Leading From Within

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman

Many powerful people have discussed and described leadership. The hallmarks of leadership include creating a vision, establishing a direction, and demonstrating by example how to pursue the path. As I reflect on those I consider great leaders I think of people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly they were vocal, strong in presenting and pursuing their visions and voicing their passion, most definitely important aspects of leadership. However, they each learned leadership through the crucible of life which honed and prepared them for their mission. They first had to lead from within, so that their integrity shone forth and their personal power established. Without first mastering themselves, and demonstrating leadership of themselves, they would not have had the same power to shape nations.

Imagine spending over 20 years in a prison cell. The courage and the conviction required to abide the appalling conditions Mandela suffered enabled him to emerge as the statesman he is. Gandhi’s did not invent his ideas on nonviolence on a whim but as a result of years of struggle, including imprisonment, and demonstrated conviction to his values. Martin Luther King grew up with a full understanding of oppression, and knew it was dangerous to seek change, but had a vision, a dream, and was willing to back it.

To achieve leadership greatness one must, I strongly believe, lead ourselves first and foremost through and out of our own darkness. All through our life we have built up layer upon layer of programming, training, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, addictions, emotional responses, social expectations etc. These cover up and detract from our clarity over our life purpose and the values that are core to us. We establish protective mechanisms that keep us safe, maintain security and levels of certainty, but which also rob us of the ability to align with and act in accordance with our core purpose. Cutting through the façades we have built around our soul so we can shine forth in the fullness of who we are is a powerful process and requires deep commitment to self, and personal leadership. Success in this endeavour provides the substance for and basis of our personal power. It enables us to manifest leadership to others because we have triumphed within ourselves.

Fundamentally it is pain and pleasure that motivates us to action. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, with pain taking precedence over pleasure. We grow up with experiences shaping our beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions. We learn who we are and what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not, from our primary care givers. We associate pain with non-conformance, from failure to work within norms and social boundaries. We associate with groups (friends, colleagues, gangs etc) and learn of the rules for reward by these groups. Obedience to norms carries rewards. Breaking from the norms, being odd or different, carries penalty and pain. But a leader cannot work in the norm, as an average person, as part of the group. At some point they must assert themselves, separate from the group, and come into their own space.

Most people start learning this as teenagers, rebelling from parents and choosing another tribe to belong to. They move from one social group to another, establish different patterns and norms, and feel they are closer to being themselves. Later they discover it was their desire to belong that motivated them so they were still being managed by groups. Some never get over this, looking outside themselves to satisfy their need for acceptance and belonging rather than from within themselves.

When pursued further, the maturation process eventually leads us to question who we are, why we are here and what greater purpose we serve. The recognition of our individuality, our uniqueness, and the possibility that we have value enables us to seek within for our gifts. Discovering and being true to who we are becomes important. There is a shift from seeking love and acceptance from outside to a place where we provide that to ourselves, and become less bound to the whims of our “tribal” groups and roots. However there is also pain in this process.

Shifting our focus from outside to inside us requires us to meet and confront all our fears, insecurities, debilitating attitudes and behaviours, and find ways of putting them behind us. Some of us have powerful inner critics that berate us as our parents may have. We hear the piercing criticism from within with greater clarity than the scolding we may have experienced in younger days, which can stop us in our tracks. Whether it is the voice of our inner critic or the rigid walls of protection we have erected over the years, they stop us shining, and to truly emerge we must overcome them. If we stay bound to our insecurities we shun the opportunity to change and to transform ourselves from part of the pack to the leader we can be. If we seek to change ourselves through coercion and internal aggression and anger we have simply substituted the voices of our experience with our own tormentor. We emerge when we have found ourselves to be lovable, acceptable and perfect as we are, and truly believe that. That is not saying we are perfect. Goodness, what is perfection and who can judge that? It is saying that we are entirely acceptable as we are, that we have our own uniqueness based on who we are and what we have experienced, and everything has brought us to this point in life, and all of this is perfect and right as is.

