In the years that I’ve been coaching leaders, I’ve noticed a pattern of reactivity that many carry, which I call the never-ending cycle of reactivity. Some have this pattern of thought, feeling, and behavior more than others, but nearly everyone has it. To illustrate this seemingly never-ending cycle of reactivity, the illustration shows how we tend to overreact. The dotted line represents the reality of our circumstances. The solid line represents the magnitude of our emotional reaction to our circumstances. As you can see, the tendency is to overreact with emotional highs and emotional lows that are out of proportion to reality. This tendency is one of the biggest obstacles leaders face in mastering their ability to lead most effectively in today’s VUCA world.
Whether we know it consciously or not, we are being emotionally triggered much of the time. About 70-80% of all adults live primarily in a reactive Mindset, and those who don’t are still in a reactive Mindset a significant portion of the time. That reactive Mindset has us responding to our lives based on fear.
In case you’re not clear if this applies to you, ask yourself some questions:
- Do you get upset in any way after someone cuts you off in traffic?
- Do you get upset when your boss tells you what you are doing wrong?
- Do you get upset when a colleague takes credit for your work?
- Do you get upset when your romantic partner interrupts you when you’re speaking?
- Do you get upset with your child for not doing as they’re told?
These are all emotional triggers, and they are running our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors more than we know. The example behaviors listed above are not the best behaviors, and we don’t have to accept them. What we do need to accept is that our emotional reactions to others’ behavior cloud our vision, drive our stress levels up, kick our body into the fight-or-flight response, and contribute to us communicating and leading in a less effective way.
All emotional triggers are based on fear. Some examples are:
- The fear that you don’t matter
- The fear that you will be passed over for promotion again
- The fear that your voice won’t be heard
- The fear of failure
- The fear that you won't get your needs met in any fashion
We are actually born with only two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. All other fears are learned and, therefore, can be unlearned. Some learned fears serve us well, like the fear of burning our hand on a hot stove. But many leadership fears operate on a largely unconscious level and hold us back.
As one key example, the fear of failure is a universal fear that nearly every leader suffers from to some extent. When working with leaders, we lead them through a process to learn how to welcome failure as a necessary part of their learning on their way to success. Further, we talk about how failure is a Mindset, not an outcome. As a key example of failure being a Mindset rather than an outcome, Thomas Edison is credited as having said that he did not fail 1,000 times before successfully creating the incandescent light bulb, he succeeded in proving that those 1,000 ways of building a light bulb did not work before finding a way that did work. In other words, all those “failures” were actually successful and necessary learning steps on his way to inventing the light bulb. If he had stopped after 999 attempts because he fell into a Mindset of failure, the world would be a different place today.
If there is any such thing as failure, I would define it as giving up before meeting our goals. If a goal is truly important to us, why would we ever give up before achieving it? History is brimming with stories of impossible goals being achieved because people believed it was possible and didn’t give up before achieving the goal.
Watching my son learn how to walk was a great learning experience for me. It took him countless tries. Like any child, he banged himself up along the learning curve, but he relentlessly pursued his goal of learning how to walk regardless of the falls and scrapes along the way. Then later he did the same with learning how to run and how to speak. While he did sometimes get frustrated, angry, or sad in response to setbacks, he never got so overrun by any emotional reaction that he gave up entirely.
An emotional reaction, by definition, is based on our past experiences. When our amygdala interprets our current circumstances as being similar enough to a past emotional wound, it triggers a fight-or-flight response – and we’re off to the races of emotional reactivity. The thing is: our brain’s mechanism for protecting us by overlaying our past emotional wounds onto our current circumstances is imperfect and often triggers emotional reactions that are disproportionate – maybe even highly disproportionate – to the current circumstances. A key part of of learning to thrive as leaders in today’s VUCA world is letting go of this never-ending cycle of reactivity and drama by re-training our minds and our hearts.
These fears that drive our cycles of reactivity are unlikely to dissipate quickly, but in my experience working with executive leaders, there’s typically nothing more important for organizations today than cultivating their leaders’ ability to thrive in spite of our VUCA circumstances. When we master our reactivity and thereby learn how to respond to our circumstances in more conscious, creative, and effective ways, leaders experience a new level of inner calm, grounded-ness, and confidence – to a degree that they may not even be able to imagine yet. This is one of the most beautiful things about the Mastering our Inner Game of Leadership.
Ram Dass said, “You cannot suffer the past or the future. What you are suffering is your memory and your imagination.” Our never-ending cycle of reactivity is like a roller coaster ride of our own invention. Our triggers put us into a reactive state of fear. We then use our imagination from that place of reactive fear to create a distorted projection of what we imagine will happen in the future. We also use our distorted memory of the past to fuel our distorted interpretation of what is happening now.
When we get far enough along in our mastery of the Inner Game of Leadership, the circumstances of our leadership life will feel more and more like what they actually are—just neutral information. Any emotional charge we have around our circumstances will become subtler and less likely to overtake our conscious mind. We will be able to respond from our best leadership self much more often, especially in today’s VUCA world.
This article is excerpted from the book Unshakeable Influence: Mastering the Inner Game of Leadership in a VUCA World, written by Resonance Executive Coaching CEO Daniel Kimble. Unshakeable Influence goes into detail on all the above techniques and much more about leading effectively in today’s VUCA world. If you’d like to learn more about the book and/or Resonance Executive Coaching, please click here.