When You Know How Something Works

When I was 16, my Dad bought me a car.  Not just any car, a red 1966 Chevy Impala SS ragtop with a 425HP V8 engine.  A fierce American muscle car with a manual transmission and heavy duty clutch.

Sounds awesome, right?

Not so much.

As a new driver, I was grappling with understanding hand signals and the rules of the road.  I wanted a little Ford Falcon with an automatic transmission to putter around on the country roads in my small town.  The Impala seemed like a behemoth, a beast.

My Dad repeatedly explained how to ease up on the clutch and simultaneously apply the gas, but despite his best efforts, I could not make that darn Impala move.  I could barely remember how to work the gear shift in the little H pattern.  I was lost.

Driving a manual transmission made total sense to my Dad.  It made zero sense to me.  We never got out of the school parking lot, and I was in tears on the way home.  The Impala was a masterpiece of automotive design, yet I couldn’t get it to move more than a few feet!

This is what happens when you don’t really understand how something works.

The human mind is also a masterpiece of design.  We all have the power to formulate thought and experience that thought through our senses.  We also have limitless potential for new thought.  The design is truly amazing.  But until we realize what’s happening and how it works, we can get as frustrated as I was in the parking lot.

To make it more challenging, the belief that life comes at us from the outside (from circumstances, people, or past events) is a huge misunderstanding about how the mind actually works.  When we’re stuck in the misunderstanding, it looks like things external to us (our workload, children/pets, or past failures and disappointments) are causing us to feel stress or worry.  It looks like we must cope with what’s coming at us. Our emotions ratchet up.  It’s easy to slip into a victimized state of mind.

Furthermore, just as I couldn’t intellectually see how to drive a manual transmission, we can’t intellectually think our way out of our thoughts.  Instead, we must realize how the system works in the moment, while we’re experiencing what looks like life coming at us.  When we know how it doesn’t work – outside-in – we set ourselves up for the moment of insight when we see how it does work – inside-out.

For example, in my own life, sometimes it can look like a lack of consulting work in the pipeline is stressful.  I can build a strong case for why this is true – I have a mortgage, dogs to care for and bills to pay.  Then I catch myself and get on with things.  A few days later, while walking the dogs in the woods, I get a thought about partnering with a friend to market a program to her client base.  A few phone calls later and we’re looking at venues for an exciting new project.

In my 30s, I finally learned to drive a manual transmission in a little red Honda Civic.  Once I understood the moment of balance between letting out the clutch and pressing on the accelerator, I was all good.  A few years later, I got my own version of a muscle car, a Volkswagen Scirocco.  Some days, while I was effortlessly shifting gears barreling down the highway, I’d think of those tortuous hours spent in the school parking lot with that Impala SS and smile.

Understanding makes all the difference.

 

Presence and Gravitas….when you don’t have dragons

dragonIn my coaching practice, I’m often asked to help leaders develop executive presence or gravitas. Here’s how I reflect on what to do:

Executive presence…. Hmmm, what’s thought got to do with it? (I hear the Tina Turner melody in my head.)

Of course, it’s always about the role and nature of thought, but I have to connect some dots first. So, I usually start with a quick visit to the blogosphere to look for definitions and examples. Such as:

In a survey asking CIOs to list the top 20 leadership skills, Executive Presence came in second. The post listed 7 traits: Composure, Connection, Charisma (ability to draw others in; often achieved by strong listening skills and an ability to stay in the moment), Confidence (what you say and how you say it – posture, eye contact, pitch volume, pace); Credibility (no filler language), Clarity, and Conciseness (not verbose).

In his HBR blog post Deconstructing Executive Presence, John Beeson states:

“Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.”

Colin Gautrey advises those looking to develop “genuine” gravitas that the behavior is “The external evidence of a deeply held conviction that the individual is totally competent to do what is expected of them and handle anything that comes their way, without feeling the need to prove themselves.” He concludes (and I rest my case) that “The problem is that gravitas comes from within….”

Next, I simplify. Sounds to me like self-confidence and mental clarity.

So what gets in the way of self-confidence and mental clarity? Lots of ego-driven thinking and self-doubt; endless “Who am I and How am I doing?” comparisons. The louder the chatter, the less presence and mental clarity are available in the moment. Gripped by a host of feelings – insecurity, defensiveness, upset, impatience – that appear to be coming from current circumstances, it’s impossible to behave like a confident, credible leader.

Now I can get down to the business of sharing what I know about how the human operating system really works.

1. Our feelings and experience of life are always and only coming from our thinking in the moment.

2. When we realize the fact of this understanding, we are less gripped by our thinking in the moment and don’t waste time and energy trying to fix our circumstances.

3. When our heads are clear, we naturally have fresh thinking that gives us what we need in the moment. There is an intelligence in the system that will never let us down.

The implications of this understanding as they relate to executive presence and gravitas are myriad.

Let’s start with the 7 Cs listed above. Take away the mental chatter and from a clear and present focus, it’s possible to listen deeply and connect with others in the moment. Regardless of the situation, it’s possible to remain calm and composed – or at the very least to recover quickly from spikes of emotional reactions. When nervous, anxious feelings slip away, the outward behaviors that signal confidence and credibility naturally emerge. Posture, pace, pitch, volume, and eye contact take care of themselves. The message is delivered in a clear, concise, confident manner.

The leader who knows that his or her feelings are not coming from a challenging situation or a strong-willed colleague or customer is able to maintain composure and diffuse emotional situations with calm, fact-based questions and a natural willingness to attempt to understand others. The leader who understands that change, uncertainty, and workload are never the source of stress and pressure will have more mental bandwidth available to see different ways of getting things done, make timely decisions, and set priorities.

Once again, there is nothing that can help my clients more than understanding how their minds work. It always comes back to the Principles – whether I specifically talk about Mind, Consciousness, and Thought or not.

PS: For those who are not Game of Thrones fans — that’s Daenerys Targaryen with one of her dragons