To lead others we must lead ourselves. We must be able and capable of dealing with adversity, the naysayer, and find ways through and out of those difficulties. Our ability to deal with and manage external adversity and opposition is much greater when we have mastered the opposition that comes from within us. Our ability to lead with clarity and conviction in public is greatest when we have already managed that within ourselves in isolation. Perhaps being in prison for 20+ years is something that could benefit everyone. Certainly it provides time to reflect, see ourselves more clearly and deal with our personal demons. However not all of us need to change whole nations. We have good we can accomplish by remaining engaged in the world, but the battle within is just as real. A growing number of people are learning the benefits of meditation, yoga etc for stress relief. Some find it painful because they slow down a little and start to see themselves more clearly, and find things they judge as unacceptable or wrong with them. If we wish to lead others effectively then we must have already learned to lead from within. We must have confronted ourselves and been victorious in engaging with and being comfortable in the presence of our own voices and messages from within. We must have learned about tolerating and working through the issues that surface from our past. We can be hampered by insecurity and doubt or develop a powerful love of ourselves, warts and all. None of us can become entirely free of these things, but we can develop comfort for and appreciation of the fog we create in our lives, and find ways of charting through them. For as we move through our own internal fog we develop the capacity to lead others through theirs.

I have always found the following an inspiring statement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

The more we connect with ourselves, and manifest the greatness within, the greater our capacity to work through life, deal with issues, and exhibit personal power that will inspire others. If you wish to lead others, then first lead yourself.

Where are you in the process of developing personal power and governing yourself? What barriers have prevented you achieving the success you desire? What behaviours and attitudes diminish your ability to lead others and create change within your organisation? As you learn to lead from within you also gain greater understanding of the issues and barriers faced within organisations and how to work through them.

Make Goals Count

There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!
There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!

Goals are important to planned success but are often half-heartedly approached or considered prepared when the end state is thought of an in the mind. Few individuals truly set goals in a manner that works. Even among the leadership of organisations and projects there is limited personal skill and success in goal setting. I assert that personal experience in goal setting and goal achievement leads to more effective project and strategic management. The better we are able to manage ourselves in inner leadership the better we can influence and affect positive change and results with others.

To set and achieve goals we need:

  • a sense of purpose that the goals support
  • commitment, discipline and focus; stay with the process through thick and thin
  • empathy and understanding; recognise and acknowledge cause for failures and setback and move forward without being over critical
  • willingness to change attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and our level of comfort
  • resilience; getting up as many times as we fall over
  • the ability to celebrate triumphs and grieve failures
  • to celebrate successes (milestone and final completion)

Goal Achieving Framework

To set and achieve goals it is essential we understand what we value. Energy, passion and commitment are accessible insofar as we align our goals with what really matters to us. Primary motivators in life include affiliation, power and achievement. These can have a significant impact on what we do. They are neutral regarding how we act. They are not at all inspiring. Inspiration comes from our values. They determine why we do things. They also affect the ‘how’ since they set limits on what we consider appropriate behaviour.

Values

Core Values are overarching operating philosophies we maintain regardless of how difficult circumstances may become. We typically have 3 to 5 such values. How clear are you on your core values? Do you know what you are not prepared to give up or relinquish in your quest for success in life? By clarifying our core values, some decisions are much easier to make. When we breach a core value we experience a loss of integrity, associated feelings of shame or guilt, regardless of whether we have identified the value or not.

Forces acting on us during change
Forces acting on us during change

General Values identify the relative significance of circumstances, states and ‘things’ to us at the moment. There are two forms of general value:

  • Pursuit Values: states (e.g. success) or feelings (e.g. happiness) we seek
  • Avoidance Values: states (e.g. depression) or feelings (e.g. anger) we avoid.

General Values are associated with two fundamental drivers behind all human action: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. If an action may result in pleasure and pain of comparable magnitudes, we tend to avoid the pain by not taking action. They may also hold the key for personal conflicts we experience. I remember identifying personal growth and peace as two values I sought. I wanted peace in my life but I never achieved it. When I examined the rules for each ‘value’ my rule for personal growth excluded the possibility of peace as I had defined it. I realised I had to change my rules or my expected state. I did both and now have peace and growth concurrently.

Managing Personal Change

Our goals require us to take action, and action necessitates change. Change unsettles. It has to! It requires us to shift established patterns, beliefs, values, and cultural and behavioural norms. The degree of change determines the impact experienced. Change impacts on us via three sources of pain: breaking attachments, breaching protections and dashing expectations.

