The Art of Strengths Coaching

N is for Having The Nous And Nerve Needed To Achieve Success

There are many views about how people with natural talent can develop.  One view is that they need to add the nous and nerve needed to achieve success.

Natural talent can take people so far, but then some individuals stop developing. A person may have been the star performer at a certain age, for example, but then find it difficult to deal with disappointments.

Some people have the hunger to improve, however, and learn from the setbacks. They want to keep developing and become the best they can be. They have what Carol Dweck called a Growth Mindset.

A similar rule applies in teams. Sometimes you hear managers and coaches say: “We want people with experience.” But the key is what people learn from their experiences.

Some people have lots of experience but make the same mistakes. Other people have the nous to learn from events. They translate the knowledge into wisdom and improve their performances.

There are many definitions for the word nous. These range from its origins in Greek Philosophy – where it referred to the soul’s ability to see truth – to its more common usage in everyday life. Today it is sometimes defined in terms of having common sense, good judgement and practical intelligence.

The definition we are using here combines elements of the original Greek approach together with the savvy required to achieve success. It is:

The ability to see to the heart of the matter, make good decisions and get things done

Individuals may have nous in one area but not in others. They may show good judgement in their professional field but show little in their personal lives. They may be brilliant at helping their clients but hopeless at managing their bosses.

Nous can help a person to make good decisions, but they may need to add another dimension. They may need the nerve required to follow these strategies successfully. Sometimes this calls for clear thinking before embarking on a project.

Great workers, for example, do their due diligence and clarify the strategies most likely to achieve success. They also clarify the pluses minuses involved. They then commit to pursuing their chosen route.

They perform superb work, but this does not mean they follow the strategies blindly. They keep doing reality checks. They keep focusing on: a) What is working and how to do more of these things; b) What can be done better and how.

Great workers hold their nerve. They keep doing the right things in the rights way. They also, when appropriate, find creative solutions to challenges on the way towards achieving their picture of success.

Looking back, can you think of a person who showed both nous and nerve? This could be somebody you have known or have heard about.

What did the person do to show nous? How did they get to the heart of the matter, make good decisions and get things done? What did they do to keep their nerve? How did they keep following their principles, especially when things got tough?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to write the name of such a person and do the following things.

Describe the specific things they did to show nous and keep their nerve on the way towards achieving success.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of them taking these steps.

Nous And Nerve
In Individuals

Some individuals demonstrate nous and nerve when doing satisfying work. They may do this when working as an artist, athlete, business leader, coach, educator, entrepreneur or in another field. They may follow their vocation, pursue a mission or serve something greater than themselves.

The Ashoka Organization supports social entrepreneurs who demonstrate these qualities. Such people aim to improve the quality of life for people on the planet. They may focus on education, medical care, agriculture, housing, broadcasting or any field of human need.

Ashoka Fellows have the passion and practical skills to translate their vision into reality. Bill Drayton, the organisation’s founder, explains this in the following way.

What differentiates Ashoka Fellows from mere idealists is that, for these rare men and women, an idea can bring satisfaction only when it is realised.

Possessing the same unstoppable drive of a Steve Jobs, they define new issues and create new approaches. Their innovations then set new yardsticks of performance for helping society.

By the end of their 5-year fellowship, between fifty and sixty per cent of the Fellows have changed national policy in the countries where they have been working, and ninety percent have seen independent institutions copy their innovations.

Below is a video that describes some of the work done by Ashoka’s Fellows. You can discover more via the following link.

Great workers maintain their nerve. They keep following the principles they believe in, even when times get tough. Some say that this is courageous, but such workers often see it as the result of clear thinking. Here is why they take this approach.

People often similar paths when working in teams. Let’s explore how this works in practice.

Nous And Nerve
In Teams

There are many models for building fine teams. This section starts by looking at the super team approach. We will then explore what such teams look for when recruiting people who can help them to achieve success.

Super teams start by communicating the team’s purpose, principles and picture of success. They then create a positive environment in which motivated people can achieve peak performance.

Such teams are made up of people who want to be positive, professional and peak performers. They choose to opt in and make clear contracts about their best contributions towards delivering the goals.

Super teams co-ordinate people’s strengths to perform superb work. They overcome setbacks and find solutions to challenges. People do whatever is required to achieve the picture of success.

Such teams are made up of people who have similarity of spirit and diversity of strengths. Diversity of spirit is a recipe for disaster. They want people who are characters rather than clones, however, and who use their strengths to achieve the team’s goals.

Super teams hire people who are prepared to follow the principles. They then put people in places where they can play to their strengths and do their best work. They believe that this approach is more likely to enable both the individual and the team to achieve success.

