One of the most critical factors separating good leaders from “Fully Integrated” leaders is the commitment to personal mastery.  In the groundbreaking book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge names this as one of the five disciplines that is necessary to lead in complexity.  Senge defines personal mastery as “the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.”  Today’s blog post focuses on the last part of this statement.

How We Typically See Reality

The human mind was not designed to see all of reality.  In fact, it evolved to only see as much as was needed to either conform to the already created models of reality (based on past experiences) or the major, glaring differences that require an update to the already created models of reality.  In short, our minds have evolved to work quickly, seeking out patterns and using heuristics to bring simplicity to complexity.

And this only becomes more glaring when we look at ourselves.  When it comes to self-observation, we are not very objective.  We have a running narrative that says “I am good, honest, truthful, kind, and compassionate.”  Ok, this may not be the exact narrative for everyone, but you get the point.  We all think pretty highly of ourselves.  However, it has been proven that we tend to explain away our faults or shortcomings as reactions to external circumstances.  “I was late because there was traffic”, or “I was short-tempered in that meeting because I had a lot going on that day and my patience was wearing thin,”  When we look at others and their bad behavior, we shift from blaming it on their circumstances to blaming it on their character.  And the surprising thing is we don’t realize we are doing it.  If you want to read more about this and other phenomena of the human mind, check out You Are Not So Smart by David McCready.

The Cycle of Experience

What Senge is calling on us to do is to observe ourselves and outside reality objectively.  This is the essence of personal mastery.  To help my clients see reality more objectively, I have a tool called the “Cycle of Experience.”  This explains the way we all experience reality and the ways we can interrupt some of the not-so-helpful fast thinking that gets us into trouble.  Here’s how it works.  First, we explain the entire process of experience from start to finish:

  1. Everything we experience begins with an outside stimulus.  We hear, see, smell, touch, or taste something.  This is the only way we experience the world, through the five senses;
  2. Based on past experiences and beliefs, we tell ourselves a story about what just happened (this is unconscious);
  3. The brain releases chemicals into the body based on the story we tell ourselves (again, because this story is based on past events, our brain is accustomed to releasing the same chemicals and our bodies are used to receiving them);
  4. We have an emotion that wells up in us in reaction to the chemicals that are familiar to us;
  5. We react

That is the objective reality, based in neuroscience, physiology, and psychology.  Now, the subjective reality most of us have is:

  1. Stimulus occurs
  2. We have an emotion
  3. We react

The Choice

Victor Frankl, the man who survived a Nazi concentration camp, has a beautiful quote that summarizes the opportunity for personal mastery as we think about the Cycle of Experience.  Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response, their is a space, in that space is the power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The Fully Integrated Leader is one who actively trains him/herself to create the space that Frankl speaks of in his quote.  It begins with awareness and an earnest desire to take a hard look at how your reactive tendencies show up in your thoughts, your bodily sensations, and your emotions.  I often describe the cycle of experience like a conveyor belt in a factory, and you (the observer) are in the role of “quality control.”  In our factory, the products are the thoughts and potential reactions to outside stimuli.  As you become more aware, you can consciously choose which thoughts and emotions you allow to turn into actions/behaviors and which ones you do not.  You have the power of choice.

Why This Matters

At this point you may be asking, “What’s the point of all this?” Well, in a VUCA environment, one of the most critical skills is to create conditions where diverse and conflicting perspectives are encouraged.  What is one of the top things that shuts people down from sharing their perspective?  Fear.  Fear that you as the leader will react negatively or put their idea down.  We have an epidemic of disengaged employees in the world right now (some polls show it as high as 70% of employees are disengaged at work!), and I believe it is the lack of self-awareness in our leaders that is a significant cause of this.

The leader who develops personal mastery, and most especially the part about seeing themselves objectively, is the leader who will thrive in VUCA.

If you are interested in taking an objective look at yourself and your reactive tendencies, contact me and let’s talk about how one of the Fully Integrated Leadership assessments can help put you on the right path.