Leaders Characterize Self through Stories and Neuroscience
by Katie K. Snapp
Six mallard ducks waddled alongside a marshy pond. Four said they were going for a swim. How many were left?
Six. Four never went through with the plan. Intention and execution should not be confused.
Silly start … but captivating because we love stories. The power of story draws us in.
The more I work directly with leaders, the more I conclude the importance of our belief systems driving our behaviors and writing our stories. This is not surprising, except when those beliefs are buried and unacknowledged.
Let me give you a personal example.
Years ago I went on a date with the friend of a friend in Kansas City. It was nearly a blind date, because I knew Brian very little. I just knew of him.
I was young and inexperienced in the world of foreign foods, so imagine my enthusiasm at being taken to a Thai restaurant. Brian was older so I saw this as a worldly glimpse into an undiscovered cuisine. I had never actually heard of “Thai Food” because I always misinterpreted it as “typhoon”. Aha, the first of my enlightenments for the evening.
So we began with those cool little skewers of meat as appetizers. Satay, as they are called, was offered so I said, “Sure, sautéed what?” Brian explained that it was a kabobish type thing, not sautéed at all.
Cool, except that those funny little skewers were made of wood, seemingly harmless. Evidently you could use your hands to pick up the skewer and bite off some meat.
My first attempt at a bite was successful, despite my obvious self-consciousness of eating with my hands in front of a date. But the second bite was cause for concern. The wooden stick splintered off into my mouth. Now I was eating meat as well as the wood on which it was cooked. Not cool.
And the plot thickened. The piece of skewer wedged in my mouth, nearly straight up and down, propping my mouth nearly wide open.
In my alarm, and antagonized by the insecurity of youth, not to mention the pain of being impaled by the skewer I pretended nothing was wrong. That was a mistake. I cannot imagine how silly I must have looked, gawking and conversing, probably incoherently because of my mouthful.
Beliefs Drive Behaviors
My belief was that I had to act cool and be composed. After all, I was being “interviewed” as a potential girlfriend. Uncouth things don’t happen to poised, mature people.
I am more sage now. The beliefs I once had about tough situations have completely evolved, and in a good way. As a younger leader, in a tough situation, I might have thought I needed to act like someone else. I felt I should have all the answers. I would pretend there was no skewer in my mouth, despite its obvious presence.
The most typical example in leaders that I coach is the situation where their authority is tested. The resulting behaviors in themselves may look like frustration, anger, bewilderment, or insecurity. Examining those behaviors leads to the belief at the core of it.
Other typical beliefs:
– If I am the authority, then I must know what to do in this situation.
– I have been promoted because I know all the answers.
– People are challenging my decision so they must think I am a bad leader.
– When someone asks for my time, it becomes a priority because his time is probably more valuable than mine.
We are driving ourselves insane with this impractical reasoning. Yet we do not arrest it because it is often subconscious. It ghostwrites our behavior.
Our Own Story
A leadership story—whether we read it in a bestselling memoir or participate in it each day–contains silent assumptions and emotional scripts. Our assumptions tell us what to look for, and how to perceive and process experiences.
What about your identity as a leader in that story? Who defined it up until now? What events formed it? Were you an agent of the change or were you a victim?
Change is Tied to Neuroscience
So let’s change it. What is it about change that is so difficult? Why do we have patterns that do not work, yet we repeat them?
At some level, we know the behavior is not beneficial, yet we do not break out of the pattern.
Luckily, we can change our habits. Change is difficult for the brain because of the long-established neural pathways that drive our behaviors. These can be rewired. Recent research shows remarkable results for our abilities to form new pathways and actually develop new brain cells. With mindful intent, we can overcome unwanted patterns.
The 4 Principles of Change *
So, if you are looking for a starting point to lead to a change in behavior, consider the following four guiding principles of change and guide yourself to a more intentional future.
Principle 1 – Our beliefs are built upon our assumptions.
In circus communities, trainers know to keep a baby elephant roped to a stake in the ground. Predictably, the youngster pulls, trying to break free from the rope. At a small size, it is more easily confined and cannot escape.
Fast forward several years and the grown elephant can easily break the rope. Yet because of its belief, based on the past, it remains restrained.
Our beliefs drive our view of the world. They can constrain us or set us free.
Principle 2 – We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.
Two professionals were wandering amidst a desolate land just outside of a major Southwestern city. One professional, an archaeologist, sees the geology of the landscape and its history, with the potential to uncover the past. The other, an architect, sees development of future civilizations. Both are right in what they see.
Our internal selection process interprets. We have to bring our beliefs in to conscious focus to assess how well they work in present time.
Principle 3 – Rewriting the future requires recognition of the present.
Examination of your present-day reality is necessary for understanding repetitions of storylines. Observing and owning these repetitions initiate appreciation of the core assumptions that create those repetitions. Some are visible – like how we react to friends when we see someone we have missed. Others are invisible – like the way we handle a tough situation at work in our mind but neglect to take courageous action to problem-solve.
Principle 4 – Our minds look for reason and draw conclusions, whether accurate or not.
A series of studies by Dr. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard illustrated our mind’s desire to bring issues to closure. When volunteers in the study were subconsciously shown a set of keywords with a pattern of behavioral traits, their actions became unknowingly influenced and they acted out those traits. Then the participants were asked why they changed their behaviors. Instead of a simple “I don’t know,” they each drew incorrect conclusions about what caused their actions. In living through change, we deduce cause, often blindly, and live with the effect.
The powerful use of story to examine what your leadership history leads to intention. Take control of the author in you. Discover your driving beliefs and debunk the ones that are counterproductive. Rewrite what needs a change.
Oh by the way. Brian never asked me out again.
* Excerpted from New Life Story Coaches™
David Krueger, MD, Mentorpath Publications