The more I work directly with leaders, the more I conclude that our
belief systems drive our behaviors and write our stories. That's
not surprising, perhaps, except when those beliefs are buried and
unacknowledged. Let me give you a personal example.
Years ago I went on a blind date with the friend of a friend in
Kansas City. I was young and inexperienced in the world of foreign
foods, so imagine my enthusiasm at being taken to a Thai
restaurant. Brian was older than me, so I saw this date as a
worldly glimpse into an undiscovered cuisine. We began with little
skewers of meat as appetizers - satay. When Brian offered to order
them, I said, "Sure, sauted what?" Brian explained that we were
getting a kabob-ish type thing, not sauted at all.
Cool, I thought, when the plate arrived. The skewers were made of
wood (seemingly harmless), and evidently you could use your hands
to pick up the skewer and bite off some meat.
My first attempt at a bite was successful, despite my
self-consciousness at eating with my hands in front of a date. But
with my second bite, part of the wooden stick splintered off into
my mouth. Now I was eating meat, as well as the wood on which it
was cooked. Not cool.
The piece of skewer wedged in my mouth, almost straight up and
down, propping my mouth slightly open. In my alarm, and antagonized
by the insecurity of youth, not to mention the pain of being
impaled by a skewer, I pretended nothing was wrong. That was a
mistake. I cannot imagine how silly I must have looked, gawking and
conversing, probably incoherently.
Beliefs drive behaviors
My belief was that I had to act cool and remain composed. After
all, I was being interviewed as a potential girlfriend. Uncouth
things don't happen to poised, mature people, I thought.
I am sager now. The beliefs I once had about tough situations have
evolved, and in a good way. As a younger leader, I used to think I
should have all the answers. I would pretend there was no skewer in
my mouth, despite its obvious presence.
Many leaders I coach experience situations where their authority is
tested. Their resulting behaviors may look like frustration, anger,
bewilderment, or insecurity. Some typical beliefs young leaders
- If I am the authority, then I must know what to do in this
- I have been promoted because I know all the answers.
- People are challenging my decision, so they must think I am a
We can drive ourselves insane with this impractical reasoning. Yet
these thoughts are difficult to stop because they often exist at a
Understanding our own stories
A leadership story - whether we read it in a bestselling memoir or
participate in it each day - contains silent assumptions and
emotional scripts. These beliefs tell us what to look for and how
to perceive and process experiences. But why do we repeat patterns
that do not work? At some level, we know our behavior is not
beneficial, yet we can't break out of the habit.
Change is difficult for the brain because of the long-established
neural pathways that drive our behaviors. These can, however, be
rewired. Recent research shows remarkable results for humans'
ability to form new pathways and actually develop new brain cells.
With mindful intent, we can overcome unwanted patterns.
The four principles of change
Principle 1 - Our beliefs are built upon our
In circus communities, trainers know to keep a baby elephant roped
to a stake in the ground. Predictably, the youngster pulls, trying
to break free from the rope. At a small size, he is more easily
confined and cannot escape. Fast forward several years and the
grown elephant can easily break the rope. Yet because of his
belief, based on the past, he remains restrained. Our beliefs drive
our view of the world. They can constrain us or set us free.
Principle 2 - We do not see things as they are. We see
things as we are.
Two professionals were wandering amidst a desolate land just
outside of a major southwestern city. One professional, an
archaeologist, saw the geology of the landscape and its history,
with the potential to uncover the past. The other, an architect,
saw development of future civilizations. Both are right in what
they saw. Our internal selection process interprets what we
perceive. We have to bring our beliefs to the conscious level to
assess how well they work in present time.
Principle 3 - Rewriting the future requires recognition of
Examining your present-day reality allows you to understand
repeating storylines and to get at the core assumptions that create
them. Consider a recurring theme you struggle with. For instance, a
certain co-worker has a talented way of sending you into a tailspin
each time you have a discussion. "He just doesn't get it!" Because
of the history between you, your brain signals you to prepare for
an onslaught of frustrating feelings. Now his difficult behavior
becomes a validation of what you thought would be true.
Present recognition and living in the now are required to identify
your self-talk about how you are reacting to situations. Hearing
your belief system while it is in action is the best way to rewrite
it. You can then translate, "He just does not get it," into
something more objective, such as "I will listen to what is
important to him." And so a new pattern of deliberate beliefs is
Principle 4 - Our minds look for reason and draw
conclusions, whether accurate or not.
A series of studies by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University
illustrated the human mind's desire to bring issues to closure.
When volunteers were quickly shown a set of keywords with a pattern
of behavioral traits, such as stupidity or elderly, their actions
became unknowingly influenced and they acted out those traits. They
scored lower on testing (stupidity) or they walked more slowly
(elderly). These immediate changes in behaviors were directly
attributed to the messages sent to them, yet they had no way of
knowing the planted themes were there. Then the participants were
asked why they changed their behaviors. Instead of a simple "I
don't know," they each drew incorrect conclusions about what caused
their actions. In living through change, we deduce cause, often
blindly, and live with the effects. We validate our storylines,
whether they serve us well or not. Unacknowledged beliefs may have
direct impact on our actions, yet we find reasons that they exist,
rather than exposing them through identification and reprogramming.
So to change your leadership story, discover your driving beliefs
and debunk the ones that are counterproductive. Rewrite what needs
Oh yeah. Brian never asked me out again.