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The U-turn begins with learning how to observe with an open mind, rather than ‘downloading’ from the past. However, mostly people are not open-minded at all, because we are full of experiences, thoughts, emotions and judgements. A cacophony of them. Therefore, the journey towards open-minded observation starts with recognising patterns within this cacophony. First of all, within yourself. To understand others, you have to first understand yourself.

To do so, you need to really settle down and look, stopping all activities that distract from that state of consciousness. And that requires some courage in a corporate environment where you are incessantly asked: What is this for? How do we benefit from this? When is it ready? And what will happen next? Our addiction to keep acting, to keep on running, and the pressure to perform keep us from our biggest source of leadership and change.

Although unconscious patterns that are deeply ingrained largely control our behaviour, our attention allows us to walk a different path of our choice. Leaders that we work with often say, “I won’t change any more. This is just the way I am.” But it is not about changing the core. What matters is that you, as a leader, become conscious of what you used to do automatically. What matters is that you learn how to take a step back and look at yourself from a distance. Why do I always do things this way? Why does this type of person always annoy me? It’s also important that you learn to not immediately judge (people or situations) and to not immediately act. The better you manage to postpone your judgements, the better you will learn to see and listen to persistent patterns. With this blog, I hope to help the reader to learn how to recognise these patterns. First of all, within him- or herself; then, between people. And finally, within an organisation.


Suspending your thoughts

In order to supervise changes in an effective way, it is important to take some distance from our normal stream of thoughts and learn how to see with a clear eye. In his must-read work “Presence”, Senge quotes the physicist David Bohm: “Normally, thoughts have us, rather than us having thoughts.”

Taking a step back from your incessant stream of thoughts – Senge calls this act suspending – doesn’t mean that you throw away your old ideas, thoughts and opinions; rather, that you put them up for display, so that you can walk around them and take a look at them from different angles. The way you hang your laundry in the garden. There they are, suspended from the laundry rack: All your character traits (for example ‘timid’ or ‘cunning’), defense mechanisms (for example your tendency to react to feedback by lashing back) and your ‘imprints’ – the experiences that shaped your views of the world (for example your mother’s illness that gave you a lot of responsibility at a young age). By doing this, you will see that all your views and thoughts, and all the emotions that they summon, are merely products of your own mind. Becoming aware of these allows us to not be controlled and thrown around by our thoughts and inner models. You might have those thoughts, convictions and feelings, but they aren’t you.

Letting go of our ‘inner chatter’ is not easy and often unpleasant. When you try to ‘suspend’, you are often confronted by various anxieties and inner judgements. Just imagine: Everything that you think about yourself, all stories you tell when people ask you who you are, all your beliefs and values, your history, the voices of your father and mother, all that you have learned in your life – what if these are all just stories. Maybe they are true. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe you will be telling different stories in ten years. These stories don’t define you because they are just stories. For many people, this is an uncomfortable thought. Because if these stories aren’t what defines you, what does? My answer to this question is that this sense of uncomfortableness can only be solved by not solving it. When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Accept that there are very few things in life that are for certain. And that life is ‘quite a hassle,’ as my personal hero René Gude once said on the Dutch current affairs-show ‘De Wereld Draait Door.’ Once you put yourself into perspective, you create space to change and take a real step forward.


Three levels of knowing yourself

Before you can start to understand others, make sense of their behaviour and influence their actions, it is necessary to first understand yourself. The American philosopher Ken Wilber distinguishes three levels of knowing yourself that, since then, have been used by various thinkers:

1: Pre-personal or subconscious: On this level, all behaviour is guided by the subconscious. Freud is the founder of the subconscious: the place where our urges, fears and desires are hidden that control our behaviour.

2: Personal: On this level, you use your ability to think in order to make sense of your emotions. Jung is one of the most important psychologists on this subject. Understanding the “I”, the ego, is central to this level of consciousness.

3: Transpersonal: Attaining the highest level of consciousness, Ken Wilber proposes, requires you to connect your body, your mind and the entire universe in a conscious manner. It’s not just about the ego any more, but about the whole.


The first step is about not being conscious of yourself and what drives you. Swaab (2010) sees this ‘being unconscious’ as physical and chemical processes in our brains that determine how we react and who we are. The central question is: are we slaves to what we are not conscious of, or do we have free will?

The second step is about the conscious search for the ego, the journey inside: becoming conscious of what used to be non-conscious. A way to do this is by taking tests about your personality, character structure and drives. Becoming aware of emotions and obstructive ideas make you more conscious. But thinking about how the past has shaped you and how it has shaped your defense mechanism also teaches you a lot about your ego.

The last step is spiritual, which makes it rather inaccessible for many readers. For me too. Yet, the core idea is tremendously important for leaders in a change process. Senge points out a regular pitfall of leaders in change processes, explaining that they tend to see themselves as the centre of things – the primary influencer of a change. Senge doesn’t mean that all leaders are narcissists, but that leaders and people in general experience the world as if it revolves around them. After all, you are the protagonist in your own film: You are ‘caught’ inside your own ego.

The reality is that a leader is a part of the process. There are many more actors that cause change within the system. In addition, the work of the leader’s predecessors still influences the system to a great extent. During a change process, a leader is expected to ‘pull himself out of the swamp by his own hair.’ That is to say: he himself is part of the change that he has to initiate.

And that duality is exactly what makes it hard for some leaders to cope with changes: On the one hand, they walk too far ahead of the troops and, on the other hand, they are too much a part of the troops to keep seeing the bigger picture. It’s like keeping your eyes on the road while making your quarrelling children behave on the back seat.

It is quite a bit of work to not see yourself as the centre of events – as the centrepiece of your team, your organisation, around which everything revolves – but, instead, as a part of a whole where everything moves in response to another. Of course, it’s not difficult to understand it rationally. But to really feel and experience it, to ‘suspend’ it, requires an internal learning process. It necessitates that you have a conversation with yourself before having it with other people. It requires that you learn to understand how people react to one another and what they might base these reactions on: their lives, their deep-rooted beliefs and their personal histories.

The core idea is that leadership will only flourish once you attach less importance to the ‘me.’ When you see that all stories that identify you, are just stories. That you can still be you, once you let go of these stories as being the truth. Leadership is about letting go of mental concepts about yourself. In other words, wandering around too much in Ken Wilber’s Step 2 (the personal level) will not make you a better leader. It will just make you look for confirmation about what you were already thinking, creating even more persistent theories and stories about yourself.

I believe that leadership – including personal leadership- is a lifelong search between the personal and transpersonal levels. Somewhere between the ego and the universe. To some, that may sound a little pretentious. But probably you recognise the difference between the charismatic leader of the ‘80s and ‘90s (focused on serving himself) and the serving, level 5 leader of today (focused on serving the organisation and the world, rather than himself).

But does this mean that there is no point thinking about yourself? There is! The better a leader becomes at realising when his ego is speaking (thus, when his thinking is dominating his actions), the more effective he becomes as a leader. Once you master this art, you become the source of change. And you don’t need to convince anyone: It happens naturally.

Something else. Some people I know, say: I don’t really care about ‘me.’ In my life, everything is about other people! Hearing that makes me raise an inner eyebrow. What do we have here: An enlightened zen buddhist? Or might this be a person with a masochistic character structure, whose favourite defense mechanism is to neglect his own needs in favour of the bigger picture? Because that is what he learned to do. He has to. This person may still be unaware of his own desires and the guilt he would feel the moment he would make himself important. If this type of person tells you he doesn’t have a big ego, it is actually his ego speaking: the ego wants to get rid of the ego.