Air to the bird, water to the fish……


‘The three great mysteries: Air to a bird, water to a fish, Man to himself.’
– A Hindu proverb

What are the kind of situations which bring out the worst of reactive thoughts in us? I offer a few personal examples here.

**

I am driving back from office. Mind laden with the ‘To do’ stuff for tomorrow, interspersed with unrelated thoughts from the past. I get yanked back to the ‘now and here’ by a black SUV suddenly crossing the lane from the wrong side. Slamming the brakes, I curse.
Drivers Beware!

**

In a hurry to get back home, I rush into the Al Fair supermarket to pick up a few items which my wife had asked me to. Though the place seems fairly crowded with folks like me trying to squeeze in some grocery shopping, my check-out queue moves briskly till I reach second spot. It is then that the guy in front of me gets into a long drawn discussion with the counter lady on the intricacies of some redeemable voucher. Impatiently standing there, I see rage and anger building up inside me.
Supermarket queue
**

I notice an office colleague not complying with my instructions. When asked, he voices disagreement. I see this as trying to undermine me, or worse, an attempt to derail what I propose to do. I react by knit picking on the guy, by micro-managing at the activity level and in my anxiety to enforce, I end up hurting and demeaning. In all this, both of us have lost the big picture of what we had set out to achieve.
Office disagreement
**

Now these are my examples but I can wager you would have seen one or more of these playing out in your own lives. So what is it really that brings up these reactions in us?

As I ponder over this question, I start seeing aspects of my own self-centeredness. A ‘Self centering’ that I am at the center of the world for myself and somehow my immediate needs and feelings should determine how things should operate in the world. A ‘Self centering’ which then becomes a slew of learned reactive thoughts and behaviours to make that happen. Reactive thoughts and behaviours which have got hard-wired within to the extent that it is now a default setting, a who I am wound up being.

So the guy who I am wound up being is now conditioned to curse when someone drives wrongly on the road. Or to get into a rage when someone delays completing some work. Or to hurt and demean when the other guy does not do things ‘my way’.

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and a Thought Leader at Monitor Group, after four decades of studying individuals and organisations, concluded that, ‘… people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.’

In real life, we might be completely aware of the right and wrong way of speaking, dealing with people and behaving. But come a situation or someone else’s behaviour that triggers our inner hard wiring, our reactive self takes over, ready to protect our turf at any cost. The interesting thing is that post the event, we remain hardly aware of how our reactive behaviour and actions were so much in variance to what we generally believe our actions and behaviour to be. A veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manifestation within us!

Have you ever wondered what makes it so hard for us to stop that reactive “Dr. Jekyll” self from taking over? This is because we mistake ‘Who we have wound up being’ as ‘Who we are’. This prevents us from seeing, as Chris Argyris surmised, the gap between the way we think we are acting and the way we really act. What is undistinguished begins to control us. Just like Air to the bird and Water to the fish!

So how could we start seeing the air and the water? What could we do to distinguish and remove all that acquired fluff of how we have wound up being to get down to the essence of who we are?

I believe we can make a start by holding the consciousness that we have a choice when confronted with a reaction generating situation or person. For example, what if I chose to think that the guy in that SUV who crossed the lane wrongly was rushing to the hospital where his wife was critically ill? What if I chose to believe that the guy trying to redeem those Al Fair vouchers was doing it to buy provisions for an orphanage? What if I chose to believe that the office colleague is as dedicated as me to achieve the overall objective?

The next step is to distinguish those aspects which have become part of ‘Who we have wound up being’. Read the language constructs below:

“ I Am….”

I am intelligent and smart.
I am disciplined and orderly.
I am competitive.
I am impatient with others.
I am a perfectionist and do not suffer fools.

“The way I wound up being….”

The way I wound up being is believing I am intelligent and smart.
The way I wound up being is disciplined and orderly.
The way I wound up being is competitive.
The way I wound up being is being impatient with others.
The way I wound up being is a perfectionist and who does not suffer fools.

What do you notice?

Do you notice that as the language construct shifts away from “I Am……” you gain the ability to distinguish the several traits you have acquired from who you intrinsically are?

Do you see that unlike the birds and the fishes, you are now able to discern the air and water around you?

Do you realise that you now have a choice?

***

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,” Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,” What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’, commencement speech, 2005

Acknowledgement:
“Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

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How can I use my Context?


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In my last post ‘My Context uses me’, I had dwelled on how my Context, that omnipresent meaning making machine in all my situations, uses me. How my context wields the power to put me on rails and makes me react in predictable failing ways. I was left wondering whether I could do something about shifting away from such almost certain failures.

The “Being a Leader” course, attended by me recently, revealed a pathway.

