Validation: 3 questions that improve your leadership edge

Where we look for validation has a direct impact on our ability to lead as it impacts how we react to everyday occurrences. Self validation is an important part of our emotional tool box. It allows us to accept what we have achieved with grace and pleasure, and push ourselves forward at a realistic pace. Acknowledging our successes is vital if we wish to stay motivated, especially when the journey is hard. By being internally driven, and acknowledging it internally, we exclude the risks of public self congratulations . Self validation is the fuel that nurtures our confidence, quietly and in doing so keeps our stress under control.

A friend took me to task after reading my last article 7 steps to befriending your inner critic. He is a friend whose opinion means a lot to me, so I listened. He said “You ignore the most important part of managing the internal critic, and that is managing validation”.

He went on to say: “It is only when we recognise where we source our validation, that we can we manage our energy levels. If we don’t have an internal validation structure our stress levels sky rocket. As leaders we can’t appear stressed” (I don’t agree with the stridency of this last statement, but continuing on) “As leaders we can’t appear stressed – that is what you should be exploring, not how to feel emotion in the body.” 

Ouch. I had thought he would like how simple it is to turn our critic into a friend but he was more focused on what I had missed. His comments hurt and I could feel my stress levels climb. Maybe he has a point.

Later I was listening to the Insight Timer app and heard the Tao Te Ching verse 44 spoken by John Siddique. It starts with three questions:

Fame or integrity: which is more important?

Wealth or happiness: which is more valuable?

Success or failure: which is more destructive?

The Tao is renowned for its suggestions for a life well lived, and so I took confidence that these three questions would be valuable in managing our inner self and therefore our levels of stress.

To me the first two questions were easy to answer: Integrity and happiness are more valuable than their partners. Although wealth and fame are enjoyable, on balance they were lesser desires and in any event, they tend to naturally follow my selections.

The third question was harder to answer. Surely success shows us the way forward. Why would it be destructive? (I am interested in the business context). I knew that accepting failure is an important leadership attribute as acceptance quietens the critic, and soothes stress. Further, a quiet critic and low stress go hand in hand with faster learning and higher risk taking, so these make failure valuable, but surely success is the way we test how much we have learned. So for me the answer was not clear.

Luckily the answer was given later in a visit to the grocery store.

At the store I saw a mother with a toddler who was having a tantrum. The mother had stopped what she was doing and was crouched down with the toddler, saying soft words I could not hear. The toddler continued to scream, but his mother’s patience was not disturbed. In the background was an elder child, also looking calm. Occasionally the mother said a word or two to her son, most of the time she was silent. It was obvious that to the child, the only person in the store of any importance was his mother, and for the mother it was clear that only her son was important to her at that moment.

I felt considerable discomfort hearing the child. Luckily the mother was disinterested in my opinion. She knew who was important, and that was not me.

As I looked on, the next lines of the Tao Te Ching came to mind:

If you look to others for fulfilment, you will never truly be fulfilled.

If your happiness depends on accumulating wealth, you will never truly be happy.

What you gain is more trouble than what you lose.

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.

If you know when to stop and realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.

By intention or intuition the mother recognised the next line in the Tao. If you look for fulfilment in others you will never be fulfilled.

Had the mother worried about the opinions of those around her she may have scolded the child. Had she worried about what she had to do for the rest of the day, she may have pulled the tearful child out of the store before he had settled. In both cases the mother would likely have felt guilty and possibly ashamed of her behaviour and the child would have taken longer to settle, and maybe felt less safe in her love. At a minimum, distress would have been felt by each for a while after they left the store.

By seeing the theatre unfold I became to understand the last question (Success or failure: which is more destructive?) and its answer: Success is the more destructive, that is, when it is measured through the eyes of others.

So I went back to my friend to test what I had found:

By seeking integrity, happiness and a comfort with failure we lose the need for constant yearning, and become “enough”

By becoming ‘enough’ we are free to be ourselves and don’t waste time worrying about unnecessary things. Time is a commodity unlike any other. Once it is gone, it can never be found again. It is precious, so feeling free in our skins allows us to make full use of each moment we have.

