The Psychology of Leadership and Success (Fears, and Obstacles)

Updated: Sep 12, 2018

Understanding that which holds us back, and how to break free. This is at the core of personal change, no matter what you want to change. We often face situations where we are unable to make the major change in our lives or at work we so desperately want. This episode is based on the concept of Subject-Object relations stemming from the work of Dr. Robert Kegan. This is about what it means to help people see a bigger world, to better understand themselves, to change their behavior, and to make better decisions. Do away with self-defeating behaviors, and getting rid of limiting beliefs. It’s time to succeed.

This Episode features:

Alice Nichols – Alice has had an amazing journey in supporting leaders through their own development and the development of the organizations they lead. She is an authentic leader, environmentalist, and passionate supporter of people’s’ growth.  

Austin Hulbert – Austin is currently a Harvard Business School Candidate. He flew as a Strike Fighter Pilot flying for the US Navy and spent time as a fighter pilot instructor for the Navy, training a new generation of American fighter pilots. 

Jason Connell – Jason began his career as a child magician, and worked hard to become a leadership development professional and coach, he has worked with fortune 500 Executives and senior members of the Obama administration. 

Michael Nagle is a transformational leadership consultant and coach. He has tremendous experience as an executive leadership coaching within pharmaceutical companies. His insights into personal change in the workplace lends itself directly to our broader conversation of development in the workplace.

Dr. Mark Biddle – Mark is a professional leadership trainer, coach, educator, and founder of Dalton Corner Coaching. Mark’s experience ranges from serving as a minister in Chicago, to leading experiential leadership in the MBA program at Babson College. He also completed the Immunity to Change Coaching Program from Minds at Work. 

Respond rather than reflecting. You will need to engage in work to understand yourself in truly deep ways to be able to step outside your everyday thought process to be able to engage in your thought process to understand what is holding you back. 

Chris Argis formerly of Harvard Business School and Don Schon formerly of MIT looked at learning from first questioning the goal.  Single Loop learning refers to repeated attempts to solve the same problem with the same method without ever questioning the goal, while double loop learning begins with a shift in how we understand the goal, creating a more dynamic understanding of the problem we are working with, it encourages us to take in account of how our environment modifies our own mental model of the situation we face.  

Being a true leader to help others be able to engage in personal change, begins with a leader’s ability to do the deep and sometimes painful work of understanding oneself.

The idea of subject object transition which is a focus of Dr. Robert Kegan a psychologist and professor at Harvard University. He stresses that not only can we not hold onto certain understandings of ourselves and the world, but in a way certain things hold us. We are almost literally subjected to these distortions of reality.  

Jason talked with us about the fear of failure, he also mentioned that failure is a judgement call, what some people might associate as a failure, to others might be simply an opportunity to learn. Easier said than done. In Jason’s case he realized that his fears, or his illusion of failure stopped him from taking action. His mind created a self-protective strategy that prevented him from feeling the pain of being turned down by stopping him from picking up the phone.

Jason faced a disparity of wanting to grow his business but not wanting to take the action needed to grow it. Dr. Kegan and Dr. Lahey have entitled this “immunity to change”.  That even though you want to change you have a self-protective commitment that keeps you from engaging in the behavior you know will help you achieve your goal because if you do step forward your big fears or worries might become real. 

Michael Nagle, who is a long time executive leadership coach and organizational change consultant who is a student of the psychology of personal change. He is referenced the work of Rick Carson, author of Taming Your Gremlin: A surprisingly simple method of getting out of your own way. The question is where might these gremlins come from?

The idea of standing up and ushering your gremlin out of the room is a way in which you take what you were subject to, this voice that has some effect over you that you might not fully comprehend and to begin to make it object, simply naming the feeling, naming the emotion that seems to have control over you can make a difference, or as suggested by Rick Carson, draw your gremlin and even name it. This is an act that can work to transition the unknown thing from having you to you being able to take it as object, to seemingly hold it in your hand and be able to examine it, and to better understand how it has been holding you back so you can finally begin to move past it. and continue the journey of becoming the person you want to be.

In a survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business advisory council rated Self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. As a leader it is critical to develop an awareness of what you are subject to what are your hidden commitments, what gremlins do you have lurking and impacting you. Start by naming them, simply identifying those internal obstacles is the first step. 

Most of us don’t have an Alice, Michael, or Jason to support us in understanding and inquiring in those things that unknowingly compel us  to unproductive behaviors or even inaction. So the question is, if we see ourselves engage in behavior that is contradictory to our goals and values how can we investigate those assumptions and hidden commitments that are getting us stuck.

Taking action can be as simple as realizing the power of our desired future or identifying our fears and realizing that they are more than likely an illusion… but so often just as we are pushing down on gas to get moving towards our goal we are also pushing down on the brake keeping ourselves from moving forward. We may see the fear and it may prevent us from taking those simple actions. Now Back to my conversation with Michael Nagle.

As we talk about these ideas of transformation, we may run into an idea of pushing our limits too much. Identifying our hidden commitments and working to test our big internal assumptions is a process that can take more deliberate focus and energy.  Making these shifts can feel dangerous and often scary. 

Test your boundaries with a deliberate intention, doing things in manageable and safe ways over time can broaden your understanding of what is possible. And when you do, be reflective about it and notice to how your understanding of what is possible gets bigger. This isn’t necessarily an either or choice, for some internal obstacles you might be teed up, ready to go right into asking or interrogating that fear and for others you might need to take time to deliberately process to more gradually increase your awareness and to transition from being subject to it to being able to hold it as object.

Other research and sources to look into.

Dr. Robert Kegan – A developmental psychologist, Harvard Professor, and author. He is a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and has researched and written on adult psychological development, professional development, and deliberately developmental cultures.


Making Business Personal Co-authored with Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, and Matthew Miller

Does Your Company Make You a Better Person Co-authored with Lisa Lahey, and Andy Flemming


An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization Co-Authored with Lisa Lahey, Andy Flemming, Deborah Helsing, and Matthew Miller (2016)

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization Co-Authored with Lisa Lahey (2009)

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation Co-Authored with Lisa Lahey (2002)

In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (1995)

The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (1983)

Other Books and Resources

Taming Your Gremlin, Rick Carson

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