Such teams have a backbone of people who have both the nous and nerve needed to achieve success. Many sports coaches, for example, believe in recruiting senior players who act as leaders and embody the desired culture.

Imagine you lead a team that attracts people who want to follow the principles. It will also be important to get people who have the nous and nerve needed to help to achieve the goals.

How to identify such people? Recruitment is one of the most important but difficult challenges. One approach is to clarify whether people have the strengths and successful patterns required to contribute to delivering success.

Imagine that you are going to interview a person who wants to join the team. You will have already sent them a pack explaining the team’s purpose and principles. The pack will also have contained many specific examples that highlight how people in the team have translated the principles into action.

During the interview you can invite the person to share when they have followed some of the principles in their own way. You can do this in a positive way and encourage them to describe the examples in depth. You may want to say something along the following lines

The Principles

Before the interview we sent you a pack that explained the team’s purpose and principles. As you know, the key principles we want people to follow are these.  

We want people …

1) To …

For example: To … 

2) To … 

For example: To … 

3) To …

For example: To …

Looking back, can you think of a time when you followed some of these principles in your own way? This could have been in your personal or professional life.  

If so, can you describe the situation in which you followed some of these principles? We will then ask a few questions to look at how you translated these into action.

It’s okay to take a little time to reflect. Then, when you feel ready, it would be good to hear about your example.

As ever, it is vital to ask follow-up questions. This will enable you and the person to go deeper to look at what they actually did – in behaviour terms – to follow the principles.

The main aim is to clarify whether the person has followed some of the principles in the past. You can then build on these patterns in the future.

A secondary aim is to ensure that the person is clear on the professional principles they will be expected to follow. This helps to protect and maintain the culture.

It will then be time to explore whether the person has some of the required personal and professional qualities. The questions you ask will be governed by two factors: 

The required personal and professional qualities. 

The specific activities in which the person will be required to demonstrate these qualities. 

Imagine that you want a person to be calm in a crisis, make good decisions and then solve the problem. You may want them to apply these qualities when working with customers, leading a team, solving a technical problem or doing another activity.

The following set of questions explore when a person has demonstrated nous and nerve. You can adapt these questions, however, to explore when a person has demonstrated the qualities you are looking for in a particular field. Bearing this in mind, you may say something along the following lines.

The Personal And
Professional Qualities

We are looking for people who have nous and keep their nerve. Looking back, can you think of a situation in which you showed some of these qualities? Take your time to reflect before answering the question.

We define nous as being able to see to the heart of the matter. It is then to make good decisions and get things done. We define nerve as having the courage to follow your principles, even though things may get tough.  

You may have demonstrated some of these qualities in a personal or professional situation. You may have been made redundant, had a setback or needed to find a solution to a personal challenge. You may have been in a professional situation where you had to deal with a crisis, solve a customer’s problem or give tough news to somebody.

Looking back, can you think of a such a situation? If so, can you describe a bit more about the situation you found yourself in? Then, if you can, describe what you did to try to deal with the challenge and achieve success.

It is okay to take time to think. We like it when people are prepared to reflect rather than try to impress with quick answers.

When you are ready let us know if you can think of such a situation. We will then ask you a few questions to make sure we get the full picture.

Imagine that the interview goes well and you decide to hire the person. This may be dependent, of course, on them doing well during their probation period.

You can ensure that they spend the first month with somebody who can act as a positive model. It will then be time to meet with them to clarify:

The specific ways they are beginning to follow the principles.

The specific ways they are beginning to demonstrate the required personal and professional qualities.

Imagine that the person is showing promising signs. You can then meet with them every month to help them: a) To build on their strengths; b) To manage the consequences of any weaknesses; c) To make their best contribution towards achieving the picture of success.

Imagine that the person is not following the principles. Sometimes it is better to accept that it is not the right fit. You can then, in a moral way, help the person to move on.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation when you may want to demonstrate nous and nerve? You may be dealing with a crisis, building your own business, leading a team or tackling a challenge.

Looking at the situation, what can you do to get to the heart of the matter? How can you make good decisions? How can you keep following your principles? How can you maintain your nerve? How can you achieve your picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to demonstrate nous and nerve on the way towards achieving success.

Describe the specific things you can do then to demonstrate these qualities.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.


    D is for The Dispassionate Approach To Channelling Your Passion And Delivering The Desired Results


    Great workers sometimes take the dispassionate approach towards channelling their passion. Many people find this helps them to make good decisions and deliver the desired results.

    Bomb disposal experts, mediators and crisis managers often take this approach. They feel passionately about their work but use both their hearts and heads to get positive results.

