Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

A few months ago I was studying some material related to guiding an organization through the process of defining their identity. As I was digging through my research, it dawned on me that while I am clear on what and why I do the work that I do, I had never stepped back and formally undertaken a similar process myself. As a one-man operation, I had done some exploration when I first started my business to come up with a purpose statement that related to my ideals, but I hadn’t taken it as far as to hammer out a consistent, cohesive identity that articulated my values and vision beyond that.

“I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.”

That was my manifesto up to this point. When I examined this further in light of what I was now coming to understand, I realized that what I had was a core ideology, but that this was only one piece of the blueprint I truly needed in order to succeed. The ideology would inspire me and remind me why I was putting in the work, but it didn’t give me a real map or guidepost that I could use to build a lasting strategy. Given that I’m a firm believer in practicing what I preach, I decided to follow a process and get serious about putting the soul of my business on paper.

I’m sure there are a million ways to go about defining  identifying core values. I’ve seen a number of them in use over the years, some more effective than others. One method that I particularly like and have used with great results in both individual coaching and organizational work is a card sorting exercise.

The card sort starts with a list of values on cards or sheets of paper. Those cards then get sorted into piles according to where they fit in your sense of personal or organizational values – Always, usually, sometimes, seldom or never. This could be done similarly with just a list of values on a single sheet of paper, but the physical act of sorting them tends to add a deeper level of connection and thought to the process. However you choose to go about it, the first round of sorting is easy, but it gets challenging as you go. The goal is to end up with only 3-5 cards in the “always” pile, which forces some deep choices and reflection when it comes down to selecting those final values. This is where I really had to listen to my gut and explore the different reactions I had to various concepts in order to boil it down to my most fundamental beliefs.

I say “identifying” rather than defining, because core values are intrinsic. They’re not chosen based on how they’ll sound on a brochure or whether they rhyme with “great.” These are the defining truths within us that would be authentic no matter what – even if they became a competitive disadvantage. The goal of the process is to tap into the values that are deeply held by the group or individual, those that carry the most emotional gravity, the ones that breathe life into you and the people involved in your endeavor. These are central to your “why,” which, as we know, is the heartbeat of success.

At the end of my own card sort, I was left with four core values. When I looked at them, I could see that they were central to my sense of self. The reality in which I would feel completely fulfilled and at my best would have to include all four components. They resonate so deeply for me that even as I recall them now I get a chill up my spine. That’s how I know that I tapped into the true heart of my mission – these aren’t just a few superficial nouns slapped on a page, they are reflective of who I am and what I aspire to be.

Having teased out these guiding principles, the next step was to turn them into definitions that would clarify their meaning on a personal and professional level. How would I recognize them if they showed up in my work? Why did they matter and what were they moving me toward? If I could see myself and my work from the outside, what would these principles look like in action? With the help of a dictionary, some inspirational reading and a rainy afternoon, I was able to expand the values into guiding statements.

At this point things were starting to come into sharper focus. I could begin to see the frame of the vehicle I was building up around my work, and it felt powerful. Now I had to use that foundation to create a vision which would inspire a lasting emotional connection and give me something to strive for, and a mission that would make clear what my business was setting out to accomplish.

The terms mission, purpose, vision, and values are often used interchangeably. I’m not interested in claiming absolute authority on the subject, but it is important to develop a core identity structure that serves and supports the growth of your business. It is also crucial to understand what purpose each piece of that identity serves. In my work, I define it like this:

  • Values are what get me out of bed in the morning. They’re the beacons in the darkness, what I am about in my heart of hearts.
  • Ideology is what I believe in that makes my work necessary.
  • Mission is the the market state that I hope to create or transform.
  • Vision is the greater good that I hope to achieve – the perfect world that would be realized if I am able to fulfill my mission to its utmost.

Notice one very important detail that is not present in this list. Goals. This is a crucial point to hold on to. Goals are not defined in your vision and values. Values, vision and mission are embedded in goals. That is to say, the vision and values are a constant – these are the things that never change about the purpose of your work. They’re not checklist items to be achieved, but rather the foundation of everything that you will accomplish over time. Done well, the values process will create a powerful nucleus around which you can structure your long-, mid- and short-term goals when it comes time to map out your strategy. But again, creating that strategy is a different piece of work altogether.

