Ouch! You’ve probably felt the sting – when someone talks over you, dismisses your best recommendations or mutters a sarcastic quip about your accent, profession, age, professional experience or gender. Double ouch – if your antagonist has the authority to scuttle a deal you are putting together or red-line your career.

At Ouch! or Double-Ouch! moments of truth, it’s tempting to lash out or shut down. And who could blame you? If your enterprise had a culture that truly valued diversity or that fostered creativity and initiative, you wouldn’t have to face hostility, insults or defensive traps – especially from the very people who could profit most from your insights and initiatives.

But shutting down or lashing out, while feeling natural and justified, isn’t what’s effective for value-creation or to advance your career. Ask Tali, the new Head of Strategic Marketing who was chided by her CSO and CEO for being “one of those bold young ambitious foreigners who acts like she’s hawking designer clothes instead of selling medical products to cost-sensitive late-adopter payers.” When Tali came to us for coaching, as part of her participation in her company’s high-potential leadership program, she told us she wasn’t the problem and she wasn’t the one who needed leadership training. “It shouldn’t be this hard for someone with my chutzpah to get my voice heard,” Tali said, reminding us that she was hired to bring new thinking into the enterprise and that she learned to lead in the toughest school on earth – as one of the few women Captains leading an elite military unit.

When we saw Tali “go live” in the entrepreneurial thinking simulation that we ran, as part of her company’s innovation leadership workshop, we saw her face resistance when she saw a big market opportunity and announced to her colleagues, “I see where we should go, follow me!” After a few attempts that were waved off or rejected, Tali slumped back in her chair. Her beaming smile and energy gave way to shrugs and passive resignation. Tali was especially frustrated when, in the debrief after the simulation, she was proven right. Her insights would have lifted her group to a much higher level of success in the business simulation, if only the group had listened. When Tali blurted out, “See, I told you!” with a good-natured laugh that would have been endearing in her home culture, she seemed surprised that it didn’t win her any fans or support in her new ex-pat home.

When antagonists diss you and show that they don’t trust your competence, good will and conclusions,” it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s natural to want to fight back, restore your good name, push forward and neutralize the opposition or stop caring and give up. But Feel -> Act options like this rarely create as much value or opportunity as they could for the enterprise or the protagonist who was dissed.

The key to lifting yourself – and others – out of defensive thinking traps, like Tali’s, is to shift from a defensive “Feel -> Act” reaction — to a “Feel -> Think -> Act” intervention. Mindflips like this – with Emotional Intelligence and Courage – can get you out of Level 1 victim thinking and counterattacks, Level 2 acquiescence and Level 3 work-arounds – to Level 4 creativity and Level 5 culture-shaping. It starts by realizing that being in the hot-seat isn’t dysfunctional – it’s part of what positions you to make a difference. Take this quick assessment to see if you have potential to impact your enterprise as a Level 5 high-potential innovation leader.

“Feel -> Think -> Act” doesn’t deny or trivialize your emotions. It simply uses your anger, frustration, embarrassment, ambition, indignation, betrayal, jealousy, loneliness, shame, humiliation, fear, joy, exuberance, determination in a more productive way. With intuition and empathy, you also tune into what antagonists might feel when your best recommendations threaten their fiefdoms, routines or hegemony. If you can name the feelings in yourself, you can then be mindful and self-soothe to chill yourself out. If you can decode your antagonist’s emotions, you can imagine empathy responses – so you dial up their level of engagement, without creating residual or excessive heat.

Feel -> Think -> Act” challenges you to be purpose-driven – even in volatile uncertain complex adverse (“VUCA”) conditions. In training simulations and real-world scenario building, we equip high-potential innovation leaders like Tali to think strategically. We equip them to look beyond what will appease antagonists and satisfy parochial ambitious – so they puts sustainable enterprise-success, win/win/win value-creation and the lifetime value of solid partnerships ahead of appeasement, political battles or quick-gain one-and-done transactions.

There’s no shortage of strong-willed leaders who can power forward with Feel -> Act retaliation and get what they want by bullying and demanding – without bothering to ALIGN interests, ASK about antagonists’ concerns and motivations, ACTIVATE engagement or analyze and ADOPT best possibilities or AIM higher than play-to-win. Pity. Because they have no idea what bigger bolder possibilities they are missing, even when they are confident they are right.

First in simulations and practice cases, then in real-life innovation initiative applications, leaders like Tali learn a 5-step formula to replace defensive win/lose “Feel -> Act” narrow or pyrrhic victories with generative possibility-creating win/win/win “Feel -> Think -> Act” value-creation. They shift “what if…?” from focusing on disaster “what-will-we-lose” scenarios to focusing on possibilities and opportunity scenarios. They use humor and empathy to lift the mood. Insist on respect. They ask, “How do I use my Courage to lift everyone’s level of creativity and co-creation, rather than overpowering the opposition?”And open the dialogue, so Level 4 or Level 5 possibilities can emerge.

Refining your “Feel -> Think -> Act” leadership skills can be like learning a foreign language. That’s true for leaders who have gotten to where they are with charm and conciliatory compromise – and have to learn to champion higher Aims. And it’s true for leaders who have gotten to where they are with grit and determination, chutzpah, and by not suffering fools or taking baloney from anyone, who have to learn to shift from win/lose to win/win. To become fluent in the new language of “Feel -> Think -> Act” Level 4 value-creation and Level 5 culture-shaping, you may have to practice new sounds, think in a different syntax, retune your ears and adjust your gestures and intonations, as well as your cadence and timing. And you need to learn to read what’s going on around you, to spot defensive traps so you can lift your teams out of them.

Fortunately, with practice and experience, “Feel -> Think -> Act” can become smooth and fluent. New instincts can be encoded – as Tali did over the 14 weeks in her company’s high-potential leadership program. And, yes, Tali is right…

Courage-building with the five Feel -> Think -> Act steps works best when top executives do their part – and learn to manage their impatience, frustration and fear of counterintuitive but financially sound recommendations by encouraging Level 5 initiative and accountability, instead of perpetuating defensive traps like bias against creativity, groupthink, hierarchy dependence, and summit fever.

So our best leadership programs function on two levels – with high-potential leaders receiving an intensive blended learning experience and with the program’s Sponsors receiving real-time guidance about the best way to encourage, uplift and sharpen the thinking of high potentials, to make the most of their investment.


Merom Klein PhD and Louise Yochee Klein PsyD are Principals with Courage Growth Partners and Courage Institute, leadership development firms that accelerate value-creation by building innovation leadership and entrepreneurial thinking skills. Klein and Klein equip leaders to recognize 12 defensive thinking traps – and to have the presence, agility, courage and influence to lift teams out of those traps to Level 5 value-creation. Their book, PowerUP Brilliance, describes the 5 steps to encode Feel -> Think -> Act leadership into your instincts. For an invitation to one of their preview events, click here >>