Harness Your Weakness to be a Stronger Leader - An Interview with leadership coach Amos Szeps

6 April 2017

Amos Szeps is the only Psychologist in the UK accredited as a Master Coach by the International Coaching Federation. He has worked with many of the world's leading organisations to help CEOs, senior executives and their teams better contribute to society and find meaning in what they do. We caught up with him to find out how being a strong leader can sometimes mean harnessing your weaknesses...

Hi Amos. You have a background in acting. How did you go from actor to leadership coach and speaker?

I was born in London in the early 70s. At the time my parents were actors – in fact, my father was one of the most established actors in Australia - and, for various reasons, they decided to move to Australia when I was 3-months old. So I grew up there in an acting family – very passionate, very fascinated with people and what makes them tick and, in my father's case, hugely interested in what makes an audience laugh one night and cry the next. He ended up writing books on timing and the psychology of acting.

In some ways, I’ve followed in my father’s footsteps, quite literally for 10 years as an actor, but beyond that as a psychologist and a coach.

That acting background I’ve used, and continue to use today, in my coaching. As an actor, I’ve stared into the darkness and tried to feel an audience and take them on a journey, and it is similar to speaking in front of people when you’re trying to tune in and to make it interesting. I do this by dropping the analytical side of my brain. I find that when I’m deliberately thinking hard, I’m less effective as a communicator than when I’m not thinking, and I can imagine that what comes to the surface when I’m not thinking is decades of experience of being in front of an audience. That, unfiltered, is quite powerful.

Did acting teach you anything in terms of leadership?

It taught me the absolute power of humans being vulnerable - in a positive way. In a constructive, strong, courageous way. Towards the end of my acting career, I started to have the insight, and maybe courage and maturity, to allow myself to be seen in an honest, unpredictable and spontaneous way in public. What they call it now is authentic leadership. I do a lot of work now with CEOs about who they are at a deep level, and how to convey that in a compelling spontaneous way that rallies people around them – because that’s what it’s all about.

Amos encourages leaders to be authentic and tap into what makes them happy

You say you drop the analytical side... but you also have a background in psychology. To what extent do you draw on hard psychological principles in your coaching sessions?

One of the things I’ve taken from being a psychologist is, actually, to not let any model or framework interfere with the moment. To be real. To be in tune with what’s going on right now.

I was a bad student. I didn’t enjoy the process of studying psychology at all. I love psychology, but I hated, at university, being pushed into a scientific box, rather than an artistic one.

That said, I’m probably more evidence-based in my coaching because of my psychological background.There’s a big field of research around coaching in terms of what works and doesn’t work. Although I’m very in touch with that, that’s not what I’m focussing on in my daily existence.

What kind of leaders have you worked with?

I work with a very diverse range of CEOs – I tend to work with FTSE100 companies – large global companies. I’m generally coaching people running a region or country, or a function globally.

These are some very successful and talented people – I’m dealing with people who have just lost a child, or people who are feeling alienated or misdirected at work. One of the things I love about coaching is this confidential space that it gives busy people to sit back and reflect. When human beings do that, there’s a common interest in terms of what they share… and often the things that they think they need to hide are the things that are going to take them to the next level as a leader. These are the things that are going to help them to share and connect more at work.

In terms of what makes a good leader, do you find this varies culturally, or are there universal qualities that crop up time and time again?

I find it increasingly universal. Having moved from Australia to London, I was very aware of the possible need to adapt but, the truth is, we are all human, and if you are connecting to something authentic, it will resonate no matter where you are – that seems to work! Title, gender, level, cultural background… I try not to let it interfere with what is in front of me.

As a leadership coach, you should create a space where you can really be with people

What key takeaways do you want people to take away after a session with you?

I aim for them to feel liberated, to be able to express themselves in a way that they couldn’t before, and to feel that they can feel more of themselves, and use more of themselves at work. From a business perspective, I’d like them to be doing things weeks, months, years down the track, to be doing things they never could have imagined.

I walk my own talk, and aim to create an environment that is strikingly different in terms of the level of trust and safety that people feel. I love to interact and improvise with an audience – that imbues trust and safety. The bottom line is, and this is where the acting and psychology comes into it, get yourself into a space where you can take the chance to really be with these people; to be really human and follow their agenda as opposed to your own! People leaving energised about something that engages and excites them comes about from a space where people can think differently about things that are important to them. That's what I strive to do.

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