A book I often recommend to clients is Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box.
The Preface to the book gives a great metaphor for how we can be our own worst enemy when we insist on pushing harder instead of ‘pausing to reflect and try something new’:
“Self-deception actually determines one’s experience in every aspect of life…it is the central issue in leadership…To give you an idea of what’s at stake, consider the following analogy. An infant is learning to crawl. She begins by pushing herself backward around the house. Backing herself around, she gets lodged beneath the furniture. There she trashes about – crying and banging her little head against the sides and undersides of the pieces. She is stuck and hates it. So she does the only thing she can think of to get herself out – she pushes even harder, which only worsens her problem. She is more stuck than ever.
If this infant could talk, she would blame the furniture for her troubles. She, after all, is doing everything she can think of. The problem couldn’t be hers. But of course, the problem is hers, even though she can’t see it. While it’s true she’s doing everything she can think of, the problem is precisely that she can’t see how she’s the problem. Having the problem she has, nothing she can think of will be a solution.
Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true cause of problems, and once blind, all the “solutions” we can think of will actually make matters worse.”
Leaders are intelligent, action oriented people who have learned to trust their decision making and problem solving ability. It is therefore natural that when they bump into barriers they believe the problem will be solved by changing something external to themselves.
The flaw in that thinking is that they too, are part of the system that needs a solution. Like little Sam, stuck under the couch, they too are part of the problem.
In some way, to some extent, you and I are all part of the issue that needs to be solved. It is true that if the furniture wasn’t there, Sam wouldn’t have got stuck. It is equally true that a broader skill set – the ability to crawl forwards as well as backwards – would’ve enabled him to get unstuck. As leaders, we need to be asking where our thought patterns and/or skill set is part of what is keeping us stuck. Where do we need to change or grow?
Without asking in what ways our presence and approach impacts the situation, we deceive ourselves and miss an opportunity to influence. We remain part of the problem.
What questions could the following people ask that will help them understand their part in the problems they’re encountering?
I have an open door policy but no one lets me know things until it’s too late.
Nothing gets done around here unless I do it.
I can’t seem to get my team to take the initiative, I have to tell them exactly what to do. They don’t seem capable of thinking for themselves.
The competitiveness amongst our people stops them from collaborating and means that vital information isn’t shared. It is costing us millions each year.
Breaking out of our ‘tried and tested’ ways of thinking and acting is not easy on our own and it is a key leadership skill for those who want to lead well outside a limited set of circumstances. This is one of the reasons coaching has become a pillar of many organizations leadership development – executive coaching provides the right balance of challenge and support for leaders to break free from their ‘tried and tested’ ways when circumstances require it.