What are some examples of leaders in business (and elsewhere) who seem to have excellent active coping skills? What about the opposite?

It’s hard to tell from people’s public personas or even from their actions whether they are active copers, but I will hazard a guess about people whose public image seems consistent with active coping.

Nelson Mandela decided to get smart rather than get angry when imprisoned. He used the time to learn Afrikaans to be able to understand the oppressors. He kept his eye on his goal and was willing to switch tactics, embrace opponents, invent new forms of interaction, and generally do what it took to move forward—and he did it all with style, charm, and balance.

Lewis and Clark. In 1804, these men headed west from St. Louis with a group of 33 men to find a water route to the Pacific. They had no good maps and little information to go on. Over a period of two years and a few months, they journeyed successfully to the Pacific and back, through territory filled with potentially hostile American Indians. They prepared well, but just about everything was unexpected. They succeeded, and only one member of the expedition died.

Jim Lovell, who commanded Apollo 13. Although the safe return from space was clearly a group win, the crew was a key part of the response. As Lovell explained, “We were given the situation to really exercise our skills, and our talents to take a situation which was almost certainly catastrophic, and come home safely.”

In the world of business, Jim Collins put together his list of the 10 greatest CEOs. Although he wasn’t looking necessarily for active copers, one of his choices was Kathryn Graham, a terrific active coper. In 1971, as chief of the Washington Post, she considered the risks of publishing the Pentagon Papers, the leaked Defense Department study that revealed government deceptions about the war in Vietnam. If the Post published, it risked being prosecuted for theft of government secrets, which, in turn, could doom its pending public stock offering and other businesses. Graham wrote, “I would be risking the whole company on this decision.” Nonetheless, she approved publishing and the Post still had an extremely successful IPO.

For non-active copers, we can certainly start with plenty of executives who appear to have a narcissistic personality. I won’t name names but a quick Google search for “narcissists” and “CEOs” will show where others have made the link. Narcissism can be extremely successful but extreme narcissists are not active copers. Why?  They lack empathy. They are not seeing the reality of the world; they’re seeing the world filtered through a view of themselves as the grandiose center of the world, assuming that whatever action they take will be praiseworthy.

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Skills and Traits associated with Active Coping

I’ve found in my 20 years working to evaluate executives that active coping is an attribute of a healthy personality structure. This means that the “activity” is not always overt and observable; sometimes it takes place internally, in decisions made, visions developed, and conflicting drives resolved. An active coping stance, however, often gives rise to certain observable traits and skills. These should be sought out in anyone being courted to run a business. They include:

  • Awareness. Active copers are able to see reality, including their own needs, capabilities, and limitations.
  • Courage. Active copers are brave. They seek out new experiences; they are not intimidated by challenges.
  • Resiliency, toughness, and the ability to learn from experience. Active copers, like all humans, make mistakes. Life is too complicated to anticipate every possible contingency. Active copers regroup and recover.
  • Energy, fortitude, and the willingness to persevere. Active copers summon the energy to continue to move forward even under the most trying circumstances.
  • Active copers invent solutions to problems by creatively pulling together the resources they have at hand or by developing new ones.
  • Active coping gives a person the fortitude to handle conflicts among competing goals. Making a choice means giving up an alternative. Active copers face that loss and move on.
  • Executing a Plan. Active coping involves planning. Active copers anticipate, strategize, and weigh the risks of potential actions. Then they act. Active coping combines introspection and action.

These are the kinds of traits active copers show and business leaders need to have for dealing well with fast-changing and always uncertain situations.

An Investor’s Least Favorite Statement – “Oops, Wrong CEO”

Effective leaders must meet challenges and resolve them productively, day after day, for many years. They must constantly adapt to the unforeseen—and must mobilize, coordinate, and direct others. But when hiring executives, how do you know which candidates possess such qualities?  When they all look good on paper, how do you make a choice?  Given the frequency of CEO turnover, and the frequent cases of CEO failure after long, successful careers in the same place where they became CEO (e.g., Jeffrey Immelt at GE, David Pottruck at Schwab, Doug Ivester at Coke), it’s apparently not that easy. But it can be done, by including an analysis of executives’ readiness to acquire new skills and strategies for coping with complexity and change – in other words, their active coping.

Active Coping is a Style of Approaching Life, Baked into Who You Are

How a person approaches life’s challenges develops as a result of nature and nurture. Some people run from problems, some lash out at others, and some passionately wait and hope that problems (or even opportunities) will just go away.

Active copers, by contrast, are built to be capable and eager to deal with whatever obstacles and opportunities they face. Active coping is being ready and able to adapt creatively and effectively to challenge and change. Active copers continually strive to achieve personal aims and overcome difficulties, rather than passively retreat from or be overwhelmed by frustration. They move towards the problems and opportunities with open hearts and open minds.

In business, unexpected events occur, for which no playbook has been written. Active copers do not lose their footing in such cases, but rather thrive on the opportunity to seek out information about what is happening, rally the right team, and learn as part of the process of steering towards success.

