“Inspire, Engage, Align” are not a leader’s biggest challenges.
Reading about leadership, or listening to leaders themselves, you’d think that the hardest thing for a leader is to inspire, engage and align others around a shared vision and goals. And that’s just not true. When you dig a little deeper, you realise that what is at the root of all these challenges, and many more, is self-leadership: Learning how to master your inner game. Everything else falls into place when leaders focus on self-leadership.
Mastering the Inner Game is what’s notoriously difficult.
Mastering their inner game is what allows leaders to be inspirational and engaging, drawing on natural power, instead of leading from and inspiring fear.
What makes inner leadership notoriously difficult are the critical and nagging voices in our heads. They become particularly noisy in times of uncertainty, imbalance, and conflict. They flood our brain with negative thoughts like:
“This is my fault!”
“They are wrong!”
“Just work harder, you can still reach your goal!”
These judgments often steer our behaviour and actions. While your personal “inner committee” also has upbeat and “can do” voices, what causes you trouble are the voices which encourage behaviour that does not serve your real desire.
There are many ways to overcome your demons. Here are just three.
A good leader is conscious of when she is “above the line”, as the Conscious Leadership Group approach has coined the state of openness and curiosity, and nicely bottom lined in this visualisation. Conscious Leaders also are aware of when they are below the line – which is often.
There are different coaching approaches on how to get above the line – to get to the state of mind where a leader is free to respond in a constructive and fearless way to whatever happens. Let me introduce the three with which I am most familiar.
Ridiculing your gremlin
People come to coaching because they want to change something in their life: be better people managers, get a more meaningful or higher status job, or have better relationships. If they thought this would be easy, they would do it without a coach. But many people need an accountability and sparring partner, because change is a bit of work at the outset, and it can be unsettling. In fact, only few profound life changes are driven by such a deep desire, and clear vision, that most people don’t resist these changes at all! Having a baby, for example, is one of these rare changes that spark nothing but positive energy in most future parents.
As co-active coaches, we are trained to support our clients in creating an equally clear and compelling purpose. This purpose is to spark the positive momentum which carries someone through actionable steps towards their desired future. But in the process of turning their vision into reality, everyone deals with some form of inner resistance: Voices almost inevitably pop up when someone wants to take a courageous step into unfamiliar territory. This is a human reaction to uncertainty. And it can paralyse people, lead to procrastination, make for a painful transition from the dissatisfying present to a better future, or simply end in failing to make that change at all.
To keep that resistance at bay, many coaches have their clients turn their nagging inner critics into gremlins, or saboteurs: Clients visualise them and weaken their power by making them smaller or ridiculing them, so that they can peacefully resume creating their future. This works well for some people. Though it does not make the gremlin disappear, it can help them shift back from being hijacked to being in charge, until the next hijacking.
Intercepting the enemy’s work
Another way of intercepting the saboteur voices does not involve engaging with them at all. We have recently started a programme with Positive Intelligence, which holds the view that these saboteur voices are outright enemies of ours that live inside us. In other words, these voices are out to hurt us and make us feel bad. They want us to fail! You might have a strong ‘controller’ inside of you, or a ‘restlessness’ which always has you thinking of the next task and never allows you to be fully in the present to what you are doing right now. This enemy approach dictates that you must immediately intercept your saboteurs, which also come in the guises of negative emotions, with mini awareness exercises. For example, when you get frustrated in a meeting, you focus on the physical sensation of your feet touching the ground. After about 90 seconds of concentrating on any physical sensation (sound, sight, touch), you will have pulled yourself out of your emotion and reestablished a state of balance.
While this does indeed work, we are not convinced that our personality is made up of enemies to our success. What is helpful, however, is finding out how you typically get in your own way. And here’s a quick test for you to find that out. While we enjoy playing with catching emotions in a split second and turning back to neutrality by essentially doing a mini meditation, the assumption of an inner army of enemies does not resonate for us.
The Parts Work Perspective
We are compelled by the perspective of Internal Family Systems (IFS), or parts work. Parts work starts from the premise that in childhood we developed ways to cope with the fact that we were at the mercy of others, first our care takers and later also our school mates, teachers, etc. Certain interactions and situations might have caused us anxiety and pain.
No matter how idyllic your childhood was, you have had crucial experiences which led to the birth of coping mechanisms, which, while they may have worked for you back then, are no longer useful. In fact, now that you are older, they can sabotage your endeavour to thrive and live life to the fullest.
Recognising positive intent
Parts work practitioners have you listen to, and seek to understand, the parts that cause you problems. Thus, they support you in digging deeper, underneath what keeps driving you unconsciously, despite your many efforts to deal with behaviours, beliefs, or emotions. This appreciative, non-judgmental approach comes from the perspective that positive intent drives even those parts which undermine your success and happiness in life today. A simple example is that when you numb negative feelings with food, alcohol, or any other addictive behaviour, you are actually trying to not feel (and show others) those feelings.
A CEO’s unconscious response to past trauma
You’d be surprised just how many “successful” CEOs are driven to acquire ever more external status and validation by a voice saying “I’m not good enough”. The problem is that no success can bring them the self-worth that fuels their relentless ambition. Their voice can be a reaction to some childhood traumatic event, which they might not even remember as having experienced as extreme. Her father might have been so busy with providing the family income, that he hardly ever noticed her. Frustrated with his own lot in life, he might have continuously pushed her to achieve ever better grades at school and make status related choices rather than going for her passion. Her interpretation may have been that he did not love her for who she is and that she had to work hard in order to win his love and affection. “I’m not yet good enough for my father’s love” can lead to a remarkably successful career and one which never fills that emotional hole. That’s why this leader continues chasing success from a deep rooted belief that it will some day fill the emotional hole. And thus she creates new trauma for herself and those around her, as her marriage breaks down and her children feel estranged.
The way out
Overcoming beliefs which get in our own way is the most important focus of any leadership development work. Mastering the inner game is every leader’s challenge, not just that of leaders with formal authority, because we are all leaders in our lives: as parents, partners, professionals, neighbours, and citizens.
We are all different, and no size fits all.
What all of these approaches have in common is to create awareness of the inner world that unconsciouly drives our life and gets in the way of making our best contribution to this world.
All of these approaches have us engage in some way or another with our inner world in order to rise to a consistently higher level. They allow us to learn how to get back above the line when we get hijacked by emotions and perceived threats.
Recovering from emotional hijacking is what matters
In their radically different ways, all of these approaches help us to notice and neutralise the voices, so that they pause or altogether stop hijacking us, and so that we can remain calm and balanced, act with clarity and courage, and create the world we want to live in.
For some people, one approach works really well, others prefer another one. And at Choose Leadership we don’t believe in “one size fits all”.
Inner game work pays off.
In a VUCA world, we all need to increase our ability to respond freely.
What we do believe is this: In an ever more uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and volatile world, mastering the inner game is the most important work a leader can do. It allows us to take fuller responsibility for our behaviour and for our world. And it allows us to cope with exploring uncharted paths into an uncertain future.
What about your inner game?