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Three Paradigms Worth Holding Up to the Light

first 100 days / career leadership: managing yourself

A popular coaching trope is "What got you here won't get you there." 

If true, it begs two questions.  Here is the first: what must I change? 

The famed coach Marshall Goldsmith tried to answer the question in his trope-titled book.  He takes a behavioral approach and focuses on the twenty or so sub-optimal habits (as he calls them) that executives need to get better at. 

But let's not kid ourselves. A fundamental change in your success formula is unlikely to come about by chipping your way through a laundry list of behavior changes.  You're going to have to dig deeper.

If we are going to root out "what got you here," we need to get at, not just your stories, but what wove those stories in the first place. 

One way coaches nudge their clients to start to dig deeper is by helping them uncover their stories about challenging situations and then leverage Byron Katie's turnaround work to create new possibilities.  All well and good.

But again, we are talking about moving the needle on an inveterate success strategy that you have been using unconsciously, perhaps for decades.

If we are going to root out "what got you here," we need to get at, not just your stories, but what wove those stories in the first place.  In my view, what weaves our stories are internal paradigms that most of us are not even aware we have. 

These paradigms are "pre-story."  They influence how we see and hear, what is worth noticing and what can be ignored.  They signal to us that something is "wrong."  They create the impetus to tell a story about a situation and even influence what the elements of that story are.

You didn't create these paradigms, they created you.  So if your objective is to make fundamental changes to who you are and how you lead, a good start would be to hold three core paradigms up to the light:

  1. What's the motivation/drive that gets you out of bed in the morning?
  2. What has been your "Winning Strategy?"
  3. How do you think about the causes and meaning of outcomes in your life?

To make this more digestible, I will cover these paradigms over the next four articles.

You didn't create these paradigms, they created you. 

What's the motivation/drive that gets you out of bed in the morning?

Jokes aside about what gets you out of bed in the morning, I like that question better than "What is your definition of success?"  Questions about success usually lead to statements about the outcomes we want, like making partner or tenure or a successful exit. 

Asking about what gets you up, even when you're exhausted, can get at the force more than the outcome of applying the force.  As you'll see, it can also sometimes reveal "darker" forces than those socially-polished success definitions.

A Swing at the Big Drivers

Here's the start of a list.

Mastery.  This is a deep motivator that has fallen out of favor a bit in our transactional, distraction-riddled world.  A musician friend of mine from my HS days practices his instrument every day, for hours, even though he hardly ever performs or records any more and there are no external rewards for what he does.  Every day he and artists and others like him (academics, scientists, etc.) trudge the road, with no ultimate destination in mind, just chipping away at the next piece of a bottomless puzzle.  The road is the destination. 

Service/Purpose. When you ask someone their definition of success, it often is colored by something that sounds like "purpose."  It can be addressing a social ill like racism.  It can be environmental improvements, alleviating homelessness, treating illness, and on and on. 

A good acid test as to whether this is the real driver here is to follow up by asking if they would still do it the thing that feels so purposeful to them if it came with less or no external measures of success, such as accolades or financial rewards. 

Autonomy (or maybe just being less subject to control by others).  Many push hard to achieve a situation where they are their own boss, free from the control of others, making their own decisions, answering to no one.  I had a client who crossed swords and had real complaints about every boss he worked for.  He started his own thing and, while still working hard and stressed, finally feels free.  Now he works to make sure he stays that way and never has to "work for the Man" again.

Every day he and artists and others like him (academics, scientists, etc.) trudge the road, with no ultimate destination in mind, just chipping away at the next piece of a bottomless puzzle.  The road is the destination.

Providing/Parenting.  For many and for long chunks of their lives, being a responsible parent and provider is the force that gets them out of bed every morning: mouths to feed, kids to get to school, bills to be paid, "adulting" to be done.  And they take that responsibility seriously.  The particular work they do is not the main focus.  It's a means to being a good parent and providing.

Financial.  Some carry the notion of providing way beyond normative standards.  They have more than enough for themselves and their families, and they are still driven to accumulate.  This is how they keep score.  In my view, there is nothing wrong with an avid pursuit of "s/he who dies with the most toys, wins", especially if you are willing to...sorry...pay the price that often goes with said pursuit.

Power and Social Status.  It is not money per se that is motivating to people who are driven by this, though money and social status tend to go together. They want to keep moving up whatever hierarchy they have decided is important to them. They make sure the light keeps shining on them.

Sometimes what is sought is relative status. They don't want to be CEO of a Fortune 500.  They might take less money or choose a smaller company because they'd rather be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.  They don't want to be one of many in LA.  They'd rather have high social status in Des Moines.  