Attachments (past) are our connections with established behaviours and relationships. Grief is pain experienced when we lose a family member. The pain associated with breaking a habit can keep us locked in. In a work environment, people have preferred patterns of work, ways they use systems, associates they enjoy working with, and some certainty in the results they can expect. They know what works, what does not, and have comfort through familiarity with where they are. Change these attachments at your peril!

Protections (present) are established to bring us security and certainty. Whether performing routines with known outcomes, acting in habitual ways (even negative behaviours) because we want specific responses from others, or being in a physical environment that is familiar, our ‘protections’ provide security for us. Our belief system can be a special form of protective mechanism. To achieve meaningful goals we often must change self-limiting beliefs. Anything that disrupts our protections becomes a source of discomfort.

Expectations (future) are aspirations that we have for the future. Examples include what our ideal partner is like, financial goals, the outcome of our next performance review, and who will be on our project team. Anything that causes our vision of the future to diminish causes pain. Expectations are attachments to the future.

Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations
Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations

Pain is a real turn off from taking action. We have a natural (and reasonable) aversion to pain. Gaining pleasure is the reason we do take action. To be successful we must associate much more pleasure than pain with taking action. We must reduce the pleasure and increase the pain of maintaining the status quo, and increase the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with the desired state. The greater the positive difference between where we want to be and where we are, the better our leverage will be. The leverage we have determines how strongly we take action.

Goal Setting Principles

General principles to apply to increase the chances of success include:

  • Get clear about ‘Why’. Before starting work, get clear and specific about why you want to take action. Establish why it is vital that you succeed, what the change will create for you, and what you will miss out if you do not succeed.
  • Specify what you will do and when. Plan the change. If this is a single step goal then this will include how, otherwise you need to map out milestones and time-frames so you can monitor and assess progress. This enables you to work on achievable chunks while maintaining a bigger picture perspective.
  • Identify who will take action or be otherwise involved. This had better have your name next to it. You are responsible for your results. However, it is also important to identify those you need to consult and involve.
  • Define ‘how’ each step will be accomplished. Get specific. The more clearly you define the tasks/steps, the better you are able to identify problems up front and ensure things are happening during execution.
  • Assess pleasure and pain of taking action. This equates to risk management at a personal level. Identify the forces operating for and against change. Consider approaches that enhance the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with achieving the goal.

Write down the goals and the plan for achieving them. This ensures the goals are not whimsical. The planning process helps internalise goals. Passion, energy and creativity is then accessible. Overwhelm the pain that prevents action with the pleasure associated with successfully accomplishing your goals.

If you are working on relationship goals the process of working with your partner and getting specific about what you seek and how you will accomplish it brings the energy and commitment of two people more clearly to bear, with fewer assumptions and miscommunications causing havoc and upsetting the process. Getting clear about what pain and pleasure is associated with the change will place you in a better position to support each other through the individual struggles you will experience.

When working with others to achieve goals (e.g. on projects) remember you need:

  • clarity about intent, purpose and process
  • vigilance to uncover sources of resistance
  • creativity and empathy to find workable solutions to assist people (your own self when pursuing individual goals) past the resistance
  • communication (2-way) so that understanding and clarity can be developed and maintained
  • celebration to applaud success

Conclusion

The concepts are easy. The practice is not so easy. If you associate pleasure with planning and goals setting, it may become a powerful ally in your life. Overcome the resistance that impedes change. Decide to make your time on this planet count. These principles apply to relationships, projects and organisations so any success at the personal level supports you in other environments.

I challenge you to:

  • Get clear about what you want to achieve and why
  • Create leverage around the reasons for change
  • Get on with it
  • Take up my offer of a free coaching session to get started

Do The Impossible

While sitting in a project kick-off meeting I listened to a senior manager introduce a new project. He set the scene by telling us that we had 10 weeks to accomplish the project, that he wanted a premium result, and that any deviation from the perfect solution must be detailed in papers that explained the reasons for failure to deliver the outstanding result. It was the integration of a supplier’s system with their own. This had only just been completed with another supplier who had a more advanced environment, and it had taken 18 months. The team were clear that what was being asked was not possible. The manager was clearly ignorant of how the system and business operated, and arrogant enough to believe that saying it must be so was sufficient. It was an unhealthy way to commence a project. The team did achieve significant outcomes because of lessons learned from the previous experience, but by no means the ‘perfect solution’, and these were driven by the team’s own interest in realising the best result possible, and not this manager’s erroneous pep-talk.

