Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

Principle #21 – Choose Consciously and Wisely

Think about this: The quality and situation of your life right now is the aggregate total of every decision you have ever made. Luck certainly plays a part – and there have been many “sliding doors” moments, I’m sure, but ultimately, it is not what happened in those moments, but rather how you responded to what happened in those moments that made the difference.

Here’s how it works. We’re in a Situation. Based on the Situation, we make a decision. That Decision results in a Consequence. And that Consequence now becomes our new Situation. The only point of leverage we have in the sequence is the Decision – because that is the only moment in the sequence that is in the present moment. (Situation is past and Consequence future). We believe ourselves to be rational but rational thought is just one part of our psychological make-up that appears on the surface. The other part is what I’ll loosely describe as emotional, and that includes all the subconscious fears and desires that are dormant just below the surface. The rational and the emotional are competing to varying degrees in every situation, influencing our choices and decisions without us even knowing it.

Here’s an example: you are working, fully absorbed, on something important that requires solid concentration to complete before your deadline. Suddenly, your phone rings, and it’s an unknown number. Studies show that a high percentage of people interrupt themselves to answer the call. Rationally, this makes no sense whatsoever, as the disruption of your deep concentration comes at a high productivity cost. Yet some underlying desire or fear surfaced at the moment to override the more rational choice. It might be the fear of missing out on some information; it could be the need to be liked; it could be the desire to do the right thing, just in case. It could be many things.

We all do things we shouldn’t. We eat things we know aren’t healthy. We stay on social media too long. We say things we shouldn’t. In short, we make decisions in the moment that work against us and often without our awareness.

No leader sets out to be a bad leader. Yet, there are many bad leaders. And they are bad because of the accumulation of choices they made in the moment – unconsciously – that lead to the wrong outcome or impact. And the pattern continually repeats itself unless or until it is corrected.

I have witnessed incessantly so many leaders sabotaging themselves in the moment without knowing they were doing it and becoming the unwitting victims of their unconscious selves.

I recall a team session where, as a break from the work, the group engaged in a game called Famous Friend. The aim is to discover who in the group has the most famous person’s details amongst their contacts on their smartphone. It turned out the leader and one other team member both had a different famous person in their list – but it proved difficult to judge whose contact was the more famous. After some debate, the group was content to move on, but the leader continued to argue their point very strongly, refusing to let up, continuing to insist theirs was more famous well past the point where anyone was interested.

This persisted until the whole group had been cowed into a silent, embarrassed indifference. The leader simply moved on as if nothing had happened. Knowing this leader beyond this particular occurrence, I know she genuinely cares about her people and strives to be a good leader. That’s a conscious desire. However, in this moment, something stronger overtook her without her awareness. In this case her need for status, to be top dog. She won the argument and lost the war. All of us are prone to self-sabotage as our deep-rooted subconscious needs wrestle silently with our conscious decision-making.

It’s like the parable “The Ant and the Elephant”, which describes how a small ant, blown by a strong wind far away from his colony in a time of drought and scarcity, is trying to make his way to a heavenly oasis. Unknown to the ant is that the wind has blown him onto an elephant. As the ant strives to move towards the oasis, the elephant constantly slows, stalls entirely, or moves in a different direction, frustrating the ant, who can’t understand why he is failing to progress.

Sports psychologist Jamil Qureshi, who has coached six individual sports professionals to become number one in the world, frequently asserts that the what separates those who reach #1 in the world from their peers is one thing: greater self-awareness.

This absence of self-awareness in the leader is driving choices and behaviours all the time, leading to places they don’t want to go and reputations they don’t want to have. And unchecked (as it frequently is), it causes havoc in their teams, departments and organisations. People don’t leave companies, they leave toxic bosses and all toxicity derives from unmet unconscious needs fuelling the leader’s behaviour.

The unconscious drivers prone to sabotaging us in the moment typically fall into 4 categories: need for status (like our Famous Friend example), need to be in control (“I’ll show you who’s boss”), the need to be liked (which induces wrong-headed decision-making and procrastination); and the need for independence (which can lead to aloofness and disconnection).

The subconscious typically manifests itself as a feeling, or a sense which we classically either ignore, dismiss or try to mentally over-ride through conscious rationalisation or force of will. It is well described by Morpheus when he first meets Neo in The Matrix: “You know something. What you know you can’t explain…but you feel it…you don’t know what it is, but it’s there – like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Unfortunately, in this Age of Reason, Big Data and algorithms, feelings are often equated with weakness, inadequacy or that you’re just not up to the job. I recall clearly a stern, pin-striped executive banker once declaring to me with cold, sincere candour when discussing some upset and ill feelings gathered from a series of focus groups in his department: “Let me be clear: there is no place for feelings in the workplace”. I suggested (in jest) as a concession that he considers allowing at least one annual “Bring your feelings to work” day. If there has been one positive change resulting from the pandemic, it is the higher recognition that wellness and mental health – closely connected to emotional needs – are a real consideration in how we approach our work and that suppression is no longer an option. Resisting feelings is futile. It’s a whack-a-mole game, and it will continue to resurface and sabotage you again and again in the future. That which you resist about you persists about you.

The best way to reconcile your subconscious drivers is simply to recognise and pay attention to the feeling as it occurs. Just observe it, witness it – don’t judge it. Get curious and ask yourself what does this feeling mean, and what is it trying to tell me. Turn your torment into your mentor.

The most comforting thing to remember is that, as humans, we have the unique gift of conscious awareness and conscious choice – best summarised by Viktor Frankl from “Man’s Search for Meaning” in the sentence “in every situation there is a space between the situation and how you respond”.