    Imagine that you are aiming to deal with an explosive device. What will go through your head as you approach the device on what is known as the longest walk?

    Ed Chipperfield and James Day describe some of the qualities needed in their article called What does it take to survive as a bomb disposal expert? Below are excerpts from the piece. You can discover more via the following link.

    Bomb Disposal Experts

    In a situation where the only outcomes are success or failure, psychologists say these soldiers require a certain mindset.

    “We want people who minimise the unknowns,” says Eugene Burke, a military psychologist.

    “They’re not impulsive but are able to make fast decisions, thanks to training. It’s almost as though they’re flicking through reference cards in their head to find a match to the problem in front of them. They’re organised, focused on detail and think ahead to possible outcomes.

    “These guys know how they’ll be affected and they know how they’ll respond to these accumulated experiences. Allowing stress to build up is not an option as the operative can become withdrawn and lose their temper.”

    Looking back on your life, when have you taken the dispassionate approach to delivering the desired results? You may have done this when dealing with a crisis or tackling a challenge.

    Faced by a potentially overpowering issue, you may have drained yourself of emotion. You clarified the results to achieve and considered the possible options. Settling on the way forward, you concentrated fully on the task in hand and did what was necessary to achieve the goals.

    If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

    Describe a specific situation in the past when you took the dispassionate approach towards channelling your passion and delivered the desired results.

    Describe the specific things you did to take these steps. 

    Describe the specific things that happened as a result.

    The Dispassionate Approach
    In Challenging Situations

    There are many theories about bravery. These include distinguishing between hot courage and cold courage.

    Hot courage involves spur of the moment acts of bravery. These can include confronting an armed attacker, pulling somebody from a burning car or laying one’s life on the line to save another person.

    The adrenaline kicks in and the person throws themselves into action. Looking back after the experience, they may say something like: “It was the obvious thing to do.”

    Cold courage is more calculated. It does not necessarily mean the absence of fear. Sometimes it can involve the simple calculation that choosing to act – and accepting the feeling of fear – is better than not doing anything.

    Sometimes it means going through the following steps. a) Recognising what is happening; b) Recognising what will happen if nobody intervenes; c) Recognising that they want to do something to affect the outcome.

    Cold courage sometimes involves being committed to something that is greater than yourself. It may involve pursuing a set of values, a spiritual faith or a sense of mission. Serving this cause can provide the strength to tackle difficult challenges.

    Let’s explore another topic related to this theme. This involves caring deeply for your work but not letting the caring cloud your judgement. Passion is a great starting point, but sometimes people also need to develop perspective.

    This is particularly crucial when it comes to making decisions. One Chief Executive expressed this in the following way.

    We hire people who are passionate about the work and want to deliver high professional standards. When considering people for leadership positions, however, we consider whether they can develop perspective.  

    Good leaders see the big picture and make good decisions. Some leadership teams, however, are full of people who only feel passionate about their own departments. This can then translate into people indulging in turf wars.  

    We want people to put aside their personal agendas and see the big picture. They need to make good decisions that help the customers and the whole organisation to achieve success.

    Great athletes sometimes adopt the dispassionate approach. They care deeply about doing their best. Sometimes they can become anxious and perform badly, however, by caring too much about winning the prize.

    Matthew Syed, the author of Bounce, gives an example of how to overcome this feeling. He explains how Sarah Lindsay, the speed skater, took this step by maintaining perspective.

    Sarah spent years focusing on reaching the final of her speed skating event in the Winter Olympics. Reaching this goal meant beating her previous best performance.

    She knew this called for being able to flow, focus and finish. How to make this happen? Sarah was seen preparing in the locker room before the final qualifying race saying to the following things to herself.

    It’s only speed skating. It’s only speed skating. It’s only bloody speed skating.

    Sarah kept repeating the mantra. She then went out and performed beyond her previous best to reach the final.

    Matthew goes on to describe how an athlete can overcome choking – continually failing to perform when it really matters.

    As Mark Bawden, the sports psychologist who worked with Lindsay, put it:

    “In order to make all the sacrifices necessary to reach world-class levels of performance, an athlete has to believe that performing well means everything.

    “They have got to cleave to the belief that winning an Olympic gold is of life-changing significance.

    “But that is precisely the belief that is most likely to trigger a choking response.

    “So, the key psychological skill for someone with a tendency to choke is to ditch that belief in the minutes before competition and to replace it with the belief that the race does not really matter.

    “It is a form of psychological manipulation, and it takes a lot of work to master.”

    Decision Making

    Looking back on your life, when did you made a good decision when under pressure? This could have been in your personal or professional life. You may have been facing a crisis, tackling a challenge or dealing with another issue.