While the above story is based on a particular event, it is not unique. All too often project teams are placed in situations where they swallow the bitter pill of stressful time-frames, unrealistic expectations, and unnecessary pressure. They judge their management as out of touch with the reality of their organisation and as having failed to take early action in what was an obvious, prudent and timely fashion, and who then speak platitudes in an attempt to solve their own ineptitude. From the outset of such projects there is already an environment of distrust, conflict and blame which undermines the natural desire and motivation of people to perform their work in a satisfactory and fulfilling manner. Compare this “normal but unsatisfactory” environment with the following experience.

2007 ‘The Archetypes’ Oxfam Trailwalker team successfully finished

In March 2007 I did the impossible, or so I had been told by a number of people who knew me, successfully walking 100km (62 miles) in 25 hours 4 minutes as part of the Oxfam Trailwalker Challenge. For years (at least 20 years) I was a desk potato. I sat behind my desk, worked on my computer, and “prided” myself in having a body that mostly did what I needed without any maintenance. Over time its capacity diminished due to my lack of fitness apparent through tiredness, shortness of breath, and unresponsive, easily injured muscles.

Six months earlier I first heard of the Challenge. Within 60 seconds I had volunteered myself on to the four person team. I was more than surprised at my decision. Something unfamiliar within me took over. Time for a change.

I was part of an endeavour with others relying on me. Though a team event it was not a relay. We all had to complete the entire distance together, and I was the weakest link. My team mates included a marathon runner, an actively competing cyclist, and a mountaineer. On electing to participate one of them made the comment: “You know your own body.” Never a falser word spoken. I had no clue about my body, but something had called me and I felt compelled to answer.

My busy schedule, always too full previously for exercise, suddenly changed. Training was undertaken. I struggled with 3–5 kilometre walks, pulling muscles on a regular basis. Anger and frustration were common feelings. My body did not perform as I demanded. It rebelled. Then I started to listen to it, dialogue opened up, and I sought outside advice. New shoes were tried. I defined regular training routes, distance goals, and I partnered with my body so we better supported each other. After a month I walked over 10km and I felt totally wiped out by the effort.

At just under three months, the week of Christmas, I achieved a goal of exceeding 70 km within one week, including a 20km walk. A month later I walked a marathon. Serious pronation required specialist shoes. Blisters halfway through a 40km walk took 4 weeks to heal – wrong specialist shoes. My knees gave out under the strain of carrying me the distances being asked. However, I got to the event with the issues resolved and in the best shape I had been in since I was a teenager. As a team we ran over the finish line together. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

What got me through? Irrational belief in myself, determination and commitment, and an incredibly supportive team. I am sure there were times when they felt major concern about the overall success of the team because everything that could go wrong for me with my body seemed to. My result would impact them, yet they persisted, worked with me, encouraged me, and at the end of the event we did cross the line together.

It was a potent experience. I did achieve what health professionals and others had said I could not do in the time I had available. The event was not easy. It did pose its challenges, but I always knew I would succeed, and fortunately did not have to deal with lessons associated with failure.

The contrast between the unfortunately common project environment and my experience in the 100km walk is quite stark from which I draw the following. The “impossible” can be achieved when you foster within yourself and your team:

  • Unreasonable belief in your capacity to succeed
  • Desire and intention focused on the outcome
  • Commitment, dedication and the intelligent application of hard work
  • A great support network
  • Ownership and responsibility individually for actions and collectively for results
  • A genuine possibility that success is possible even if it does require extraordinary effort
  • Resilience to setbacks; they become failure when we succumb
  • Inspiration and motivation based on genuine desires, interests and beliefs shared by participants

So what seemingly impossible endeavour or insurmountable problem are you engaged in or going to be?

  • What resources can you draw upon (people, knowledge, techniques, tools) that can make a positive difference?
  • What negative elements can you offload so they do not hold you back?
  • How can you communicate objectives, seek commitment and garner support that builds on and extends a shared concept of success, value and possibility across the stakeholders?

