How The Best Leaders Overcome Their Own Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms—the unconscious reactions that protect us from anxiety and internal conflict—are a part of being human. We all have them. And while they frequently do harm, in some situations they can actually be useful. What matters, in life and in leadership, is what we do about them.

Failing to understand and deal with your defense mechanisms is especially harmful in leadership work, where relationships with others are critically important and you’re setting the standard for the workplace culture of your entire team.

Defense mechanisms work differently for everybody. But whatever form they take, it’s possible to master defensive responses and damaging habits—to harness them in a way that helps you rather than holding you back.

Here are the top ideas I share with my executive leadership coaching clients for overcoming their own defense mechanisms:

Cultivate self-awareness. The necessary first stop is to understand how you use defense mechanisms when you’re feeling vulnerable. Think about what situations tend to trigger defense responses and how you typically respond. Consider the ways that your behavior may be harming you and those around you, and imagine other ways to respond to situations that seem threatening.

Make room for acceptance. When you feel yourself moving toward a defensive response, stop and give yourself a brief time out. Spend a few moments giving space to what you’re thinking and feeling. Identify those thoughts and feelings and work to accept them without judgment. From there you can focus on a healthy response.

Hold yourself accountable. Defense mechanisms are often a way of making excuses or blaming others for things we cannot be responsible for. Remind yourself often that you can’t control anybody else’s actions or responses—but you can control your own. Then spend some time every day reflecting on your own actions and whether they were effective, reasonable, and in line with your values and goals. If you need help with accountability, consider recruiting a a mentor or a leadership coach to guide you.

Break the code. As human beings, we’re inclined to follow certain coded patterns of behavior—and defense mechanisms are among those patterns. But if something isn’t serving you well, it’s possible to break out of the unhealthy pattern and rewire new, more useful patterns and habits.

From my decades of experience as a leadership executive coach, I know that even top leaders around the world sometimes struggle to overcome defense mechanisms and other problem habits. And I know it takes effort and practice to overcome them. But I’ve also seen the results, and I know it’s an effort worth making.

Lead from within: Everyone deals with defense mechanisms. But when you rely on negative patterns of behavior and make excuses when you could be making progress, it’s time to reassess your behavior and make the changes you need to make to become the leader you’re meant to be.

#1 N A T I O N A L  B E S T S E L L E R

The Leadership Gap
What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

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