Unveiling the Inner Performance Game: Exploring Executive Performance and Vulnerability

As a performance coach, I am passionate about delving into the concept of the inner performance game and its direct correlation with executive performance.

Let me shed some light on two crucial levels of functioning: the inner game, which encompasses the mental and emotional aspects of an executive’s performance, and the specific situations that executives encounter on a daily basis.

We often may tend to shy away from letting our guard down or letting hints of vulnerability in. But that’s a mistake: By exploring vulnerability, we can gain a comprehensive perspective on the challenges faced by executives and uncover insights for personal growth and development.

Let’s start by understanding what the inner performance game truly entails and how it relates to executive performance. I define the inner game as the process of managing ourselves despite our thoughts and emotions – maintaining our confidence, calm, and clarity regardless of what is going inside and around us

It’s about being mindful, present, and fully aware of our internal state. The key to improved executive performance lies in cultivating an improved inner game. It means being able to maintain calm, confidence, and clarity in everything we do, despite any inner turmoil we may experience. A person who has mastered their inner game can observe their thoughts and emotions without letting them hinder their best performance.

Signs of a weak inner game can include defensiveness, jealousy, anger, frustration, arrogance, cynicism, passive aggressiveness, lack of compassion, dismissiveness, and inflexibility. On the other hand, signs of a strong inner game include peace, clarity, calm, confidence, and compassion.

Improving one’s inner game is the number one thing executives can do to enhance their leadership and their lives. In fact, some might argue that it is the very meaning of life itself—to continually strive to become better individuals and work on our inner game every single day. If you are in a high-stakes, stressful job where people depend on you both at home and at work, wouldn’t you prefer to operate from a state of calm, clarity, and confidence rather than anxiety, defensiveness, or cynicism? It’s undeniable that a higher quality inner game enables us to perform at our best.

Executives encounter specific situations in their daily professional lives that put their inner game to the test at the highest levels. For example, leaders often face criticism from their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Additionally, they encounter situations where things don’t go according to plan or where they must play the role of the “bad guy” who has to say “no.” These instances assault the inner game, tempting us to deviate from our best selves. Picture a heated budget meeting where senior teammates aren’t getting what they want, whether it’s resources or information. Can you recall a time when reacting with anger, defensiveness, or dismissiveness in such a situation led to a better outcome for you, your team, or your organization? Probably not. Similarly, when facing pushback from your team regarding a great idea you had, did responding with frustration, defensiveness, or dismissiveness lead to the best possible result? Again, the answer is likely no.

These situations impact an executive’s performance both mentally and emotionally. When we neglect our inner game, we may not even notice the impact or quickly dismiss its significance. We might think, “Oh, they understand. I need to get things done and make tough decisions. That’s just the way it goes.” This type of thinking prevents us from reaching our full potential and leads us down a road of anxiety, stress, frustration, and fatigue. However, when we focus on elevating our inner game, we unlock our true potential and demonstrate qualities such as calmness, confidence, compassion, and clarity. It’s important to note that developing a strong inner game doesn’t mean being nice all the time.

As leaders, we often have to make difficult decisions. However, when we approach those decisions from a place of calm, confidence, compassion, and clarity—qualities that stem from an elevated inner game—we are more likely to garner support or, at the very least, understanding and buy-in from our team. This support and understanding are critical for the effectiveness of our decisions. You may have experienced this firsthand. Making a hard decision while your inner game is off can result in resistance, pushback, and dissatisfaction, ultimately leading to a loss of trust. Conversely, making the same decision from a place of calm, confidence, compassion, and clarity, which comes from an elevated inner game, may not make everyone happy, but it won’t erode trust. Trust is essential for team and organizational performance. Without it, our team and organization will never reach their full potential.

Embracing vulnerability is a powerful tool for personal and professional growth. It involves having the strength and willingness to recognize our flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes. Feeling vulnerable alone is not enough; we must have the wisdom to observe and learn from our vulnerabilities and the strength to acknowledge them, primarily for ourselves but also to some extent for others. This self-awareness is crucial for personal growth. It requires being deeply honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings before we can truly improve.

Moreover, vulnerability can be embraced externally as well. We all, without exception, have flaws and experience fear and insecurity at times, even those who may appear incredibly successful. However, we often overlook this fact, feeling intimidated or inferior. When we witness others’ vulnerability, we no longer feel alone. Instead, we feel more connected to those who show us their vulnerability. The human need for connection is profound – and a lack of that connection often contributes to our inner turmoil.