    What did you do then to buy time? How did you clarify the real results to achieve? How did you clarify the potential options? What did you to settle on your chosen way forwards?

    Different people use different methods for making decisions. Here are two methods that have been popularised through their use by rugby players. These are the concepts of putting on your Blue Head and also using the T-CUP approach.

    Writing in his book Legacy, James Kerr describes how the New Zealand All Blacks learned to be calm and clear when under pressure. They learned to put on the Blue Head rather than Red Head.

    Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, summarised this approach in one of his blogs. Below are excerpts from the piece that you can find via the following link.

    Blue Head

    Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches.

    So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head. 

    Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed. 

    Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance. The key is doing three things: 

    Seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting.

    Sense cues when you are entering Red Head mode

    Use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head.

    On the All Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective.

    T-CUP is an acronym often referred to by the sports coach Sir Clive Woodward. He used it as head coach of the England rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003.

    Different people interpret the acronym in different ways. Some refer to it as Thinking Clearly Under Pressure. Others use Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.

    Why do people use this approach in sports? One view is that, at the top, many athletes are extremely talented. Their performance on the day, however, can be strongly influenced by their mental attitude.

    Good coaches prepare individuals and teams to deal with such difficulties. They create scenarios that, as far as possible, replicate challenging situations. The athletes are then helped to develop skills for staying calm under pressure.

    The England rugby players became so used to the approach that, whenever difficulties emerged, they would remind each other by shouting T-CUP. This helped them to make good decisions at key moments in matches.

    Different people use different ways to stay calm. They also use different models for making decisions. One approach is to use the Three C Model. This involves exploring the following themes.


    Looking at the situation, what is actually happening? What will be the consequences if these things continue to happen? What do I want to do to affect the situation? What are the things I can control? What are the real results I want to achieve? What is the picture of success?


    What are the possible options for going forwards? What are the pluses and minuses of each option? Are there any other possible creative solutions? What are the key strategies I can follow to give myself the greatest chance of success?

    Concrete Results 

    What is the route – or combination of routes – I want to follow? How can I translate this into a clear action plan? How can I get some quick successes? How can I encourage myself on the journey? How can I do my best to achieve the picture of success?

    Delivering The
    Desired Results

    Imagine that you have, in a dispassionate way, clarified the strategy you can follow to pursue your passion. How can you deliver the goods?

    You will aim to perform superb work. At the same time, you will need to keep doing reality checks about: a) What is working and how to do more of these things; b) What you can do better and how.

    You may also need to demonstrate certain characteristics. Great workers often show resilience, for example, and the ability to overcome setbacks.

    Al Siebert was somebody who did pioneering work on resilience. His superb books – such as The Survivor Personality and The Resiliency Advantage – enabled many people to develop their inner strength.

    Al provided more than inspiring stories. He offered positive models and practical tools that enabled people to develop their resiliency skills.

    They could then apply these to overcome challenges when using their strengths. He helped many people to make breakthroughs in their personal and professional lives.

    Al spent over 50 years studying how people develop inner strength. A paratrooper in the 1950s, he remembered meeting the few remaining survivors from the 11th Airborne Division, a unit that had served in WWII and Korea.

    Something about them made him sit up and take notice. They weren’t the gung-ho types: they had unusual qualities. He wrote:

    During our training I noticed that combat survivors have a type of personal radar always on ‘scan.’ Anything that happens, or any noise draws a quick, brief look. 

    They have a relaxed awareness. I began to realize it wasn’t just luck or fate that these were the few who came back alive. 

    Something about them as people had tipped the scales in their favour.

    Returning to college after completing his military service, Al resolved to study psychology, but he grew frustrated by its emphasis on mental illness.

    He decided to study life’s survivors – those who grew when overcoming tough challenges. Scoping out the areas of study, he chose to focus on people that met four criteria:

    They had survived a major crisis.

    They had surmounted the crisis through personal effort.

    They had emerged from the experience with previously unknown strengths and abilities.

    They had, in retrospect, found value in the experience.

    Al shared his knowledge by running workshops, giving keynote speeches and writing articles. He then came to international prominence with his book The Survivor Personality.

    This book contains many stories about people who have overcome extreme challenges. The situations they faced included, for example, sexual assaults, life-threatening illnesses, being prisoners of war, addictions, physical attacks and crippling accidents.

    How do people cope with such adversity? Some don’t, says Al. They feel victimised, blame other people, become helpless or lash out at others. Some people do cope with adversity.

    Drawing on their inner strength, they stay calm, clarify the situation and chart their strategy. Committing to their course of action, they concentrate fully until they reach their chosen goal. Al explained this in the following way.

