Right Action

I am very familiar with the feeling of indecision. It has plagued me for as long as I remember. The way it plays out for me is that I get paralysed and sit in a place of no action. It is not a peaceful place to be. Because I am a keen observer of human behaviour, my curiosity leads me to wonder and notice what happens for others. Using two distinct polarities, there are people for whom action is immediate and there are people, like me, for whom caution before action is the habitual response. It is easy to judge both these states.

What is apparent as I deepen my investigation is the fact that it is not the action or inaction that matters, but the intention behind it. It appears that wisdom lies very close to discomfort. When the opportunity to act arises there will be a moment of choice. In choice there is always discomfort because we are giving up one thing in favour of another. There is a necessary letting go. Sometimes the choice may feel obvious and easy, at other times, less so. When it is less clear, it may mean that we need to spend a little longer in the space of discomfort before ‘right action’ emerges. It is easy to judge discomfort as bad and make a decision too quickly.

The idea of right action is one that captures my attention. It is easy to be busy in activity. It is less easy to be in the discomfort of waiting for the ‘right action’ to emerge. I am not talking about big decisions although these can be felt in exactly the same way. I am talking about simple everyday things. For example, if someone requests something of me that I am not willing to do I will feel a ‘no’ arise in my gut. However my personality has a very strong ‘keep the peace’ focus so I can almost as quickly override the initial ‘no’ and watch myself saying “yes”. My self-coaching practice has taught me to stop at this point and notice what is going on inside of me. What happens as a result of that curious pause is that I can start to acknowledge and anticipate the possibility of ‘No’. My responses take all kinds of shape. Initially I would find myself explaining the whole story of ‘No’. This still reflects my ‘keep the peace’ state; ‘if I tell you the whole story you can’t be cross with me’ type thinking.

These days I am able to sit even longer in the discomfort of feeling a ‘no’ while waiting for the way to communicate emerges. What I have found is that waiting in discomfort allows a clearer response. When I can get beneath my defences I find the truth, and my experience is, that when I am able to communicate the truth in me it lands so gently and easily that my original discomfort is gone. And most often it is well received by the listener.

The key to staying in discomfort is breathing; deep, long breaths that keep the shoulders down and the chest expanding. Discomfort tells us something needs to be different and breathing opens us up to new possibilities.

The words of Lao-Tzu in 500BC are still relevant today and summarise this idea beautifully:
“Do you have the patience to wait, till your mud settles and the water is clear
Can you remain unmoving until right action arises by itself?”

The Source of Scarcity

In December 2008 an ‘Economist’ was published, entitled ‘where have all your savings gone?’1. In the leader the author wrote the following, “For American and European savers, it has been a lost decade. After two booms and two busts, stock markets have earned them nothing, or less, in the past 10 years. Low interest rates have made bonds and bank deposits unrewarding too. Were it not for the tax relief they receive, contributors to personal pension plans would have been better off keeping their money under their mattresses.” No wonder people are shocked, depressed and afraid. Only it’s not just the people close to the crisis that are shocked, depressed and afraid, like a virulent contagion it is spreading prolifically across the world.

The idea that your thoughts create your experiences is not new. The Biblical book of Proverbs words it beautifully, “as you think so shall you be.” If our thoughts create our reality then it follows that a recession must be the result of more people thinking and acting in ways that do not build true wealth. With this  in mind I started to contemplate the nature of this phenomenon called recession and the scarcity of cash.

What is scarcity? In my opinion it is a belief that there is not enough to go around, born of the idea that the pie is only so big and if I want more I have to take it from someone else. With the creation of the internet this idea has surely been challenged and exploded. In the past having information gave you power or differentiation. Now information is ubiquitous. How you use this information is what creates power and differentiation today. The internet is abundant, it expands as ideas, concepts and information expands. It is probably infinite. Jeff Bizos2, CEO of Amazon, said in a talk on TED in 2007 that he believes our current use of the internet is as limited as our use of electricity in 1908. In other words there is much more to come!

So what is abundance? Abundance is the belief that there is enough for everyone. The pie is infinitely large. This idea may be a distinct mind shift for some, but it is such an exciting concept as it opens up opportunity to all. However, the catch is, that I need to believe in it. I need to believe that I deserve abundance and that I can create it for myself even if I have never had it before.

The author of the Economist leader went on to say “If savers treated financial assets as they do goods, they would sell them when they are expensive and buy them when they are cheap. Actually they do the opposite. They piled into the market in 1999-2000, at the peak, and are piling out of it now.” So if we look at peoples’ actions in the current world market we start to see a different picture. The prevalent emotion is fear. What drives fear? I think a belief in scarcity drives this fear. In the same article The Economist concludes, “inadequate savings, badly invested, are a problem for individuals and the economy cautious savers are putting their money in banks; banks that are reluctant to lend; companies therefore find it hard to both borrow money and to raise equity capital. This timidity hurts companies and, in the long term, savers. Implausible as it may sound, right now equities and corporate bonds are a better long-term bet than cash.” If a belief in scarcity drives fearful action then it follows that to create abundance, we will require courage.

