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Michael Sgro on leadership: Build emotional intelligence, learn from failure, start now!

Michael Sgro of Michael Sgro Leadership Coaching, of Syracuse. (Photo by ana gil photography) Photo by ana gil photography

Beneath Michael Sgro’s ebullient personality is a serious student of human behavior. His superpower is empathy, and he uses it to unlock others’ potential through his business, Michael Sgro Leadership Coaching.

Sgro hung out his shingle six years ago after two decades in in various alumni and residential affairs roles at Fordham University, New York University, Le Moyne College and SUNY Cortland and Oswego.

“After 20 years in higher education, I was like, you know what? I help people pretty well,” he recalls. “I think this could be a business, because personalities are unlimited … but human behavior is the same around the world. There’s a simple math to understanding it. And once you have that understanding, it allows you to interact with people more successfully because humans are predictable.”

Sgro teaches those skills to clients who want to become more effective in their professional lives and to reach their full potential as leaders. He also conducts group training in topics such as emotional intelligence, communication and teamwork. He is especially proud of his work as an instructor at the Syracuse Police Academy. The goal is to help police officers recognize and manage the feelings they bring to their encounters with others.

“I’m working on my fourth cohort now, and what I see in the data is that each group that we’re graduating has higher emotional intelligence from the first group,” he says.

Sgro, 48, grew up on the North Side of Syracuse and graduated from Le Moyne College with a degree in psychology. He maintains offices in Armory Square and in Rochester; he and four “affiliate” coaches also see clients from around the country via video conference. Sgro also is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. He lives in downtown Syracuse with his maltipoo, Jonah.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your social media persona is relentlessly upbeat and energetic. It makes me a little tired. Is that the real you?

My online persona is who I really am. It’s authentically me. It’s natural for me to be energetic. Not every human is that way. Some people really are zapped with “peopling,” where that’s my strength. People like me, we are solar powered. I’ve been looking forward to this [conversation] all day, and I’m stealing your energy as we speak. So if you feel zapped, [that’s why].

… I have love in my heart. I really want to help people. … I think of having a ripple effect in the world. And so while I can’t access everyone in real time, the internet has allowed people like me to have an impact on people. I probably get a message a day of someone saying, hey, that meant a lot to me. Thanks for what you’re putting out there. The way I see it, I’m polluting the internet with positivity.

I call it being a light bearer. When you feel it, you know.

You joke that you’ve been doing this leadership thing since age 7. Tell me about that.

As far as I could remember, I’ve always been someone who attracts people to them. When I think about what leadership is, I say it’s an active emotional event; you know it because you feel it. It’s usually the person who was brave enough to say the thing out loud. In some workplaces, that might be seen as disruptive, because it’s not formal and polite. It’s more candid and gritty. I’ve been very candid and gritty since I was a kid. I remember arguing with my father, who was immigrant from Italy, who would say very racial, awful things. And at seven years old, I knew it was wrong.

[Sgro says he often was asked to lead childhood activities.] Hey, do you mind doing arts and crafts at the park? Because they don’t want to lead the effort. They don’t want to get all the supplies. You know what they say: If you want something done, give it to a busy person. That’s always been my thing.

So when “The Get-Along Gang” cartoon came out [featuring animal characters having adventures to show the importance of friendship and teamwork], there was a kit you can order. And so I did. I see that as my first leadership experience: OK, here’s the process. I’m the moose. And this is what happens.

Are leaders born or made?

Great question. I ran our MBA Summer Start program at NYU. I worked with this associate dean. We would get into skirmishes every so often when we talked about leadership. And she said: Dear Michael, this is something that can only be taught. And I would argue with her: No, I think there are people who are born with superpowers.

At the end of that six-week program, I brought in a speaker, Chris Lowney. He wrote the book “Heroic Leadership,” a case study of the Jesuits. He was a former Jesuit seminarian who then worked at Morgan Stanley. [At the end of his talk,] he says, “Any more questions?” and a student asks: “Are people born with leadership skills?” I felt the laser beam hit my head from the associate dean sitting in the back.

And Lowney said — which is what I say — yes, of course, leadership can be taught and learned. But it’s an experiential activity. It’s not a learned one where you just follow a prescription. You grow into it. Also, people who are born with a proclivity [for leadership] can go farther with it. If you’re hardwired, you’re going to just have the wiring to start faster than someone who is learning it along the way. But that would be true of any skill. Ice dancing, for instance.

Nobody sets out to become a bad leader but we seem to have a lot of them. What are they getting wrong?

It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect [a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability because they lack the self-awareness to accurately assess their own skills, or conversely, people who excel at something underestimate their abilities]. And then there’s a third type, which is someone could be expert in something and actually have the appropriate level of confidence, but they think that everyone knows what they know.

If leaders don’t know if they’re good or bad, it’s one of these things.

I know a lot of leaders who say, I don’t think I’m a good leader — and they’re really great. You’ve got to have confidence as a demonstration that “I’ve got this.” That word, confidence, is really confusing to a lot of people who are “feelers,” because they feel confidence is something they need to have in order to do something. Confidence … is when you do the thing wonderfully and very convincingly. No one buys from a salesperson who’s not confident.

Is that another way of saying, “Fake it till you make it?”

That’s a strategy — but I wouldn’t recommend it. No, I’m saying: Pull it off.

I just had a text exchange with somebody. They’re going into a huge corporate meeting tomorrow, like they have a lot of times, and she’s in a bit of a freefall. And I’m like, sister, we have talked about this for five years. Walk into the room with confidence. Start there. You don’t even know what’s going to happen yet. But people who want certainty don’t feel confident. And so [you] have to just, in work, believe that whatever is going to happen, you’ve got it. We can’t prepare for everything.