After values, the next step is crafting a vision and mission statement. Typically these are two distinct items – the vision inspires the interior life of the company, and the mission makes the connection to the outside world you hope to engage in the process. In many cases, it’s easier for companies to grasp the concept of the mission. This has a more direct relationship to the work – what are you trying to do in your market? What sort of problem are you trying to solve?

The best mission statements are those that are short and to the point, but still inspirational and speak to the big picture. Some companies veer off that course for various reasons, and the results are telling. For example, consider Apple’s early mission statement under Steve Jobs: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” This statement makes clear what the company does, articulates a noble, lofty goal, and is pretty inspirational in the process. Under that mission, Apple pioneered the field of personal computing and became ubiquitous through their design and innovation. Now compare it to their current mission statement: “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.” Hm. Nothing sexy or inspirational there. It sounds more like the intro to a class paper than a message that can speak to the hearts and minds of designers and engineers in pursuit of “advancing humankind.” The change in messaging obviously hasn’t sunk their business, but one might wonder what kind of impact it has had on the soul of the company and their ability to engage talent while holding on to market share.

Whatever the approach you choose, the crucial point to consider is this: Your values exist. Whether or not you’ve taken the time to engage with them and develop their connection to your business reality, they’re there and they make an impact. Taking the time to harness and embed them into the lived-in reality of your work gives you the strongest opportunity to connect with your employees in a meaningful way, engage in an emotional connection with your market, and define the value of your work well into the future.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here are the results of my own personal mission/vision/values process:

Adventure – To choose that which challenges and expands my perspective
Purpose – To be fueled by a sense of meaning and fulfillment
Compassion – To act with consideration for the experiences and needs of others
Mastery – To be known and sought out for having the highest skill and expertise

I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.

To transform lives by connecting people with purpose, values and integrity.

To enable companies to attract, develop and retain the most talented people in their industries by building organizational cultures and leadership that inspire innovation, purpose, and mastery.

The cure for creativity and innovation.

What is leadership? I mean, really, what does it mean to you?

I was recently speaking with an executive at a creative agency who was frustrated with his team. No one was bringing any ideas to the table, at least none that he felt were worth seriously entertaining, no matter how many times he invited, enticed, or even demanded that they do so. He felt that no one understood his vision and they weren’t contributing to creative growth of the firm. He would make suggestions or reference certain sources to provide creative inspiration, with little to nothing to show for it. In the end, he usually ended up providing the final idea himself after shooting down anything submitted by his team.

Having worked together in the past, I had an idea about the potential cause of his dilemma but I wanted to unpack it a bit further to see if he would come to his own realization.

Q. How much autonomy does the team have to produce their own work?
A. They have total autonomy. I want everyone to contribute.
Q. And are they talented and capable enough to do the job?
A. Oh yeah, they’re brilliant. I’ve seen their other work and it’s really fantastic.
Q. Ok, great. And how well do they understand your vision?
A. Of course they understand it, I’ve told them a million times. I want to be the biggest, most successful and brilliant creative agency in the world!
Q. So you’ve told them where you’re trying to go. Do they understand what it looks like to get there?
A. Yeah, I mean I told them what I wanted, so…
Q. You told them. And when they came back to you, did the work meet your expectations?
A. No. It wasn’t even close. I end up rejecting their ideas and doing most of the work myself because they just don’t get it.
Q. Sooo…
A. …


It may or may not be obvious here, but what happened here was that my friend was inwardly deeply and painfully clear on his vision. So much so that it never occurred to him that others might not be on the same page. In fact, he was so convinced that his ideas were obvious that he couldn’t see where his external communication hadn’t been clear in the first place. And he certainly wasn’t making the connection between his taking the reins on every project and the team not bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Setting a vision is a vital step in building a resonant culture. Leaders should absolutely have a clear, compelling, brilliant picture of where they would love for their business to go. The only way to orient toward a goal is to have at least a representative image of what it would look like to get there. But far too often, we see people thinking that dictating an outcome with vague expectations is the same thing as communicating a powerful vision.

Leadership requires investment – we have to invest the time to gain an understanding of our audience in order to deliver our message in a way they will be able to receive. We have to share in the power of communication. If I tell you “I want something magnificent,” that’s aspirational but also pretty vague. If I give you some examples, “Here are some things I think are magnificent,” that’s a little better but still leaves room for misinterpretation. If I get clear on what I really want to convey, “What I find magnificent about these three examples are quality A, quality B and quality C,” then I’ve given you some details to emulate or design around. More focused, and likely will produce better results. But even still, I’m substituting tactical and technical considerations for actual values-based leadership.