Success comes from knowing what you want, committing to it, and always getting back up. Getting back up is motivated by finding reason to. A leader builds ownership of the reason among their team and stakeholders. Together the impossible may become possible. Personally and with your team, make a commitment, honour the commitment, and DO IT. Do something impossible.

Organisational Consciousness

Consciousness refers generally to the state of knowing or awareness an individual has of their external surroundings, their own inner processes, and how to behave in a normal manner. From birth we each pass through developmental stages which are linked to changes in our levels of consciousness.

With each change in consciousness we learned that:

  • Life is more complex than we had previously appreciated
  • Our current approaches, methods and processes in life are not effective
  • New approaches become available to us as we open up to their possible existence, and have the courage to pursue them
  • Mastery of a new level of consciousness requires time, effort, and a fumbling or settling in period – mistakes are essential to the transition.
Aspects of an organisation

Frustration is the common state or feeling that initiates the transition to a higher developmental stage. Through frustration we recognise the inadequacies in our current approach, and our inability to manifest our ideas or desires easily. We encounter many barriers and much resistance that halts or impedes us.

Organisational consciousness parallels that of individuals. The level of consciousness for an organisation is based on the effective functioning and alignment of each of the following four aspects of the organisation, and is the responsibility of the leadership of the organisation. The Ends or ‘vision and values’ of the organisation articulates WHY the organisation exists. Through Organisational Leadership specific leadership practices, governance, planning, and communications define WHAT will happen WHEN. Sound management of Personnel enables the WHO to act effectively, while the Means of the organisation, including facilities, process, systems, policies etc define HOW things are accomplished.

I am sure we have all observed organisations thwarted by inadequate or ineffective practices, which gradually (or quickly) overwhelm through the growing number of crises. The typical response is to treat issues in isolation, viewing them as individual and discrete. Fire-fighting mentality takes over with each organisational group responsible for fixing their problems, applying organisational first aid. Frustration is a common feeling throughout such an environment. The organisation must shift its level of consciousness and discover a new way of operating to achieve greater effectiveness. Executive and senior leadership must lead this. It starts with the Ends and must move down through the other organisational aspects – organisational leadership, personnel, and means. Vision and courage on the part of the leadership team is essential to shift organisational consciousness.

As with an individual, an organisation necessarily faces significant confusion and upheaval amid change. Change always generates tension, fear and resistance. However the uncontrolled change brought on by the panicked reactions of a failing organisation is worse than planned, deliberate and conscious steps taken by an organisation seeking to establish a new vision, philosophy and approach to business. Successfully shifting an organisation to a new level of consciousness requires:

  • Recognising a need for real and lasting organisational change
  • Engaging the support and involvement of key stakeholders
  • Crafting the vision and the strategic and operational plans
  • Implementing the changes in an effective, deliberate manner
  • Assessing the results to ensure that desired outcomes have been accomplished, taking corrective action as required

As a result, those who work for, with or belong to the organisation will have a changed awareness of the long-term purpose of the organisation, what their specific function or role is within that purpose, and why and how goals are pursued and success is measured. Organisational consciousness has been raised. New mechanisms and measures for operating exist, and everyone affected is aware of the shift. This is more than just a change project. It is change that engages everyone and necessarily includes culture change.

Shifting organisational consciousness does not merely critique and focus on the methods used to achieve goals. It examines the goals being sought. It changes culture. It enables new ways of operating. It sheds the old and invites the new. It is a powerful journey, an awakening, and requires the courage of all involved, but most particularly and especially of those who lead the organisation.

Engaging Our Humanity

Diverse group of school children
At what stage do we differentiate ourselves from others based on difference?

Diversity is about acknowledging and honouring the difference in people and groups. By necessity that is the difference between ourselves and others in terms of what we value, how we view the world, what we each consider makes the world work best, physical and cultural characteristics, and any other form of difference that may be recognised. Over the past few months I have become increasingly aware of examples where difference is feared and of behaviours used to distance self from those who are different. The key word to summarise these behaviours is ‘Objectification’, a process of dehumanising others so what we think, feel or do has less personal/moral significance.

