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You can’t change what you don’t see

Henry*. Smart guy, very accomplished but his career wasn't going the way he wanted. He didn't get the big promotion he expected and he was looking for answers. It turned out that Henry "knew" what it meant to be an effective leader, but knowing and putting that knowledge into practice are two different things.

Last month, I met Henry. Henry is a great guy - devoted to his wife and three kids. He is a senior executive and has been with his company for 11 years. He and his family moved every couple of years with each promotion and he returned to Belgium two years ago to lead a challenging turnaround.

Henry's efforts were very successful. But when he didn't get the promotion he expected, he called me. He was questioning whether he should continue with his current employer under the circumstances and was considering making a move. Being passed over for a promotion he thought was rightfully his made him begin to ask all sorts of questions. Henry wanted to have an open conversation with me to clarify his potential next steps.

In response to some probing questions about where he wanted to go with his career and why, Henry was able to clearly describe his professional and personal successes and failures in the past, his aspirations for the future, his values and what motivates him.

His body disposition and eye contact were in line with what I have come to expect from executives such as Henry. And yet, I was left with a strong feeling that he had an overall sense of "not enough". I discerned a gap between the outer accomplishments of this successful leader and his inner perception of himself.

Based on my intuition and on his answers to my many questions, I began to feel that Henry was in some way disconnected from his strengths and main purpose in life and was having difficulty using his remarkable abilities to his advantage. He was not evoking his own authentic and meaningful presence and using it to inspire others.

" Knowing isn't enough. Somehow the leap must be made from knowing to embodying.

Through his responses, it was evident that Henry had a very clear idea of what it meant to be a leader. He could easily name all the characteristics: authenticity, optimism, integrity, vision, commitment, empathy, courage, trustworthiness and self-control. There was no question that his brain knew what a leader looked like. But knowing isn't enough. Somehow the leap must be made from knowing to embodying and, from there, to accessing those characteristics readily

"Knowing" is a great and essential first step. It is a call to action. Cognitively Henry knew what it meant to be a leader but he had lost sight of it in a holistic way and as a result a disconnection or lack of authenticity showed up in our conversation.

In order to connect Henry with his full leadership potential, it was time for us to explore a different and more holistic way of learning.

" Trying to change without considering the underlying causes is like pulling off the top of weed and leaving the root!

Self-observation must always be the first step on the path to personal development. I explained to Henry that he must pay attention to his thoughts, his speech, his behaviours and the emotions behind these. Over time and with practice, he would come to perceive these in a holistic way.

Deep-seated, true change most always comes when the underlying origins of a behaviour are considered and the change arises from there. Trying to change without considering the underlying causes is like pulling off the top of weed and leaving the root!

With practice, Henry became a very skilled observer of himself. From a superficial understanding of his "lack of impact", he developed awareness of the underlying factors that generated the behaviour:

  • His thoughts – the story he told himself that he couldn't trust people often prevented him from being fully present for others.

  • His emotions – he often used his energy in counterproductive ways because of an underlying mood of resentment.

  • His body – the sensations of constriction he felt in his chest and his throat sometimes prevented him from acting authentically.

With a rigorous practice of self-observation, Henry learned to spotlight what was showing up for him right in that instant. This created magic moments. Magic moments where Henry finally had the freedom to choose the kind of leader he wanted to be and behave accordingly.

Here are some examples of self-observation practices that Henry used:

  • Cultivate silence. Silence creates an environment conducive to focusing on your thoughts and physical sensations.

  • Scan your thoughts and physical sensations during "one minute centring" practices.

  • Ask a colleague for feedback when they see a particular behaviour.

  • Develop a regular sitting or walking meditation.

In my next blog, we will look at the specific techniques, based on his self-observation, that Henry has been able to put into practice in order to make the changes he desired.

*Henry (not his real name) gave me full permission to share his story with my readers. Thanks, Henry!

And if you're interested in learning more about accessing your own leadership abilities, here are some useful resources:

  • "The art of being yourself" from Caroline McHugh: video

  • "The power of vulnerability" from Brene Brown : video

  • "The Leadership Dojo" from Richard Strozzi-Heckler: book


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