We agreed that the three questions produce a foundation upon which we can make our decisions. That by seeking integrity, happiness and failure we are not precluding wealth, fame and success, indeed true wealth and success can only be measured in the way we contribute to the greater good, which is founded on our integrity. And happiness unencumbered by necessity to have more and do more, is the ultimate pleasure as recorded in all religions. Even Charles Darwin in his later years recognised that man is ultimately searching for the enlightenment that comes from seeing ourselves as having enough. From being enough.

By looking inwards we take back control

We talked that no one can be perfect in the eyes of ‘others’ and striving to be so is fraught with pain. There will always be someone who is better looking, stronger, more intelligent, or such like. We discussed that when our inner voice tells us this, it is being honest. It will correctly tell us that the gap between reality and perfection is huge and warn us that the distance is too big to assault. It wants us to be careful, and it may not be kind in its manner when warning us. If we listen to its message the journey can seem overwhelming and we may not start. Our stress levels will rise as we see ourselves not fulfilling our expectations. There is little to commend looking outwards for validation.

My friend commented, reflecting on his past, that when he measured himself only against himself, and not against this Facebooked perfection he realised that his inner voice was a motivating force.

“Like a good coach”, he said, “my voice seems to recognise my abilities and pushes and prods in the direction I want to go”.

He said “I was worried I would lose motivation once I started measuring me against me, but instead of losing pace I gained it, an anomaly I had not expected, though in hindsight is obvious”.

Also, he explained “I became more aware that everyone needs validation. This impacts the way I lead. I am more prepared to coach my people now, and explain, many, many times if necessary, things I would have only explained once in the past. I am now conscious that everyone has the same desires as me, we all want to do our best, and that when things don’t go well its not malicious, it is the result of hundreds or millions of decisions in the past. We do not expect a mountain to change its nature over night, so why should we expect our colleagues to do so?”

We discussed how our foibles add to the leadership pool. We are constantly espousing the need for diversity in our C-Suite, how better to assure this, than by being ourselves and demanding that those around us are themselves too.

That ideas alone are insufficient

This is not a fairy story. The pull of external validation is strong and my friend told me that even though it is a few years since he declaimed external validation, he had succumbed to the charms of opinion more often than he would like. The resulting emotional turmoil was enough he said, to bring his focus back. And his financial results and happiness attest to his success.


These 3 questions set the focus of a life worth living, where “being enough” is the goal. By selecting integrity, happiness and failure you are not refusing fame, wealth and success. Indeed you are likely encouraging all of these. What you are doing by answering in this way is building your inner resilience by selecting goals which you can control.

Fame, wealth and success are all comparative measures, and there will always be someone better than you. By choosing integrity, and happiness and pushing yourself to failure you will try more risky endeavours and thus have a more interesting life – and you can say to your critic every time you fail “See we did it! We achieved our goal: We failed, let’s do it again.”

As a leader you are constantly forcing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and forcing your team thus too. As you make each step along the journey, the inner critic will be there beside each one of you, expressing its ideas and demanding to be heard. Whether its message is overwhelming or beckoning depends on the gap it is trying to close. You have control in setting this gap. Take it. Giving your goals and standards up to others opinions will force your stress levels skywards and your ability to fulfil your responsibilities down. So don’t do it. Look to yourself for validation, not to others.

Your team are watching you. How you act can help them take more control over their own future. Please own your responsibility to them. Become known for a legacy of which you can be proud.

Let me know how you go.


Jennifer is a strategy implementation coach who helps leaders turn their strategies into results.

She assists executives and business owners to achieve goals such as improved profit, productivity, leadership skills, business value. Her services are Business and Executive Coaching, Group Facilitation and advising on Board Governance. Her straight forward process and Mindshop Toolbox help leaders achieve results without delay.

 To find out how she can help you, call +61 439 520 182 or email.