As we saw in the last post, our context does function as a cognitive lens, a filter so to speak, through which we view the world, others and interestingly, even our own selves. As we look at a situation, our context highlights some aspects, dims a few and even blanks out yet other aspects. So what makes up our context? It’s our Worldview and frame of reference for the situation at hand. It is our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions which play a part in the context’s meaning making and filtering process.

Cognitive-Distortions-Skew-Your-Perceptions

Now let’s consider what constitutes our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions. In a nutshell, it is our past experiences. Our brains are adept at using this past to create a default context which comes automatically with the situation at hand. This default context, coloured as it is by our past concerns and fears, restricts us and our actions. As the context is decisive, one can see the wisdom of the old French proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The “Being a Leader” course went on to show that a critical part of our effectiveness in leadership and life arises from our ability to replace the default context by a created context for the same situation. This created context, unencumbered by anything from the past, allows us to see possibilities which were not being allowed so long by our past.

So how does the above work? To understand that let us revisit the situation which we had talked about in the earlier post, ‘My Context uses me’.

“Whenever I notice someone, be it a family member, relative, office colleague etc. not doing it ‘my way’ or voicing disagreement about my way or style of functioning, I feel that the person is actually trying to prove me wrong , undermine me, not giving me the respect which I deserve etc.”

.My default context was, ‘Disagreeing with me implies proving me wrong, undermining me, disrespecting me etc’. This context led to situations occurring for me negatively and made me react in negative, hurtful ways.

As I review the above situation, I realise that I do hold the power to create a new context for myself. A context which says, ‘Getting the job done is what counts and it really doesn’t matter if the way adopted by others is different to mine so long as the job is done’.

As I think of this created context, I can see that it allows me to hold the big picture of getting the job done and get people to align their focus and actions to that. I also begin to see that with this context, I am no longer getting undermined, proved wrong and getting disrespected.
I now see that I hold the power to use my context to my advantage.
***
On a lighter note, I append below an extract from the ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, which highlights how one could mis-use the context to the other person’s disadvantage!

“I don’t think you understand,” said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. “We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”
“It’s not yours to spend,” the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.
“That doesn’t make any sense, you see—” he started to explain.
“Dollars or cents, it’s still not yours to spend,” the bird replied haughtily.
“But I didn’t mean—” insisted Milo.
“Of course you’re mean,” interrupted the bird, closing the eye that had been open and opening the one that had been closed. “Anyone who’d spend a night that doesn’t belong to him is very mean.”
“Well, I thought that by—” he tried again desperately.
“That’s a different story,” interjected the bird a bit more amiably. “If you want to buy, I’m sure I can arrange to sell, but with what you’re doing you’ll probably end up in a cell anyway.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Milo helplessly, for, with the bird taking everything the wrong way, he hardly knew what he was saying.
“Agreed,” said the bird, with a sharp click of his beak, “but neither is it left, although if I were you I would have left a long time ago.”

In learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:
1) “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

Leadership and Choice


“Leaders live by choice, not by accident.” Mark Gorman, author.

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Choice. A simple, easygoing word which leads most of us to trivialize its importance. But nonetheless it holds enormous power in the exercise of Leadership as well as life in general.
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In a recent Leadership course, I gained a powerful perspective from the following classroom experiment relating to ‘Choice’. The experiment required of us the following.

1. Identify what there is for you to do in your life that you feel obligated to do, or that you are doing based on a set of reasons for doing them, and write it down.
2. As an experiment, choose to do the thing it would be legitimate to say you are obligated to do (or have no “choice” about doing), and now write them down as what you are choosing to do. (“I choose to …”.)
3. Now check and see whether your experience of the item occurs for you (shows up for you) differently.

One aspect in my life that occurs to me as an obligation is, ‘Hang onto my current job, work profile and industry’.

I then experimented with rewriting the above aspect as a free choice of mine, which then became, ‘I choose to be in my current job, work profile and industry in an empowering, relevant and effective manner.’

I was taken aback by the remarkable shift in the way the situation occurred for me by the mere change in the language as above.

I could see that when I exercise ‘Choice’, it is intrinsically me, my inner convictions and I start ‘owning’ that choice; it occurs less burdensome. I start feeling heightened energy, passion and confidence. I can sense more possibilities and way forward opportunities apart from an intrinsic commitment to do the best I can.

Contrast this with when I used the language of obligation and the burden that brings in, constraining possibilities and pathways. I then see myself in a space of forcible acceptance, fearful of consequences. I go through the motions, rely on instructions to proceed, avoid risks etc. I see a drag and loss of energy.

