What Lies Beneath Our Actions

I was invited to present to a few key principals and associate principals at a successful architectural office in Los Angeles this past week. The primary intent of the presentation was to discuss how, and whether, a coaching program was the answer to solving some critical issues in the company. Some of the struggles include poor communication among team members and between employees and clients, difficulties in creating a healthy and balanced life style without compromising the quality of the work, getting new and innovative programs off the ground, and a general lack of interest in marketing among employees. Instead of focusing on the issues, I chose, for this short one-hour presentation, to look a little deeper. Ultimately, what I invited these smart group of individuals to ponder was the fundamental question that, when understood and addressed, paves the path for a successful and happy work environment: what lies beneath our actions?

There are some key aspects of human behavior that are better understood if we can step away from the problems themselves. To kick start the conversation, I spoke about the concept of ‘infinite possibility.’ I related this fact back to a study that was conducted a few years ago at Harvard on genius – what it is to operate at a genius level and why some do and others don’t. The study demonstrates that genius has nothing to do with high SAT scores, but rather the ability of an individual to explore a problem from multiple  angles, “constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds.” The study showed that all humans are born at this genius level. Think of how a small baby goes through multiple attempts until he/she discovers how certain muscles respond to commands given through thoughts. The process is natural and it continues to allow a baby to quickly relate sensorial experiences, to movement, to ideas and responses. The study also showed that by the time we are ten, most of us have completely stopped operating at this genius level.

How does that have anything to do with ‘infinite possibility,’ and more importantly, why was I speaking of genius and infinite possibilities in an office dealing with leadership and communication struggles? The topics are all very tightly interrelated. Let me explain. We lose our genius pretty much at the same time that we lose a general belief in endless possibilities – in other words, when we begin boxing ourselves in conditioned based thinking (also known as logical thinking), we distance ourselves from the vision and image based thinking we rely upon when we are born. This box, or imaginary boundary as Thoreau describes it, becomes more and more defined as we grow older. Of course, our educational system does not help. School is largely about information not experimentation. Two critical effects of this invisible boundary relate directly to the first question I posed on what lies beneath our actions. First, this boundary sets an internal thermostat within us with a fixed set-point of how much greatness we belief is possible in our own lives and the lives of others. This in turn, creates a set of beliefs (we may casually call this a mindset) that becomes the very road map we use to navigate the world. Our map is, for this reason, very different than someone else’s map, although the terrain itself is similar. Finding what lies beneath our actions calls for an understanding of the belief systems that created this map we use to navigate life. Only then, we can begin to break past our imaginary boundary and be open to change both personally and professionally.

I briefly covered two relevant aspects of the mind for the discussion. First, I noted that our mind, like a television, cannot resonate at two different frequencies simultaneously. In other words, the present state thought – our very mindset, defines the frequency in which we seek and find anything in the world surrounding us. Just like with a television, we cannot receive Discovery channel if we are tuned in to CNN. But, like TV, we can flip the channel at any time, it just takes noticing what we are receiving and then deciding for something else. The second aspect of the mind that I covered is that, while we resonate at a certain frequency, the very questions we may ask will ultimately define the answers we will find. There are numerous tests out there that indicate that. These awareness tests show that while we are looking for something, whatever that may be, we miss many others things around us. In essence, energy flows where our attention goes.

In sum, we have a certain mindset which defines the map we use to navigate life. This mindset has an effect on how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive others, and ultimately how we make decisions in life – what we find to be possible for us and others is largely dictated by this map.

Additionally, as we navigate life using a certain map, our mindset also puts us in resonance with a certain frequency of thoughts. We are bound to experience things in life that reside within the same frequency as our mindset. We can change that frequency at any time, but we cannot be in two frequencies simultaneously. And finally, the very questions we seek out in the world – where we set our intention, dictates what we pay attention to and therefore, dictates the opportunities we get to create for ourselves. By the time we get to the resultant effect of these workings of the mind we see that ultimately what resides beneath our actions is not a question of getting everybody in a good mood only, or trying harder. With the wrong map we cannot get to where we want to be headed.

Leadership training is about getting key individuals in the company to understand their own maps, and then experience leadership from a solid foundation of: principles, vision, and values. All of the training in the world will not replace this intrinsically inward process. Leadership is not something one can step into, once it happens – imagine if Obama only thought of himself as the President of the United States once he was elected to office, do you think he would have been given that position, and, more importantly, do you think he would have been able to handle the responsibilities? I think we know the answer is no. He was trusted to office because he was a leader before he was elected, and he remains there because he has done the work to handle the position effectively. In companies, it is not different. Leadership training is an inward process and can begin as early as the first year of employment.

So what are principles, vision and values? And, why are these foundational? Principles are like laws. One way of thinking of principles is to think of the laws of mathematics. The laws of mathematics are precise and they work no matter where we are in the world, what language we speak, and what our individual belief system is. Like the principles of life, when we study the laws of mathematics and begin to apply these laws we gain a certain degree of freedom, and confidence. We learn that, as long as it is mathematics, it must work. We may not at first know how to work these laws, but we know that given our interest and desire to learn, we can solve the problem at hand. Knowing the principles of life give us all the same sense of freedom, and confidence. It is simultaneously humbling and empowering.

Vision and values, unlike principles are not universal. My vision and my values are not the same as anyone else’s and true leaders know this. Leaders carry a personal vision – their own destination, and in the context of a company they understand how their vision is in resonance with the company’s, specially in the domain of creative expression. Obama has a vision of his life, but he also has a vision for the country. It is likely that his personal vision includes the results he wishes to bring as the leader of the larger, nationwide, vision. True leaders will not take a position in a company or organization that does not resonate with their personal vision. True leadership takes knowing what their vision is and having the determination to head in that direction, and no other. Values, are also personal. Knowing what our personal values are, helps dictate the choices we make. A leader can have in a team people whose personal values may differ, and as a leader who understands himself/herself, he/she can know whether the difference in values are what is standing in their way to greater communication and better performance. Once we recognize what are our core values we can more neutrally look at any situation before jumping into the reactive and defensive mechanism that resides on the other side, the side of blind ignorance of the self. For companies core-values should be guiding tools for hiring, firing, and solving issues such as work-life balance, employee dissatisfaction and low performance. When leaders know their team member’s values, and what the company’s values are, conflict resolution can be significantly more objective. A leader should also consider values in building teams and allocating tasks.

Not all the issues of that company reside solely in the leadership arena, but the majority does. I am glad that the team around that table understood the significance of professional coaching to instigate real change. As more and more leaders take a stab at learning for themselves what are their vision and values, and then operate within important universal principles, learning what lies beneath their own actions, and that of their teams, becomes not only possible, but inevitable.