Obviously the rub in a recession is availability of cash, so how do we break the cycle we are in? My advice would be one conscious step at a time. There are clear rules that govern the creation of abundance. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as; “Plenty, more than enough, affluence, wealth” Dictionary.com introduces another definition; overflowing fullness. In his book, A New Earth3, Eckhart Tolle, suggests that we will never be rich if we work as a means to an end. So that means if we are not giving the task our all then it cannot return it’s all to us. This is radical stuff. If too many of us have been working as a means to an end for too long there is bound to be scarcity at the end of that rainbow. If too many of us have been on the treadmill of life, is it not possible that we have created this recession through thinking there wasn’t enough to go round?

So where to from here? The moment to dig deep for the courage and wisdom is now. You will have moments of fear but as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. This from the man who led the world out of the 1929 Depression.


1. The Economist Dec 6th 2008

2. http://www.ted.com/index.php/speakers/jeff_bezos.html

3. Tolle E, 2008 “A New Earth”

Leadership comes from within

“Inflexible mentality remains the biggest stumbling block to change.” Mikhail Gorbachev

Leadership is a subject that has always fascinated me. ‘Are leaders made or born?’ Stephen Covey, an expert on leadership, suggests that leaders are self-made. That implies that I can decide to be a leader. This got me thinking and this article explores the idea that leaders can be self-made.

If I decide I want to be a leader how do I begin? My belief is that all leadership starts within. I believe all great leaders of others began as great leaders of themselves. I call this personal leadership. To establish my current level of personal leadership I need to establish whether I am making decisions, taking action, changing it if necessary and driving my life in way that achieves my goals. The question being, ‘Am I the best CEO for my journey?’ I often hear people say, “if only this, if only that wasn’t.” As the custodian of my well being and success the notion that I need to wait for external circumstances to change to make my own experience okay is disempowering. What if things never change?

As we know things always change, and that is part of the problem. What if they don’t change the way I would like them to change? What then? Am I doomed to perpetual unhappiness until things go my way? But what if I get to choose? Things happen. I cannot control what happens to me, I can only control how I respond. Trying to control my environment is, quite simply, energetically exhausting and ineffective. So a new personal action strategy is required.

Controlling how you respond is the first step. You already choose your reaction to all of your circumstances however claiming responsibility for these choices and claiming your power in these choices is possibly the most challenging initial internal shift towards being your ultimate CEO. It often seems easier to pass off the responsibility and embrace our inner victim, “what option did I have?”, “what was I supposed to do?”, “my reaction was totally normal”. Easy and ‘normal’ as this may be, it is not effective. It doesn’t change anything. So understanding that you are always responsible for your choices is key.

The second step is to ask, ‘what am I choosing?’ If we use the current economic environment circumstance as an example: Ask yourself, how am I responding? Am I weighed down and resentful about how this is affecting me? Am I taking it in my stride as one of those things that happens that I need to make decisions around? All these questions are choices that I make constantly. To be an effective personal leader I must be conscious of what choices I am making.

The third step is to question whether that choice is appropriate or not. So the question becomes; ‘I have chosen to react or respond in a certain way, is this response getting me closer to my personal goals?’ The answer to this question will establish whether I need to modify my personal action strategy or not. The strategy may be as simple as looking at the situation differently or as difficult as recognizing the need to make new choices. I am aware that I am reducing a complex concept to rather simple terms to keep the idea of personal leadership in focus. There is nothing simple about changing myself and if I am currently dissatisfied with how my life is, the only person who can change that is me.

Consciously controlling my response to the world is easier said than done. It requires learning and knowing what I believe about myself, about the people around me and about the world. As a child I developed beliefs about the world from the people that raised me. At that time I learned to respond with their belief system. I believe this rests at the core of leadership skill. If my reactions to the world are rooted in the belief systems of others versus my own, the power and insight with which I make my decisions will be profoundly weaker and less consistent. I will lack the conviction that I require to navigate my life and to comfortably embrace my inner leader.

Generally we believe that our thoughts are rational and appropriate. However, the fact that they are closely united in the ego mean that they might not be. The ego dictates how I respond in the world. Everyone has an ego and it is fragile, it believes in scarcity and control. So any circumstance that feels threatening will ignite the less rational parts of my ego and I will find myself reacting with disproportionate emotion to an external stimulus as banal as a comment, a tone of voice or a facial expression.

There is a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis that defines the ego as holding three states, namely parent, adult and child. This means that two thirds of our ego is potentially behaving as a parent or child and one third as an adult. The adult is the only ego state that is present, rational and appropriate. So if we spend most of our time in our parent or child ego state we are spending very little time being rational or appropriate. The aim of this form of psychotherapy is to get the individual to expand their adult ego state as far as possible. Effective personal leadership will lie in us being able to access the adult part of our ego most of the time. We do this through working on our self-awareness and our self-management which reveals itself in our choice of behaviour to external stimuli.

We know that for peace in the world we need peace in our hearts. So too I believe that for true leaders in the world we need people who are true leaders of their lives. I believe Stephen Covey to be correct in his idea that leaders are self-made. My conclusion is that leadership is not a quality in an individual; it is a choice I make about what I want for myself. If I blame others for my experience of life I put my power in their hands. If I take responsibility for my choices I access my power and I begin to lead. I become the author of my future by leading in the present. If I can lead myself powerfully into my future then, and only then, I may be ready to lead the world.