You talk about a lack of self-awareness and self-regulation in the workplace. What do you mean by that?

A key part of emotional intelligence is being able to regulate, be adaptive, achieve your goals, and have an internal positive outlook. Without this piece, your feelings are facts, and you’re going to hurt people. … Feelings make us vulnerable but they also make us very powerful. And if you’re trying to solve your feelings with other people, or your boss, you’re never going to win because you have to manage your internal environment [first]. Manage your feelings, so that you don’t bring into the chemistry of what’s happening outside of you something that’s not good.

How does that apply to leadership?

I don’t believe anyone can be a high-performing leader without high emotional intelligence. The correlation is very strong. We see this with the Great Resignation. There are a lot of people who didn’t think they were the [jerk]. Well, people finally said, “I’m out!” — and I think we’re going to still experience a level of that in the next number of years, because we’re working out [questions like]: What is the workplace? Is it a place?

For example, if you don’t have empathy, you’re not going to know what’s going on with your remote employees. Empathy is a human radar, it’s picking up heartbeats, what’s happening with that person. The technology now could be considered a barrier, but you could also use this technology to call everybody on your team in the morning and ask, how are you doing?

… People want to work differently. A lot of folks who are at the top of companies right now, who are more analytical and logical, are going to wait for the data — and it’s going to be too late. They’re going to close their doors. This is a time where we’re going to have to try things out. If you don’t have high emotional intelligence, it’ll be really hard to facilitate [all that].

Are we giving young people the right tools to become leaders?

No! There’s a great book called “The Coddling of the American Mind” [by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt]. Starting around 2013, college administrations started being offended by speakers coming to campus, which is a new phenomenon. It was always the students who got offended. … In higher education — and I can say this confidently, because I was there — we have created the ultimate safe space.

Parents also have created the ultimate safe space. Folks who are trying to learn, whether they are kids or young adults, are never given the immunity of failure. If you do not fail, you will never recognize success. You don’t recognize the mountain you just climbed. Educators, parents, and teachers who have cleared away all of the discomfort … it’s good intention. That’s why it’s hard to wrestle with.

[After a difficult childhood,] I know that when the bone breaks, it grows back stronger. We’re doing a disservice to young people by not letting them experience failure. Don’t talk to the coach! When I was still working in education, I had parents going on job interviews for their kids who are 21. People today call me and say, I just got a call from so-and-so’s mother. Why are they calling your work? You have to call your work.

There are consequences to this. And we’re going to see this throughout, not just employment. Not to sound apocalyptic about this, but there’s always these two submarine folks who have to turn the keys the same time. I worry that one of them is going to be on their phone at the wrong time.

What do you wish you’d known about running a company before you started?

Not everyone wants help. I see where people are hurting and, of course, I want to run toward the fire. They have to ask. When they ask, that’s an indicator that they’re motivated and that’s when the magic will happen. I wouldn’t have known that outright from the very beginning.

One of my surprises has been I’ve been able to make what I do accessible to the masses, at the “freemium” level to one-on-one coaching. I didn’t realize that there could be scale of servicing the community. I just thought, I’m going to have seven clients a month. Then I figured out there are different layers and levels of that. I wish I knew ahead of time, so would have planned for it.

If you could give some advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Empathy is a blessing and a curse. … The blessing is: No one can lie to you because you know exactly how to read people. The curse is: You may not like what you find. And so it’s taken a long time to figure out how to couch and respect people’s privacy of their thoughts and give them grace and space to figure it out.

When you’re high empathy, you know if someone’s not rooting for you. In this work, I have to allow that to be OK. … I wish I knew that as a young person. I just fought my way there all the time. …

To make the change, you got to be in the room. So I’ve learned how to be in the room.

Any tips for someone who aspires to be a leader?

Start now! Start a movement. People think of leadership is a formal thing. It’s an informal thing, being able to influence and garner people’s energy to do something good. Everyone could do that in any sort of context of their life, whether it’s their family, their employment.

You don’t need permission. And so I tell people, just go for it. What do you see is the biggest bugaboo in your life? And then try to help make it better.

What is Central New York’s greatest unmet challenge?

You only want one answer?

I’m from here but I’m a boomerang. I did 20 years in the biggest city in the world and two of the poorest communities in the state [Oswego and Cortland]. I saw more grit and collaboration in those communities. I’ve lived through 9/11. That experience changed New Yorkers. People were there for each other like you wouldn’t believe. It was such a unifying experience. And if I hear one more time that Carrier closed, and that’s the reason why someone is still upset … That’s what’s holding us back.

Our unrealized growth mindset is what I think is ready to go. I feel like we’re on the precipice. Two things are going to inform that change: transplants and boomerangs. …

We’ve still got a number of people here who see challenge first versus opportunity. And so I think we just need a mindset shift. And when that shifts, we’re working more collaboratively.

What about our greatest asset?

Our physical region. In the era of climate change, the Rust Belt is the best place to live, at least for the next 50 years. So we’ve got all that going for us. We have seasons, we don’t have tsunamis. You go five minutes, 10 minutes in a direction, you’re in the wilderness. It’s untapped. Visit Syracuse does a really nice job of kind of broadening our horizons about the kinds of opportunities that are out there. We’re on the precipice of something really awesome to really expose that as a real asset.

The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success and innovation. To suggest a candidate for Conversations on Leadership, email Marie Morelli at


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