May 16, 2023
The following is an excerpt from the new book, Inner Switch: 7 Timeless Principles to Transform Modern Leadership by Susan S. Freeman .
The dream of the average leader in the Western world is to be influential, someone who can inspire and guide people to achieve their desired outcomes. We've been taught to believe that an emotional payoff comes from accomplishment, so if we aren't getting satisfaction, most of us will either change our actions or redouble our efforts and urge others to do the same. The trouble is that this outward-oriented approach can be very draining for us and for those we are leading. Our attention can easily become fully consumed by our attempts to manage the people, places, and things around us.
To achieve our objectives, each of us has a menu of actions we turn to from habit: our favorite tactics and hacks. And given the common preoccupation with appearing to have all the answers and be invulnerable, we may expend precious time and energy on defending the rightness of our point of view, beliefs, and desires. This serves to entrench us in our habits.
Some leaders I've coached were initially unwilling to consider that their habits were acquired conditioning—and therefore could potentially be changed. For example, when asked how he thought he might create a healthier relationship with his workload, one client defensively responded, "My job is all or nothing. There is no part-time. What am I supposed to do, quit?" He had become so emotionally attached to his habit of overworking that he believed there was no other way.
That's not to say that it's always easy or clear how to change a particular habit. Just that it's possible if change is your intention.
This fellow had become a victim of his own success. He had reached the painful point where he couldn't tolerate the relentless onslaught of tasks and problems to solve. His troubles at work were manifesting consequences in his personal life, and both his valued personal relationships and his health were being impaired. What was happening in his work, with his family, and in his heart, mind, and body were all related to the same inner conflict. Even so, he didn't believe or want to believe he had the power to change his habits.
Identifying and Breaking Habits
You may be reluctant to change your hard-earned habits, too. What would make you want to?
These habits have worked for you in the past. They help your brain earn its operational efficiency. For example, when you first learned to drive a car (assuming you drive), it took an inordinate amount of brain processing capacity to operate the vehicle. Driving requires us to pay at- attention to so many things at once that even talking to a passenger can overwhelm a new driver. Yet after a few years, the act of driving becomes more habitual, does it not? This is because what once needed a lot of energy and attention now requires much less; your habit of driving has become efficient.
Why is this not an exclusively good thing? Because every habit, no matter how efficient, has a corresponding downside. Driving more efficiently is a positive until it causes people to multitask and have an accident. Just as some habits allow us to work less to perform a mundane task, others are designed to protect us from reexperiencing undigested emotional pain—pain that's carried in our subconscious mind and in every cell in our body. This is the trauma that determines how we treat ourselves and how we interact with the world. It infuses everything we think and do, and it is with us wherever we go.
Undigested fears and worries create unconscious behavioral habits that can impede or severely damage relationships. We may blame people when they don't share our internal reality. (From their perspective, it is shocking that we don't share theirs.) The truth is that each of us is living in our own reality. A mental conversation is going on inside our heads whenever we're awake, and this dialogue drives our behavior.
For example, we may be driven to overwork based on an underlying conversation about needing to bolster our worth or needing to be safe. This inner talk sounds like "I am not enough," "I am alone," and "I am unloved." Self-defensive belief structures mobilize an entire array of illogical thinking that causes us to become reactive rather than responsive. When memories, emotions, and thoughts from the past are triggered, they filter our view of the present and we become reactive.
The Reactive Mind
A reactive mind prevents us from responding productively to the moment.
Any time we are reactive, because we are not effectively relating to ourselves in the moment, we cannot be present with others. Those who have been tasked with carrying out our objectives can sense our lack of clarity and misalignment. They may perceive us as "confused," for instance, and then our reactivity triggers their self-protective belief structures. Miscommunication becomes the norm when a reactive individual is leading a team. Other leaders and colleagues become disheartened and, ultimately, unproductive. Reactive leaders destroy their relationships unknowingly and un- consciously, not only at work, but also at home.
The truth of who we are is distorted by our ego-driven mental constructs. But there is hope for us because, in fact, there is a self in each of us that has the capacity to observe all our identifications. Self-identification can be a false identity, such as "I am a hard worker," "I am superior because of my intellect," or "I am a failure." These selves are identified with experiences from our past, usually ones that caused us to feel afraid. We might work hard because at age 10, we were punished for receiving a low grade on a quiz and were frightened by losing the respect of our parents. These selves are also identified with our worries and expectations about the future.
These false identities are actually crowding out our ability to experience our one true self, which is the observer. You know the observer is genuine because it does not change over time or under varying conditions. The observer is the same whether we are young or old, rich or poor, male or female. It has no size, weight, or shape, no start or finish. It just is. And here's the catch: That true self can only be experienced in the present moment.
Our internal motivators, which push us to work and succeed, cause many of us to do things that destroy our bodies. We experience such stress from disconnection to our real self and suppressing our emotional pain that we may go to extreme lengths to quiet it. If this becomes too intense or lasts a long time, we may reach for a way to self-soothe, including various addictions: overwork, food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, or sex, among other things.
That's Just How It Is—Or Is It?
Habits also affect how receptive leaders are to their colleagues and employees. Consider a colleague who comes to meetings and only offers negative feedback, saying things like, "This will never work. That can't be done. We've never done it that way before. We don't have what it takes to do that." It's understandable that you would expect this pattern to continue. But if you are only able to see them as a walking ball of negativity, based on your past experiences, you might miss out on a good idea they have to contribute.
Your colleague's negativity is not only self-destructive; it is also destructive to the organization and the morale of their co-workers. But your own disconnection from the truth of the moment is also destructive. By prejudging a colleague, you are missing out on the opportunity to positively interact with them or influence their behavior, and both of these things matter.
A healthy yet skeptical outlook is helpful. Would you want a contract written by your lawyer that only foresaw favorable outcomes? The invitation is to transform negativity into a healthy dynamic so that co-creativity and joy are both possible. You need to be open to the possibilities that each of us possesses.
When You Are Open, the Answers Reveal Themselves to You
To influence others positively, you must be able to inspire them. But to do that, you must first be able to inspire yourself. The word inspire comes from the Latin words in + spirare ("to breathe"). Inspiration is the result of connecting to your own spirit—your true self—which functions like an inner compass. You will know when you have opened this connection because you will feel it, and a flow of insights will commence. And, like a river that draws water from the mountains and empties to the sea, the flow is ever-renewable.
Once you begin opening to your true self and following its guidance, you will notice, Things are happening so much more easily now. I'm getting better results with less effort. Solutions are appearing organically. With regular practice, much of the stress of working drops away, and interactions with everyone in and around your business—staff, colleagues, vendors, customers, and clients—become more open and less limited, too. Conflict lessens.
Self-influence is the only kind of influence that is sustainable. And it is completely under your control.
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