I started seeing the power residing within the ‘language of Choice’.
***

I recall a couple of situations in which the way I perceived making a choice impacted both myself and others in a positive or negative way.

One time when I had to treat my family out to dinner, my wife and daughters left the choice of selecting the restaurant to me. Post dinner, my wife remarked that she had not enjoyed the Italian cuisine all that much and how she wished, I had chosen an Indian restaurant. I remember reacting back angrily as to what had stopped her from giving this preference earlier on. I then tried to justify my selection based on good word of mouth feedback of friends. Basically I ended up not taking responsibility of my own choice and putting the blame on my friends instead. To evade criticism of my choice, I had painted myself into a ‘victim’ corner.

Another time, my family left the choice of selecting which movie we should go to. After the movie, my wife and daughter were unanimous in rating the movie as terrible. On this occasion however, I stood firm as I declared, “Because of its philosophical insights, I wanted all of us to watch and learn from this movie.” Without really realizing it at that point in time, I showed up as having made a choice of my own free will and held the courage to take responsibility for it. As I articulated my choice in this manner, I felt empowered.

Do we realise that at its very essence, Leadership is a choice? Just as is living life. Everything about Leadership, as with life, begins with a choice. A choice which we make.
***

In literature, Leadership and decision making appear to be near synonymous. We tend to overlook the fact that any decision really comprises of a chain of small but significant choices. Even when we bring in our biases, perceptions and assumptions and rationalize and justify based on these, that is our choice too. Our choice, and the corresponding decision flowing out of that, further gets coloured and shaped (or shall I use the word forced?) by our positional, inter-personal or cultural compulsions. We remain largely unaware of this aspect, falsely believing that how the situation occurs for us is how it really is and that our reaction is correct and logical. We fail to see that we in fact have got onto rails and are unable to exercise any freedom relating to other possibilities available to us to deal with what is at hand. A far cry from effective leadership which is all about opening up choices and possibilities, not limiting them.
***

Richard J. Leider, the author of the international bestseller, ‘ The Power of Purpose’ writes that in twenty years of his interviewing elderly leaders aged over 65, he discovered something profound relating to ‘Choices’. To his question, “If you could live your life over again, what would you choose to do differently?”, he heard the articulation of three themes getting repeated over and over again.

“I would choose to be more reflective, take time to think because life passes so quickly and I was too busy doing to think adequately.”

• “I would choose to be more courageous, take more risks; I played it too close to the vest”.

• “I would choose to be clear, far earlier, on what my purpose was in life”.

In learning….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:

1) “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.
2) “The Power of Purpose” by Richard J. Leider, May, 2010.

Indian Elections and the Law of Integrity


Over the last one month, the screen images continue to focus on that greatest show of Democracy on Earth, the on-going national elections in India. Close to a billion voters being wooed by a fractious, cacophonous political lot.
Indian elections
I notice contrasting articulations.

On one hand, I see political parties investing a lot of energy and resources to disseminate what they stand for. Their manifestoes drip with great intentions that they are committed to fulfill if voted to power. Candidates vie with each other for that once in five years photo opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder clutching their copy of this ‘intention bible’.But when a politician is confronted with non-fulfilment of earlier electoral promises, he is quick to ascribe causes. Of how the opposition was non-supportive in the parliament. Of how resources and funds were not made available. Of how, inspite of all such great challenges, he continues to remain totally committed to usher in development, both economic and social.

On the other hand, I see the man on the street expressing his disenchantment with the political class, even the political process. Of his ire at the lack of fulfillment of election manifestoes in the past. Of his perception that election promises are meant to garner votes and quickly abandoned thereafter. Of his perspective that politicians exist only to feather their own nests in terms of aggrandizing power, influence and money, giving scarcely a thought to the welfare of the citizenry. Of his fervent hope that at least this time around, the politicians coming to power might be motivated to focus on development, both economic and social.

I muse about this lack of alignment between the politician and citizenry even though both speak of the same goal viz. development, economic and social. Do I sense a loss of faith in the workability of our political system? What is at the core of this failure?

My thoughts shift to the Integrity model which I had read about recently. Authors Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen and Steve Zaffron present this model to demonstrate how Integrity, as defined by them, is intrinsic to the workability in any situation.
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As per the authors, Integrity is all about our word being whole and complete, both to ourselves and to others. What is the meaning of word being whole and complete, one may ask. It means “Honouring our word” which is keeping our word and in case we are not able to do so, be willing to be held responsible for clearing any mess caused by that. The Law of Integrity states that as integrity (honouring the word) declines, workability declines, and as workability declines, the opportunity for performance declines.’