The often overlooked element of communication is action. What I say will not inform you nearly as much as what I do, or don’t do, to support my words. This is where impact is either achieved or lost. The leader who says “bring me great ideas!” but consistently responds with “your ideas are no good!” will never be able to elicit brilliant work from his teams no matter how emphatically he insists on greatness. He creates a power vacuum by failing to bridge the gap between his vision and the lived-in experience of his team, and then further assures failure by conditioning the team to believe that their work doesn’t meet these ill-defined standards. The team becomes disempowered, and so relinquishes all capacity for innovation and creative ownership.

I have seen this play out countless times in many businesses. The leader assumes ultimate control and authority, and may even be the most skillful or talented individual in the organization to execute on the vision. So they are high achievers with equally high standards, which they brandish like a weapon. They then fall victim to a common dilemma – confusing the idea of leadership for that of power. They hope to create productivity by exerting force and dominance, but generally do more harm than good. Teams become demoralized, reactive, and generally disengaged. Creative energy is diminished and the people become dependent on the power of the leader, rather than the empowerment of their leadership.

Leaders have to be attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses, and the extent to which they tend to over- or under-utilize their core traits, before they can hope to influence, inspire, and move others. Truly great leaders are not those who solely dictate outcomes or activities. The best leaders do relatively little of this. The most resonant leaders will define and communicate the vision, and then help create or illuminate the path for their people to achieve it. They build value in the relationship between the mission and the individual, and create alignment between personal purpose and business success.

There will always be times where power is required. But if your goals are creativity and innovation, the question is: will you be in a position to know the difference, and make the difference, when leadership requires a loose grip and a nuanced approach, or will you be left standing there with smoke rolling out of your ears wondering why nobody understands the vision you failed to inspire by beating them into submission?

Don’t be busy. Get things done. There’s a difference.

“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

How many times in my life have I found myself hurrying and scurrying to “DO ALL THE THINGS!” when in fact all I’ve really managed to do is whip myself into a frenzy of stress and confusion? Or how about the times where all my primary responsibilities have been dealt with, but here comes the boss so it’s time to “look busy.”

The trap is an easy one to slip into. More activity must = more output, right? Well, maybe…

The truth of the matter is that without a plan, we can spin in circles all day long without ever producing the progress we’re so desperately chasing. It’s an easy thing to fall into; I struggle with it myself. Doing a little bit of everything leaves us with a whole lot of nothing, including time and satisfaction.

My typical work week at the moment consists of planning and implementing social media, writing (hopefully) compelling marketing material, blogging, going to networking events, following up with contacts, staying up to date with the latest market trends, reading for leisure and development, and leaving enough time for the unexpected when someone reaches out to start a conversation or I land a client and have actual onsite consulting to attend to. So I come in to my lovely little co-working office each day and start doing everything I possibly can to keep all those plates spinning like an acrobat in the Chinese circus. Five minutes here researching keywords and hashtags, then a few minutes there hacking out a couple paragraphs for a new article, then checking email, then back to research, then “oh yeah, I have to email that woman from the business luncheon the other day!” and then… wait. What was I just doing?

The outcome? I feel frantic and busy nearly all the time, I’m constantly worried that I’m overlooking something, and I can’t measure or predict the results of my actions. Sounds great, right?

When I was 20, I packed my bags and headed off to film school. I was enrolled and ready to go, couldn’t wait to show up and grab a camera and start making my dreams come true while saving the world from a never-ending stream of lousy, boring movies. The big surprise came when class started. We were told that we wouldn’t even turn a camera on for at least three months. The first half of the project would be spent in pre-production, as if it were a real film. As we went on, I learned that the pre-production process takes up more time than actually shooting a film, and is far more detailed than I ever imagined. It’s not just about deciding on the story and shouting “lights, camera, action!” Every aspect of the shoot is planned in advance, so that by the time the cameras start rolling it’s mostly about execution. The crew doesn’t just show up on Monday and say “ok, let’s make a movie!” They show up on Monday to shoot the scenes that were planned for Monday. Then on Tuesday, they do the work of Tuesday, and so on. Everything is planned in advance and drawn out, every action has been thought through and refined to make the best use of time and resources

So when it comes to work habits, why not take the Hollywood approach? Would I rather have a poorly-planned, slapped together B-movie or a well crafted blockbuster? Do I want to go straight to video or break records in the box office?

