Once upon a time I (Paula) was responsible for a division of an organization that was equity owned. The entire team that had recruited and hired me, the team that I knew and trusted from prior work experience, was removed from the firm within 9 months of my tenure. There had been a power struggle between the original leadership team and the owners of one of the recently acquired firms . . .and the equity firm chose the newly acquired leadership. It happens.
Although I was tempted to leave, I stayed. I had built a great team and decided to remain to see my commitment through. It remains the most challenging leadership role I have had to date. I was in a male dominated industry – which didn’t intimidate me. The leader I reported to had started and built a very successful local company from nothing. . .and only believed in doing things his way. This challenge was actually appealing to me. So, I stuck with it.
Then came a challenge that I was unequipped to handle. The equity owner had assigned one of their senior team as a liaison of sorts, intended to support the team and assist us in executing our business plan. In the beginning he simply paid too much attention to me. However, very quickly this attention became aggressive and sexual. For the first time in my career I was frightened. It is hard to even articulate just how much. It disrupted the way I thought about my work, my career and myself.
There is one moment that stands out for me. One afternoon, I was standing in my office with a beautiful view of a peaceful wooded area and I realized that I was shaking. As I looked into the woods, I thought to myself “The stress is palpable and overwhelming, what do I do?” A few seconds later I was overcome by the belief that I would get through this, that I was strong enough. I did not report it (I should have) and within a few months I was gone.
Hindsight to Foresight
With the clarity of hindsight, there are many lessons here. The lesson that I am focused on right now is an internal one.
What do we do when we think we are at the end of our rope? When we experience something either directly or indirectly that rocks our world in such a way that we actually cannot fathom how to move forward. Disruption. In its rawest form. What do we do when we discover the world is not as we imagined it to be?
Here is what I know about my brain. Our brain’s primary purpose is to keep us safe and alive. Our brains use the billions and billions of collected patterns, accumulated from a lifetime of experiences to predict whether or not we are safe in any given situation. Our brains are prediction machines. We are actually hard wired to resist change. We each have our own reality within which certain behaviors, certain truths are our normal – a normal we each create within ourselves.
David Rock’s book, Quiet Leadership, notes that our brains are so different from each other that we actually have different realities. When we intentionally or unintentionally find ourselves in situations that push the boundaries of our ‘normal’, our brain doesn’t know how to keep us safe and alive. It’s threatening. So, we resist.
One of our brains natural lines of defense is actually the ‘invisible’ part of our brains. If you think of the iceberg model, illustrating that when there is an iceberg in the ocean, it’s only a very small portion that is visible to us, the vast majority is hidden under the waterline. Our brains are similar in that what is ‘visible’ to us is actually a very small portion of the brain, the vast majority of our brains are ‘invisible/hidden’ from us (i.e. we are primarily unaware).
For efficiency reasons our brain creates habits from our experiences of the world that largely live in the invisible part of our brain. Habits of thinking and behaving. Our autopilot, our default network is full of these habits of thinking and behaving. Our brain resists change by instantly going into autopilot as we go through our day, as if saying ‘don’t you worry about this! I’ve got it’. Our thoughts, our behavior comes automatically – we are on autopilot.
There is another network in our brains, I will call it our executive function network. We can only change our executive function network through intention. We must intentionally pause and consider our thinking and/or behavior before we execute. We can only make choices from this place.
Albert Einstein observed that “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”.
If our brains are wired to keep us safe, in part by keeping us the same – holding on to the thinking and behavior that our brain is familiar with. . . then I would offer that one of the optimal opportunities to consider, and re-consider what might be possible from here is when we are experiencing disruption.
When we are disrupted, when we are faced with situations that are so uncomfortable or incongruous moving into self-reflection leads to choice in our executive function network. . . perhaps that’s where possibility truly lives.
The experience I described earlier created a space of possibility for me. For the first time I actually thought through how strong I was, and that spark of possibility created space for me to consider starting my own business, to lean into someone’s big idea. I wonder if I would have been strong enough without that experience. I don’t know.
Have any recent events in your life or in the world. . . served to rock your world?
Can you feel the disruption? Can you imagine what’s possible?
Remember that “we see the world not as it is, but as we are – or as we are conditioned to see it” (Stephen Covey). Perhaps disruption in our lives is necessary so that we are able to consider how to change our thinking, to see new possibilities – to imagine a better tomorrow.