    They thrive by gaining strength from adversity and often convert misfortune into a gift. Are life’s best survivors different from other people? 

    No. They survive, cope, and thrive better because they are better at using the inborn abilities possessed by all humans. 

    Al discovered that survivors adopt various strategies to overcome crises successfully. These include the following.

    They have good personal radar
    and quickly read the new reality

    Al found a link between survivors and peak performers. Such people have a sixth sense in the areas in which they perform brilliantly. They seem to know what will happen before it happens. This is called personal radar.

    Reflecting on his time with the paratroopers who survived battles, Al talks about them quickly scanning situations. Looking for patterns, they asked some of the following questions. 

    What is happening? What isn’t happening? Are events following their normal course or is something else happening?

    What are the patterns I can observe? What will happen if these patterns continue? What will be the consequences?

    How can I build on the successful patterns? How can I deal with the unsuccessful patterns?

    What action do I need to take? Bearing in mind the patterns that are occurring – and the potential consequences – how can I do my best to achieve success?

    Survivors have experience of overcoming difficulties in life. As a result, they have developed a particular kind of savvy or personal radar.

    They read situations quickly and start considering the consequences. Other people ignore what is happening or bury their heads in the sand. Survivors click into awareness mode and take snapshots of what is actually happening.

    They have life-competencies
    help them in emergencies

    Survivors are life-long learners. They love to explore and make sense of experiences. They prefer to take initiatives rather than become institutionalised.

    Such people are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude but also quickly read reality. They then use their repertoire of skills to see patterns and deliver the required results. 

    They stay calm and maintain
    a sense of perspective

    Why? They realise it is vital to establish clarity. They must clarify what is happening and then make decisions about the way forward.

    Al gives examples of hijack survivors who stay calm. They gather information about how the hijackers behave, look for patterns and explore potential exits – not only for themselves, but also for other people.

    Such people also maintain a sense of perspective. Individuals who are diagnosed with a serious illness, for example, may then move to clarifying their assets. Some people reframe the difficulty as a project.

    Looking at it from this perspective, they are able to remove themselves and plan the path ahead. Al points out that some people actually become more playful and laugh in the situation.

    They clarify their options, are open to doing
    anything and choose their way forwards

    Al found that survivors choose their strategies from a wide repertoire of options. One contributing factor is that they have a quality common to many peak performers.

    Such people embrace what appear to be seeming paradoxes. They are able to see the big picture and the small details, to be focused and flexible, to be serious and playful.

    This means they are able to see a wider number of options than, for example, people who have been trained to behave in one way. Bearing in mind the results they want to achieve, they then choose their way forward.

    They take responsibility and
    totally commit to doing their best

    Survivors make their decision and throw themselves into pursuing their chosen strategy. They employ every ounce of energy to reach the goal.

    Such people are also able to balance the apparent paradox of being simultaneously helicoptering and hands-on. They are completely committed to the task in hand, yet hover above it to get perspective on what is happening.

    Survivors then do everything possible to reach the goal. Al described this in the following way.

    The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully and totally responsible for making things work out well

    Al expanded on this topic to produce another compelling book The Resiliency Advantage. Building on the theme of survival, he explored how people can thrive in a fast-changing world. This calls for individuals, teams and organisations to develop their resiliency skills.

    Why? In the old days many people relied on institutions to tell them what to learn and how to behave. Nowadays people must be more self-managing. They must manage increasing information, complexity and unpredictability.

    Such events may include personal setbacks, sickness, redundancy, market changes, reduced budgets, technological changes, economic downturns or other issues.

    People will need to deal with such challenges. This calls for them taking responsibility, seeing to the heart of the matter and making good decisions.

    Even if they choose the right strategy, events may conspire to throw them off-track. They will need to recover quickly, do course correction and do everything possible to reach their goals. People who develop such resiliency skills are more likely to increase their chances of success.

    Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation when you may want to take the dispassionate approach toward achieving a goal?

    This could be in your personal or professional life. You may want to take this approach when playing a sport, making a sale, managing a transition or taking a tough decision.

    Looking ahead, what can you do to take the dispassionate approach? How can you clarify the picture of success? How can you clarify your options together with the pluses and minuses of each option? How can you choose your way forwards?

    How can you then do superb work? How can you keep doing reality checks about what is working and what can be done better? How can you manage setbacks along the way? How can you do your best to deliver the desired results?

    If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

    Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to take the dispassionate approach towards channelling your passion and delivering the desired results.

    Describe the specific things you can do to take these steps. 

    Describe the specific things that may happen as a result.


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