The hardest discipline to develop is often that of sitting still and planning our actions before we take flight. When I take the time to plan my week, or even my day, in advance, I find that I get more done and I feel better doing it. I do Monday’s tasks on Monday, and leave the rest for its own time. I’m able to take the time I need to plan and implement each aspect of my business without the mental gridlock of everything needing to happen all at once. And I gain more of a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed and I’m able to move on.

That may be an overly simplified analogy, but the fundamental truth is the same – to be truly productive, the answer lies in planning, priorities and strategy. If I work for myself, I need a strategy to keep things organized and consistent. If I work for someone else it can be a bit trickier depending on the requirements of my job but I can still use a strategic approach to structure my time in the most effective and rewarding way. And if I get everything done and the boss walks up to my desk to find me without an active project? Maybe my strategic system is so good that I can show them how it works and score some points for workplace innovation in the meantime.

A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!

Start where you are, and practice.

I was a bit nervous when I came into my first week of coach training a few years ago, feeling excited but self-conscious and wanting to make the right impression with this new community. I had come to this place through a long, meandering path of circumstances that seemed to be steering me along a path, but I still had some elements of fear and doubt about whether I would fit into this new arena. I’m intuitive and I pick things up quickly, so I have a tendency to slip into student-expert mode in these settings, to be the pupil with the compelling insight and demonstrate my competence in order to validate my presence. In effect, I trap myself in this space of feeling the need to be seen as expert even from the outset.

Near the end of the first day we broke out into small groups to conduct our first supervised coaching sessions. We each took turns coaching one another using the techniques we had learned that day, receiving feedback from the other students and the instructor. Our particular group was supervised by Eddy, one of the program’s founders.

Now, the thing to know about Eddy is that he has a presence unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever met. He’s got a way of speaking that makes even the most mundane comment seem profound, and there’s a certain sense of playful and knowing mischief about him. His deep voice and soothing Zambian accent convey his wisdom with such immense gravity, like a combination of James Earl Jones, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi.

So as we all filed out of the room after the practicum session ended, I found myself walking next to Eddy trying to think of something clever to say that would sufficiently impress him.  There I was, walking next to the sensei and laboring over my thoughts, when he turned to me and said, “you know, not everyone goes on to hang a shingle and become a coach.”

I was absolutely clear on what he meant; that there are many ways to use the skills and discipline of coaching in the world beyond the path of simply going into business as a coach. But what I heard in my head was something more along the lines of, “you know, you may not be cut out for this. You don’t belong here. Your “I’m an expert” routine isn’t fooling anyone and you should probably just give up. You’re going to die broke and alone living under a bridge with nothing to show for your whole miserable failure of a life.” I don’t recall what I said to him in response, only that I had a feeling of being utterly lost and deflated in that moment.

Later that night I sat in my hotel room reflecting on the day. Should I just give up? Was I trying to go down a path that didn’t fit me? It had all felt so right leading up to this moment, and yet there I was facing this moment of peril. Slowly, it dawned on me: I had been so busy trying to manage everyone’s perception of me that I had failed to fully show up. What had led me to this experience was having a connection with my heart and mind manifest in a sense of purpose. What I was doing now that I was here was pushing that aside in order to try and look the part. I was a measured, muted version of myself in the classroom and it was undermining my success. I had a serious gut-check moment and realized that if I were to have any hope of success I would need to stop trying to manage the perception of others and simply be present in the moment, in all my uncertain, unknowing, imperfect glory.

The next day I had  a moment to bring this up with Eddy. I told him about my realization and that I had fallen victim to my desire to seem like an instant expert. He looked at me, and with so much kindness and insight said, “Why do you want to be an expert? You’re a beginner.”

I can not overstate the value of that simple statement.

Beginner’s Mind

The concept of beginner’s mind is not new or novel. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki wrote about it in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in 1970. The concept itself is far older. The idea is that as a beginner, we are in a pure state of experience. We have not accumulated the cynicism and disappointment or preconceived notions that come with time spent at any endeavor. We are able to absorb new information with objective curiosity and wonder, like a child when they first come into contact with each new experience in life. Everything holds the potential to be fascinating and wonderful. It is only our judgment that makes one experience better or worse than another.

