the start of the day, from a friend who was there and by the controversy surrounding the proposed Quran burning by an obscure pastor of a small Florida church. The Quran burning wasn’t just a bad idea with dangerous, strategic consequences; it was morally wrong.

If anything good came out of the controversy, it was the united outcry from every sector in every religion around the world. Leaders who on other occasions may disagree strongly as to their philosophical, theological, and political viewpoints got up the nerve to speak up with one voice on behalf of doing what was morally right.

Ironically, that was the theme for this Provision long before I was even aware of the proposed Quran burning. It’s not enough for leaders to be nice and to treat people right; great leaders must also have the nerve to stand up and to push for what is right.

Nerve matters. According to the dictionary, nerve is not only a bundle of fibers that conveys impulses of sensation and motion between the brain or spinal cord and other parts of the body, nerve also refers to:

  • a sinew or tendon: to strain every nerve.
  • firmness or courage under trying circumstances: an assignment requiring nerve.
  • boldness; audacity; impudence; impertinence: He had the nerve to say that?
  • strength, vigor, or energy: a test of nerve and stamina.

Leadership takes all that and more. When it comes to nerve, however, the key is to distinguish between needs and strategies. Too many leaders become so attached to their ideas of what must be done, their strategies, that their firmness is experienced by others as arbitrary, self-serving, and egotistical. Such nerve usually does more harm than good.

When leaders take a stand for the things people really need, those universal attributes that make life worth living, that’s when they often rise to the level of greatness. Such nerve is firm without being narrow or overly attached to any particular way of getting from here to there. Such nerve actually creates a zone of possibility where new designs and strategies are imagined. It unleashes the strength, vigor, and energy of systems through its bold and courageous willingness to speak the truth in love.

Seen through that lens, nerve and nice, the subject of last week’s Provision, are not incompatible. They are complementary. Indeed, leaders may have to have the nerve to be nice. And our nerve always serves those larger, life-giving qualities.

In her excellent book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges, Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of this synergy in the following terms:

“Backbone is about saying what your position is, whether it is popular or not. Heart is staying in relationship and reaching out even when that relationship is in conflict. These two functions work together and interrelate. Each does not do well in isolation from the other.”

“Neither way is effective in business situations when it is polarized from the other functions: for example, speaking strongly while shutting others down or being highly empathetic while others do not know what you think.”

“Everyone seems to come equipped with the ability to show either backbone or heart more naturally than the other characteristic.” Yet leadership, as well as coaching, requires that a person do both. It is a continual dance of balancing backbone and heart to meet the needs of organizations and the people we serve.

That’s what I mean when I say nerve matters. We take our stand and yet stay in relationship. By serving the cause, instead of serving ourselves, we become more compassionate with our people. Hard with the issues but soft with our people is one way to put the dynamic. Leading with backbone and heart is another way. Distinguishing between needs and strategies is yet a third way to understand how leaders master this important dynamic. I encourage you to make it so.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of leader are you? Are you known more for your backbone or heart? When you take stand, how do people receive your strength? Is it off-putting or inviting? How could you bring nerve and nice into better balance? Who might assist you to make it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Nice catch. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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