Leaders with other personalities and styles may do as well in circumstances that can be predicted in advance, but active copers are the best people to have in place when the unexpected occurs.

Whereas active copers seek to confront and resolve, passive copers are reactive and avoidant. Passive coping is refusing to tolerate the full tension that a situation imposes, for instance, reacting before the facts are sufficiently understood. Passive coping is retreating from reality, tuning out information, and resisting change. It’s dealing with minor problems in order to avoid confronting the anxiety of major problems. In a crisis, passive copers will be prudently hoping that the problem goes away, or trying to do what they did before in vaguely similar circumstances.

Experience can be deceiving when it comes to securing success

Sometimes the wrong person looks like the right person, but backing the wrong person can be a disaster. Just because someone is in an industry and has been successful to date does not mean they have the “right stuff” for what you need now.

Are you confident the people leading your companies have the “right stuff,” or are you just hoping based on what they’ve done in the past? Do you have a deal coming up where you’d be more comfortable knowing that the person leading the team has the skills and stability to thrive even in changing and unexpected times?

Consider the case of Jack, a CEO who turned out not to be what was expected….

The sad tale of Jack

Jack was the CEO of a start up exploiting opportunities in a rapidly consolidating but still highly fragmented distribution industry. He was a successful, smart corporate lawyer with a mergers and acquisitions background in this industry.

Jack’s start-up enjoyed no important advantages in terms of technology or marketing. The plan was to identify good targets and to close deals at attractive prices. Competition was intense as several of the industry’s global players were pursuing the same strategy. Management capability was crucial, and Jack was part of a management team with formidable strengths. Investors had already agreed to supply Jack’s company acquisition capital when they asked me to assess him.

What I reported after assessing Jack

Jack is hard working, self-reliant, and verbally very intelligent.

But his coping style is reactive and avoidant. He is especially weak when working with others. He is not good at generating goals or overcoming obstacles. He does not easily tolerate ambiguity; the more poorly defined the problem, the more passive his coping.

When confronted by matters that require him to take initiative, improvise, or be decisive he becomes extremely anxious. At such times, he is unable to withstand the tension that would accompany seeking a full understanding of issues and working to resolve them. In an effort to get rid of problems that vex him, he offers facile, simplistic solutions that gloss over crucial details. As a result, he forecloses options when he would be better off reflecting in order to develop effective solutions.

This passive coping compromises the quality of his judgment to the point that would put the venture at risk. Unfortunately, the issues most likely to make his business successful – such as finding targets at attractive prices and handling them in a timely manner – are precisely the issues likely to bring out his passive coping.

Jack has a narrow expertise, and beyond this range, his coping breaks down. If his company were to run into difficulty – if it missed deadlines, timetables, or forecasts – his passive coping would interfere with the venture being as successful as it needed to be.

What happened (the ugly, the bad, and the good)

As investors worked more closely with Jack in his first negotiation with a seller, they saw the poor judgment our assessment had highlighted. He entered into an agreement with a seller on terms the investors had explicitly rejected. After Jack rejected their directives and moved ahead without considering their concerns, they put on the brakes by withdrawing funding. Fortunately (for Jack), another private equity firm did the deal. Unfortunately (for Jack), they had to replace him with a new CEO. The company subsequently thrived under the successor CEO.

Conclusions that can be drawn

Assessment can help you identify a disaster waiting to happen before it happens. You have to know where to look.

Psychological Autonomy in Business

Leslie S. Pratch

Leslie S. Pratch

The president and CEO of Pratch & Company in New Canaan, Connecticut, Leslie S. Pratch capitalizes on her decades of experience as a clinical psychologist to assess and/or coach corporate executives and candidates for senior administrative positions. In Good on Paper, her comprehensive study of business psychology, Leslie S. Pratch defines and explains the importance of psychological autonomy.

Loosely defined as an inherent or learned freedom to choose, psychological autonomy involves the ability to disregard immediate professional and personal pressures when weighing the essential value or lack of value in any given business situation. This can be tremendously difficult to accomplish in the face of ongoing demands of company superiors, board members, customers, suppliers, the media, and/or the general public.

Psychological autonomy requires both substantial self-awareness and an equally perceptive awareness of others. First and foremost, one must be fully aware of both the internal and external influences that might interfere with his or her ability to make critical decisions. Then, the person must learn to assess these influences in terms of overall legitimacy and significance. Finally, individuals must learn to eliminate any unworthy influences from the decision-making process.

The Skills of a Successful Business Leader

Looks Good on Paper pic

Looks Good on Paper
Image: amazon.com

Leslie S. Pratch, PhD, MBA, has worked in the field of psychology for more than 20 years. The founder and president of Pratch & Company, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch helps stakeholders of privately held and public companies determine if executive leadership candidates demonstrate the personality traits and psychological resources necessary for success within a business.