As I look at the Integrity model in the context of the Indian elections, I wonder about the contradictions the political process throws up. Could it be that the contradiction we see of espousing integrity but not honouring the word is a trait that exists in each one of us? So,what is it then that stops us seeing this contradiction? As I think of this, the following thoughts fleet through my mind.

Do we see Integrity as some kind of a virtue to aspire for rather than an underlying condition for performance? When we see integrity thus, we rarely think twice before sacrificing it to ‘succeed’.
• Do we suffer from self deception when it comes to our own out-of-integrity behaviour as we are quick to put the blame somewhere else but fail to see how our own failure to perform is linked to this violation of the law of integrity?
• What is it that stops us from admitting that we will not be keeping our word? Is it from a fear that we would be responsible for ‘cleaning the mess’ and thus look bad in front of others?
• Do we realise that having given our word, any attempt to subsequently link that to a likely benefit for us makes us look untrustworthy?

As I think of the divergence between words and deeds that has rendered our political system (which also includes us!) untrustworthy and undermined its workability, I am left wondering at the kind of political language that may be used by both politicians and citizenry alike. A language that would align the commitments. A language that would ensure that owning upto our commitment failures and taking responsibility of the clean-up becomes the norm…….

In learning………….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: ‘Integrity: A positive model’ by Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen and Steve Zaffron, Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 10-061, Revised May, 2013

Is this all there is?


What all is out there

I cannot claim to recall what I first saw as I came into this world. But I do hold memories of the wonder I felt as a child as I looked up at the evening sky and the stars. Or as I lay on the grass for hours, watching an array of ants or beetles carrying morsels of food. As I think back to those times of wonderment, I can still sense the question at the core, “What all is out there?”

Growing up, seeing and trying things for the first time, leaving home and going to hostel, getting into a new job, place, assignment. Into the unknown every time. At all such junctures, I sensed support from that accompanying question, “What all is out there?”

Life seemed to accompany with surprises galore. As I walked the pathway of new decisions, new insights, new direction, new philosophies. And as I continued to negotiate life’s surprises, what remained with me was, “What all is out there?”

“What all is out there?” It was about embracing and trusting that first step. It was about seeing things for the first time. It was about that unquestioning and unconditional mindset to take it all in. It was about listening to the life and energy that surrounds. It was about feeling connected to all things. It was about that undeniable faith that the world gives.

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way

– Mary Hopkins, 1968

But somewhere along the way, that childlike wonder, vision and instinct seemed to dim. What seeped in was disenchantment and boredom. A preoccupation with things that are artificial. The burden of living up to other’s expectations. The loss of the allure of things acquired and goals achieved. The ‘Wow!’ and the newness of the first time giving way to ‘Being there, Done that’ refrain. The question taking center stage in my mind was, “Is this all there is?”

Is this all there is

“Is this all there is?” I wonder how this has taken root within me. Is this a mindset shift that gives undue importance to my knowing rather than feeling? Is this the conditioning from my education and peers which extol knowledge and wisdom as must-have virtues and gives short shrift to emotion and intuition? Is this my refuge from the sheer inadequacy I feel in dealing with a complex world?

Even though I discipline myself to ‘count my blessings’ and think of all that I have achieved in terms of position, wealth and family, I sense an emptiness and a lack of fulfillment. A feeling of disorientation and loss. Why is this I wonder?

I also sense another change in me. I now think much more of how much time and opportunity I have left rather than how far I have come and what I have achieved. If only I could recapture that ‘sense of wonder’ from my childhood for this remaining time and opportunity I have. I know in my heart of hearts that this could be that unfailing antidote against all that boredom and disenchantment I feel. But how could I do this?

Authors Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen in ‘Four Ways of Being that Create the Foundations of A Great Life, Great Leadership and A Great Organization’ point to a way when they identify one of the foundations as, ‘Being committed to something bigger than oneself’. In the words of the authors, “This is being committed in a way that shapes one’s being and actions so that your ways of being and acting are in the service of realizing something beyond your personal concerns for yourself – beyond a direct personal payoff. As they are acted on, such commitments create something to which others can also be committed and have the sense that their lives are about something bigger than themselves. This is an important aspect of a great personal life, great leadership and a great organization”.

As I muse I realize that the way to handle “Is this all there is” is in finding and pursuing a Cause that ignites a passion in me. A cause bigger than myself, that which energises and lights me up from within. What may this Cause be for me I am left wondering.

***
A quote from George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’.

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”25
***

In learning……….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:
1) Four Ways of Being that Create the Foundations of A Great Life, Great Leadership and A Great Organization– by Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen, a Harvard Business School research paper, Nov. 2013.

2) Man and Superman– by George Bernard Shaw, 1903