Belonging/Approval.  This is perhaps the closest to a 'genetic' motivation.  In our ancient pasts, being "cast outside the circle" often meant death.  Many work hard to weave themselves deeply into the networks they find fulfilling.  They don't need to be top dog, they just need to be "a member in good standing" of the groups that are important to them.

Being/Play.  A rarer set of people organize their life around Play and living in the moment.  It is curiosity, self-discovery, and joie de vivre that drive them out of bed in the morning.  Some may even still be "working," but their work is play, a kind of game for them.  Others have less structure and no real agenda.  They just want to see what happens, what their curiosity draws them towards, what they might experience, create, learn.  They keep their Muses close and may even say to themselves and whatever inner characters are listening, "What mischief shall we get into today?"

This list is just a start.  I am sure there are other big drivers.  I thought about Safety/Security, but, to me, that seemed like a combination of other drivers depending on how you define security.  Mastery could lead to security.  So could Financial, Power & Social Status, Belonging, etc.  Your mileage and list might vary.

Also, what drives us is usually not singular.  Many find themselves driven by a combination of drives.

Moreover, you could argue that for some, these are just the outlets or expressions of even deeper, often fear-based drives.  With enough digging, some might reveal that they long to feel valued by their fathers or they just want to be able to do one thing better than their older sister. 

I had a client tell me that, as a young man, there was so much pressure on him from his family to succeed, that for most of his adult life, the thing that drove him was not failing.  For him, "failure equaled death" in the form of being scorned and ostracized by his family.

This deeper drive can manifest in different forms, such as pushing for more money or more mastery or social status.  But make no mistake, achieving a sense of worthiness is what is driving the bus.

Fundamentally changing how you lead is going to require some serious soul-scrapping and what is likely to be an extended encampment outside your comfort zone. It would be wise to get crystal-clear on what's at stake..."the Why"...before embarking.

Inquiries About the Prime Directive

Once you have some insight about your thermal vent, here are some inquiries you can make about it:

  1. How do you define it and when it has been accomplished? Understanding how someone defines the motivation can be revealing.  Don't be surprised if what they say they are pursuing was achieved a long time ago, by normative standards at least.  Normative success is not necessarily a reason to stop pursuing the primary driver, but it might be interesting to acknowledge.
  2. How do you think that motivational seed got planted...family, society, personality, trauma history, peers?  Here I am curious to what extent the drive was consciously chosen or something that they passively absorbed or was "forced" on them. 
  3. Has there been any unintended cost from the pursuit? The only surprise here would be if one couldn't be identified.  Ardently pursuing a path almost always necessitates closing doors to other pursuits and activities.
  4. Do you believe it is still serving you or is there a kind of inertia about the pursuit?  Many of us end up continuing to chase through a lack of introspection and by succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy
  5. Is this prime directive going to help you on the next leg of your journey?  In helping executives transition into challenging new jobs, I ask them to stop thinking about themselves and what they are good at and focus on what the job and situation they are now in needs. In large organizations, many have spent years focused on themselves and their own individual pursuits and accomplishments.  Oddly, if they've succeeded, they might now be in a position where they need to become more focused on team and collective success over their individual success.  They need to stop making sure the light shines on them, and they need to stop accumulating for themselves.  What's being asked of them is that they access their inner "generosity gene", and start focusing on helping their people grow.

“I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”       ~ William James

A change of this magnitude is no mean feat.  Behavior change alone is hard.  Swapping one engine for another as part of creating a new approach to leading is 10X as hard.

I said at the beginning that the trope "what got you here won't get you there" begs two questions. 

The first, mentioned earlier, is what must I change?  I am arguing in this series of articles that if you are going to change your leadership stripes, you are going to need to dig deep and make your unconscious paradigms conscious, starting with an understanding of the force that has been driving you out of bed in the morning discussed here. 

In the next two posts, I will cover the two other paradigms worth examining.  In Part 2, I dig deeper into your 'winning strategy'...what you actually notice, respond to, and do to try to accomplish the prime directive identified here.

In Part 3, I'll ask you to examine your causation paradigm: how do you think about the causes of outcomes in your life, good or bad?

In Part 4, we'll explore the how you assign meaning to those 'good' and 'bad' outcomes.

But the second question that "what got you here won't get you there" begs is:  "Is 'there' worth the effort a reinvention process is going to require? 

Fundamentally changing how you lead is going to require some serious soul-scrapping and what is likely to be an extended encampment outside your comfort zone. It would be wise to get crystal-clear on what's at stake..."the Why"...before embarking.

Dennis Adsit, Ph.D. is the President of Adsum Insights and designer of The First 100 Days and Beyond, a consulting service for leaders in transition who need to get off to the best possible start in their new jobs.