There are many forms of objectification. Some historic and current examples I am aware of include:

  • A common complaint by women is that men objectify them. A woman, for instance, is seen for sexual utility, and not for the person she is. I grew up with the proverbial Playboys under my bed, and I spent a lot of time noticing ‘attractive qualities’ and disregarding those I deemed unattractive. As unpleasant as this demeaning process is, it is very common. Now with the availability of pornography, objectification of those meeting a person’s sexual preferences is even more prevalent and pronounced. They become sexual objects to be used, whether in reality or fantasy, rather than people who hold intrinsic value as themselves.
  • In 1974, Marina Abramović, a performance artist, stood for six hours with the audience invited to use any of 72 objects on her as they desired, Marina taking full responsibility for the consequences. Some were objects of pleasure. Others were destructive. Initially little happened, other than photographers taking pictures. Then people started to touch her, move her. She was then touch intimately. Items were attached to her. A man cut her neck with a razor blade. Her clothes were cut off. A loaded gun was put in her hand and aimed at her head. By the end of six hours Marina’s body was a canvas of how others had objectified her and taken licence because she was “an object” and they faced “no consequences”. When the six hours was finished, the gallery announced the exhibition had concluded, and Marina then moved and walked among the audience. No one would engage with her, experience the confrontation of what was done by them to a real person. (See article about the exhibition and an interview with Marina Abramović about the exhibition)
  • Hitler’s regime is well recognised for concentration camps and the heinous treatment of those sent to the camps. Jews are well known as targets of the cruel and barbaric treatment. Other groups singled out for specific attention included blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, those with disabilities, among others. Growing evidence highlights North Korea’s atrocious treatment of their own people, where three generations of a family may be sent to “work” camps for life for supposed crimes of one of the family. Starvation, torture and other acts of cruelty are alleged to abound. Recently allegations have been made that Chechnya has set up internment and torture camps for anyone who is, or is thought to be, part of the LGBTQ community, with abductions and murders apparently becoming more prevalent.
  • In the early 1970’s Ford fast-tracked its design and production of the Pinto, getting it to market with a design flaw it knew about. A low speed, rear-end impact caused the fuel tank to rupture. Deaths occurred. It took the tragic deaths of three teenagers in a fire ball, as they were going to church, to initiate a recall. Part of the decision to release the car with a known severe fault was a cost-benefit analysis. A dollar value was placed on a person’s life, and the fix (about $10 per car) applied to all cars cost more than the likely number of deaths multiplied by the value of a human life. In this case a human life became a financial object and an unethical decision was made.
  • A common approach within organisations is to consider and treat people as resources. This allows the utility of a person to be assessed, valued and applied (or discarded) based on operational merit. The approach allows decisions to be made that impact people with the decision maker holding a sense of distance from the human consequences. The same is true of a general choosing to send military forces against an enemy. While such analysis and decision making is needed for the machinery of civilisation to grind on, they are example of objectification.
  • People with Autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome, which has now been merged into Autism) tend to view other people as objects in their world, without much or any of the usual sense of human connection. Their objects can be interfaced and interacted with. There are objects that hold more meaning than others, such as parents, who are familiar and serve a more significant function than others. Those with Autism rely on objectification to define their world.
  • Stereotyping, whether by age, religion, gender, education, culture, colour, or any other attribute, is used to define difference and distance self from the group based on difference. That ‘difference’ may be perceived similarity when speaking as ‘we believe…’, ‘we want…’, ‘we hate…’ etc.
  • Gossiping is a marvellous way to objectify. The target of such stories, whether those stories are fact-based or not, becomes isolated and excluded from the group, the object of bullying, without necessarily knowing it is going on, by whom or why.

The antidote for objectification is engaging your humanity, which enables us to see and recognise the intrinsic uniqueness and value of each person, and feel compassion. If we hold a question open around who they are it is more difficult to objectify and dehumanise them. Their “differences” become a matter for inquiry and inquisitiveness, a chance to meet someone new and perhaps gain an alternative perspective on life. Often our fears of ‘the other’ are rooted in ignorance, and insecurity about our own sense of self, and whether we will survive meaningful connection.

How many wars, crimes and aggressions would happen if both sides truly sought to understand the views and perspectives of the other, allowed themselves to see the humanity (including vulnerabilities and frailties) of the other, without wishing to crush and exercise power over them.