With this beginner’s mind comes a particular kind of power. When we enter an experience with clear eyes, we are open to every option. Often, it’s the beginner or the newcomer who offers the innovative solution or the profound perspective. They are not bound by the structure of perception that forms around us as we progress deeper into our work. The beginner has an objective authority free of the corrosive effects of politics, agency and expectation. To attempt to bypass this stage of our development is to disrupt our own potential and leave possibility untended.
Practice makes more practice

While all this talk of remaining in a beginner’s mind is lovely, at some point we do need to begin to seek growth and move toward a more expert level in our leadership. As leaders, our role is not simply to become experts or authorities in our own right. To truly lead, we must seek to increase the expert capacity of our people and organizations. We want to inspire and provoke change, growth, and mastery at both the individual and collective levels. But how do we go about this?

Change is not a singular event, nor is it a result. In any context, change is an ever-evolving process that can often be more circular than linear. Whether the change being sought is personal, professional, singular or implemented across a large system, the value of consistent practice is perhaps the most crucial element of any effort. That consistency of action is best incubated in miniature and consistently modeled. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that we will not make mistakes. The very nature of practice is that we will take missteps on our path to mastery.

If we want to create a pattern of consistency, we as individuals must learn to be consistent.  A simple enough concept, but one that can quickly become challenging if we lose sight of our beginner’s mind. We blow things out of scale, make them daunting by causing them to seem too big, too overwhelming. If I want to make a change, I have to become a CHANGE EXPERT, if I intend to create consistent behavior in my system then I must be UNFAILINGLY CONSISTENT IN EVERYTHING I DO.

While these bold ideals may be admirable, they’re really just excuses. They serve as roadblocks and escape hatches that excuse us from achieving progress.

“I can’t start now because I haven’t mastered it.”

“I’m not an expert, maybe I should just quit.”

“Changing my system is hopeless. It’s not working now, and it probably never will.”

The power of consistency isn’t derived from our ability to apply it unilaterally across every domain of our lives. It is much simpler, much more subtle. Consistency is simply about doing one thing repeatedly until it becomes habitual and produces predictable results. It’s true power lies in our ability to use this practice to intentionally normalize our experience so that we can better understand and develop ourselves and those around us.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it gives us data. When we experiment we have an opportunity to test our ideas. When we experiment consistently, we become more comfortable with the nature of innovation. With a beginner’s mind approach, we can actually reroute our neural pathways to associate experimentation not with fear and uncertainty, but with hopeful curiosity and excitement. We can program our brain to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the beginner’s stance, and to use that as a platform for robust learning and development. We must practice so that our practice becomes consistent.


Start where you are

There are many ways to establish an attitude of consistency. One that I’ve found particularly useful involves a simple daily practice that can be done in just a few minutes when preparing for the day. You can do it with no training or experience, and you can start exactly where you are right now. It involves finding your message, building a sort of mantra.  It should be simple, and it should represent the principles that resonate with your heart.  It can be conceptual or tangible: “embrace uncertainty” or “eat more vegetables.”  It doesn’t matter which, as long as it is meaningful to you and supports your goals in developing mastery.

Once you’ve found your message, say it aloud.  Make it yours; by voicing it you give form to the thought.  Commit this message to your awareness for the day. Then, at various times throughout the day when you find yourself with a moment, recall your mantra.  Close your eyes, take a deep cleansing breath and speak the words in your mind (or out loud if you’ve got some privacy and it won’t make anyone think you’ve lost your marbles). Remember your intention.  What do you wish to be on this day? What are the principles that guide you? Where are you in your process?

While this kind of self-affirmation exercise may seem like a bunch of new age foolishness, it has been proven to be effective in lowering stress and improving problem-solving ability. I consider it a sort of on-the-spot meditation practice, allowing me to bring an element of focus forward into my day. It brings me back into the moment of what I’m doing, reeling me in from the unproductive stresses of projecting myself into the future.

So if you’re at the beginning, start at the beginning. Be the best beginner you can – ask questions, try things, make mistakes and try again. Don’t waste your time rehearsing poses for your victory photo; start by being in position when the starting gun goes off. When you take one step toward the universe, it takes ten toward you.  Start each day with just one step in the direction you wish you were going.  Before you know it, the view won’t be so far off on the horizon as it once seemed.