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When I was a teenager, a hypnotist came to our school and delivered a very entertaining show. Once on stage, he turned to the audience and invited us all into a hypnotic trance, counting down 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. A handful of the teenagers actually went “under,” and were susceptible to his suggestions. So he invited these willing “volunteers” onto the stage.

One by one, he gave each of them a hypnotic suggestion. One young man was told he had to keep 19 plates spinning on top of sticks, and that if one of them broke, he would be in big trouble. Of course we all laughed, and yet while in the trance, no matter what the distraction, this boy was determined to keep his invisible (to us) plates spinning. Another young lady was told she had a huge yellow banana stuck to the end of her nose. Again, the audience laughed, and yet she experienced the banana as real, and kept trying to get it off of her nose. The antics of these poor teenagers had us all in hysterics, and yet to them, their dilemmas were urgent and real. Until… with a snap of the Hypnotist’s fingers, the spinning plates and bananas disappeared for them as well.

Every week I meet with leaders who feel trapped by dilemmas that seem real enough. And during our initial conversations, many believe that what is needed is for “those people,” or “that circumstance” to change. Yet as we continue our exploration together, most discover that they have been trapped in ways of thinking that have been limiting themselves and their organizations. Ways of thinking that are based on an illusion about what is really happening… a hypnotic trance of sorts.

How do really smart people, who have a history of success, end up in an endless loop of trying to get the proverbial banana off of their nose? Simple.

1. They have lost the ability to be the audience.    

They have forgotten to pause, to step back and question the dilemma from multiple perspectives. e.g. “How would the other person / our customers / product development / sales / a child / someone from another culture…view this?”

 2. They have forgotten they are the hypnotist.

The hypnotic trance that keeps most of us stuck in a problem is caused by a belief in assumptions that are invisible to us.  Some common assumptions that can keep us stuck:

  • “The truth is obvious, and our version of the truth is the right one.”
  • “My own internal discomfort is a signal that there is real danger here, that must be avoided at all costs.”
  • “As a leader, I need to be (e.g. in charge / the one with the best insight / invulnerable / agreeable)… no matter what.”

By teasing out these assumptions, and asking “is that really true?” we become the hypnotist again. We take back the power to snap our fingers, thus dissolving the illusion of the (limited) world our invisible assumptions had created.

So the next time you or your team are facing a problem that won’t go away, ask yourself if you are all acting in some sort of shared trance about the situation. Then become the audience for a moment, and investigate diverse, even irrational, perspectives for new insight. And most of all, remember that you always have the power as hypnotist to snap your fingers and end the illusion of limitation… by simply asking, “Is that really true?”

Leading Beyond the Edge of Certainty

Leading Beyond the Edge of Certainty

Once upon a time, people believed the world was flat. At least that’s how the story goes. They say it took a courageous and visionary leader to sail past the limits of the current thinking of his day…to go beyond what looked like the “edge of the world,” in order to reveal the illusion of a flat earth.

While we now know that this story was a fable, it still offers us a compelling insight into the nature of human nature. In essence...we will always be held captive by our assumptions about ourselves and how the world works, until we begin to challenge them.

Throughout history, there have been pivotal times when the old structures that had defined the collective worldview, began to falter. These were often volatile, confusing, game-changing times, when traditional political, economic, religious, cultural and leadership structures literally fell apart, as newer structures began to emerge.

We now find ourselves in the middle of just such a critical turning point. An in-between time when the old is crumbling, and the new is still emerging. A liminal space that is at once undefined and full of potential.

So how do we lead effectively in these times of great uncertainty? First and foremost, we do so as consciously as possible. With great curiosity about what is here now. With trust in the wisdom inherent in the emerging future. With a deep relaxation of the ego’s need to control and be reassured. With confidence in the collective wisdom of our organization. With great delight in learning and discovery. And with a willingness to evoke action that is driven by a shared Purpose that’s bigger than any one of us.  

As many of us have discovered, this practice of Conscious Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Over and over again, it will invite us into new territory…to move beyond the arbitrary horizon lines we have drawn around ourselves, our business, and our world, in order to stay safe. Over and over again, we will be challenged to break free of the siren call of our go-to success strategies…in favor of the untested, unproven, and unsanctioned.

And each time we say yes to this new invitation, we can be assured that the 9-1-1 alarms that are hardwired into the old structures (in order to keep them intact), will do whatever is necessary to compel us back into the familiarity of our old comfort zones.

Like the shattering of the myths of old, it takes courage to challenge our personal myths about who we think we are, and how the world works. Yet as leaders, we can no longer afford the luxury of staying trapped in our illusions. Our organizations, indeed the world, need us to step in, to step up and to step out. We are being called now to pull up anchor and sail beyond the safe harbor of our current operating systems, and out into the uncharted waters of the new world. The invitation is here. Now. It is time.