In what ways would the assessment of a person’s value shift in a business environment if more humanity was applied? How would it impact culture and values of the workplace?

How do you recognise, acknowledge and value difference? In what ways do you objectify others? What would happen to those relationships if you were to connect with them with genuine interest to know them as people of value? Would decisions and actions you take in work and other settings be different if you recognised the humanity of those your decisions impact? Have you ever tried to reverse roles with others to gain insight into different views and beliefs?

If you choose to engage with this area of exploration, it can open a rich wealth of learning and meaningful human connection.

What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.

The Next Step is My Responsibility

Taking the next step
Whatever my next step, I am responsible for taking it.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, whether organisational strife, a need to change our own circumstances, estranged children, meeting the consequences of previous action or any number of other possibilities, the next step is, in my world, my responsibility, and in your world, yours. That may seem sweeping and bold as a statement. It is. If it is not your responsibility to create the difference needed in your world, whose responsibility is it?

If I am in conflict with my partner, and I don’t take responsibility to take some positive action, at least attempt something towards a reconciliation, the message is “Darling, I don’t care and it is your responsibility.” If I am in a work environment and observe an injustice, and choose to do nothing, in the inaction I am saying, “I accept and support this form of injustice.” If something I value is being eroded, and I do nothing, I am declaring “I don’t really value this thing.”

People who do pursue their passion and seek to correct something they see as out of whack are often labelled “Activists”. For those who are not engaged in their passion, the activist can be a real challenge to things as they are. None of us can possibly pursue every cause, right every wrong, or address every injustice. Bring any two of us together and we won’t agree across the board on what matters and how the issues ought to be addressed. Hence a variety of political parties, religions, nations, cultures, clubs and so on.

Yet, if we do nothing, sit back because we are busy or someone else can do it better, or for any other reason we concoct, we are saying “What is occurring is okay.” Creeping Normality, otherwise known as Death by a Thousand Cuts, highlights how inaction over an intrusion into what we value leads to greater acceptance of greater wrong, until our world has changed and the new normal is massively out of step, and we feel powerless to intervene. The often cited, usually as a poem, speech by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), “First they came …” speaks of inaction as first one group is taken, then another, with no intervention, until they come for “me”. Oops.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Global warming, genocide, war crimes, pollution, racism or any other –ism, political and business corruption, and a host of other intrusions into what some people value are classic examples of Creeping Normality. It occurs within organisations as well when a person imposes their values on others and remains unchallenged. It is easy for those with authority within a system to assume that they speak for the whole, or that they know best. Status is a great opiate. Many “leaders” choose to reach decisions in isolation. It is a difficult and courageous act of leadership to engage with and hear the voices of subordinates or others impacted by decisions. You may still have to make the hard call. Doing so while engaged with those affected, understanding and appreciating the values of those impacted, enables heart as well as head to be engaged in the decision. Conversely, it takes great courage to raise one’s voice and speak out against processes and decisions that appear inappropriate, especially if also seeking to maintain open and constructive dialogue. It is not unusual for those fearful of opposition to silence objections.

As with all things, balance matters. If every idea raised were to be shot down by someone else, we would have anarchy, and little chance of progress. When there is no ability to voice concern, we have a dictatorship. Somewhere in the middle is a place where ideas and counterarguments can be voiced and respected. That is a difficult and valuable place to reach and maintain. That requires willingness and commitment of all involved.

We are responsible for how we feel, what we think, what we say, the actions we take, and the behaviours we exhibit. We are also responsible to others to let them know how we feel, what we think, how they are impacting us, and what we need. After all is said and done, in any situation, we are each individually responsible for what and how we contribute to the results that are achieved.

  • Are there situations, issues or challenges that threaten your values?
  • How might you contribute to creating outcomes that reflect your values?
  • Do you value and respect the rights of others to justice and fairness? If so, what are you doing or could you do to ensure the voices of impacted individuals and groups are heard and considered?
  • How can you balance expedient decision-making and action with understanding and consideration of relevant issues and concerns of others?
  • If you choose to bypass or minimise opposition or counterarguments, what is your motivation?
  • Are you functioning from a place of personal power or reacting to fear?