Sharing our vulnerabilities with others is a powerful way to establish that connection. However, it’s important to strike a balance. We shouldn’t burden others with our challenges, nor should we share our vulnerabilities at inappropriate times. It’s crucial to choose the right moment, such as when someone else is struggling, to open up and create that connection. During moments of celebration, it’s often more appropriate to share successes and be more complimentary rather than focusing on our vulnerabilities.

I can personally think of countless instances in which I have struggled to live up to the principles I advocate. I’ll be the first to admit it. There have been countless times when I’ve rolled out new plans, ideas, processes, or budgets, only to face pushback in the form of valid questions and challenges.

Instead of responding honestly and acknowledging the validity of those concerns—for example, by saying, “I had not considered that. Let’s explore this alternative further”—I found myself responding in a dismissive manner, effectively shutting down the conversation. It was too daunting for me to put my plans at risk by engaging in a dialogue that might expose weaknesses in my ideas or reveal my lack of adequate answers to tough questions. Unfortunately, this approach hindered team acceptance and engagement. Had I mustered the courage to allow my plan’s weaknesses to be explored, I might have come up with a better plan or, at the very least, gained more support in the end.

Now, the question arises: How can executives enhance their inner game to improve overall performance in various situations?

Taking the time to observe our fears and vulnerabilities is crucial. Before important meetings, in the morning, or whenever possible, we should reflect on what truly worries us.


  • We should also consider what concerns other stakeholders, such as bosses, peers, and subordinates, might have. Instead of trying to gloss over these issues, we should bring them to the surface and seek everyone’s help in addressing them, rather than hoping they won’t come up. Perhaps we feel guilty about the impact a decision may have on a certain person or team. It’s essential to voice these concerns and ask for alternative solutions.

  • We must remain open-minded and willing to adjust our plans. Facing the fear that others may not like our ideas and not avoiding it is crucial. We can openly express our uncertainties and seek input from the team.

  • One effective approach is to enter meetings or conversations with a few key questions rather than a preconceived pitch or speech. Questions such as “What are the alternatives?” or “What am I overlooking?” can stimulate meaningful dialogue and invite others to contribute their insights. While we ultimately have to make the final call, we can engage others in generating alternatives and gaining their buy-in by demonstrating our willingness to expose our vulnerabilities and seek their assistance.

 As I reflect on executives I’ve worked with as a coach and advisor, I have seen countless times that a focus on vulnerability and personal growth can significantly improve an executive’s effectiveness in their role. Developing our inner game is the most important process we can undertake to become better leaders. It begins with deep honesty about our hopes, dreams, weaknesses, mistakes, and fears. This self-awareness is the foundation for further growth and improvement. By continuously working on our inner game, we cultivate qualities such as calmness, confidence, clarity, and compassion—the very attributes that drive optimal performance.

 Are there proven techniques or practices that you can incorporate into your routines to enhance your inner game and overall performance? Absolutely. Inner game work is a progressive and continuous journey, much like getting in shape.

 Two valuable tools for enhancing our inner game are meditation and journaling. Engaging in regular meditation allows us to cultivate mindfulness, self-awareness, and the ability to observe our thoughts and emotions without being consumed by them. Journaling, on the other hand, provides an outlet for self-reflection, self-expression, and capturing valuable insights. Reading books on personal development, taking care of our physical well-being through a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and regular exercise, and seeking guidance from a coach or therapist are also beneficial practices. Each of these techniques and tools contributes to our ongoing growth and development.

 Keep in mind that the concept of the inner performance game is not limited to the executive role. It has broader applications in various areas of life. Developing a strong inner game improves our relationships, both personal and professional. The same qualities that enhance executive performance—calmness, confidence, clarity, and compassion—positively impact all interactions. Imagine how much better our work and home life could be if we approached them with greater confidence, calmness, clarity, and compassion. Our inner game has a profound influence on our overall performance, regardless of the context in which we operate.

 Inner performance game, with its focus on the interplay between our inner game and executive performance, is a concept that sheds light on the critical role of self-awareness, vulnerability, and personal growth. By cultivating a strong inner game, you can navigate the challenges you face more effectively and lead with greater impact. Embracing vulnerability, acknowledging our shortcomings, and seeking continuous improvement are key steps towards enhancing our inner game and overall performance. The strategies and practices discussed here provide a roadmap for executives to embark on this transformative journey.