In 2014, Dr. Leslie Pratch wrote Looks Good on Paper?: Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance.

Some of the information discussed in her book was featured in an Investor’s Business Daily article outlining the qualities experts have identified in the most successful business leaders. To experience success, aspiring CEOs must have the ability to do the following:

Take aim. Formulating realistic and specific goals will help individuals clearly identify and ultimately reach their business ambitions.

Strive for the top. Dr. Pratch reminds executives to strive for successes that are the most meaningful, those that best align with personal values and ideals. The means by which confidence is won in business entails setting achievable goals that force personal and career growth.

Prepare for difficulties. Business leaders require the ability to deal with resistance from outside forces. A strong leader ensures each and every goal incorporates tactics for addressing setbacks and roadblocks.

Active Coping – an Attribute of Successful Executives

Leslie S. Pratch - Blue    A clinical psychologist and graduate of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch, PhD, evaluates candidates to determine their ability to perform well as business executives. Dr. Leslie Pratch is also the author of the book LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

In LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER?, Dr. Pratch discusses a key leadership attribute called active coping. She gives several examples of this quality, including the following: “When a person always seems prepared, and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping. When a person earns the trust of his friends and colleagues by refusing to take unfair advantage of others, and refuses to let others take advantage of him, that is active coping. When a person has the vision and self-confidence to rise above the ‘business as usual’ when necessary, that is active coping.”

She goes on to define this leadership attribute as follows: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world. Or they can be passive copers, allowing themselves to be defined by their circumstances and enslaved by their personal needs. When circumstances change unpredictably, an individual’s latent weaknesses – or untested strengths – emerge.”

Seven Traits and Skills Related to Active Coping

Looks Good on Paper pic

Looks Good on Paper
Image: amazon.com

Dr. Leslie S. Pratch holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. With more than 20 years of experience evaluating executive candidates, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch is the author of the book LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

In LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Dr. Leslie Pratch describes a concept called “active coping,” which is often predictive of effective leadership:

“Active coping is an attribute of a healthy personality structure. That means that the ‘activity’ is not always overt and observable; sometimes it takes place internally, in decisions made, visions developed, conflicting drives resolved. An active coping stance, however, often gives rise to certain observable traits and skills. These include:

Awareness. Active copers are able to see reality, including their own needs, capabilities, and limitations.

Courage. Active copers are brave. They seek out new experiences; they are not intimidated by challenges.

Resiliency, toughness, and the ability to learn from experience. Active copers, like all humans, make mistakes. Life is too complicated to anticipate every possible contingency. After a setback, active copers regroup and recover.

Energy, fortitude, and the willingness to persevere. Active copers summon their energy and continue to move forward even under the most trying circumstances.

Resourcefulness. Active copers invent solutions to problems by creatively pulling together the resources they have at hand.

Decisiveness. Active coping gives a person the fortitude to handle conflicts among competing goals. Making a choice means giving up an alternative. Active copers face that loss and move on.

Executing a Plan. Active coping involves planning. Active copers anticipate, strategize, and weigh the risks of potential actions. Then they act. Active coping combines introspection and action.”

Dr. Leslie S. Pratch on Active Coping

Leslie S Pratch pic

Leslie S Pratch
Image: pratchco.com

A graduate of Northwestern University, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch received her PhD in clinical psychology, then went on to earn an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. She leverages her expertise to conduct personality assessments that help businesses find executives that will achieve positive results for their employer. Dr. Leslie S. Pratch shares her knowledge in her book entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014), in which she explains the skill of active coping.

Although the resumes of some candidates may seem ideal, factors besides past experience are important when predicting success among already high-achieving executives. Chief among these is active coping. Dr. Pratch describes this quality as follows: “Even if you have never heard the term before, you know it when you see it. When a person always seems prepared, and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping.”

In her book, Dr. Pratch goes on to explain how she uses this term: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world.” As part of the developmental assessment model in this book, active coping can help businesses predict which candidates are likely to thrive when tested, and successfully lead their organizations.

The Four Interconnecting Elements of the Active Coping Stance

Looks Good on Paper pic

Looks Good on Paper
Image: amazon.com

A licensed clinical psychologist, Leslie S. Pratch serves as the president and CEO of Pratch & Company, which utilizes the Active Coping Assessment System to prepare business leaders for assuming higher levels of responsibility within their organizations. Leslie S. Pratch is the author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014), in which she explores the four interconnected elements of the Active Coping stance. These are as follows:

1. Integrity. This element relates to a person’s core values and that individual’s ability to uphold those values through consistency of action.

2. Psychological autonomy. This is defined as one’s ability to resist giving in to external pressures, internal desires, or personal fears.

3. Integrative capacity. This refers to a person’s capacity to absorb information and use it to learn. Integrative capacity means developing tolerance, awareness and comprehension, both of oneself and the wider world.

4. Catalytic coping. The final element measures one’s ability to confront problems, generate solutions to them, and put those solutions into practice.