Over a decade ago, upon the recommendation of a friend, I read the book Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box (Arbinger Institute).

From the title, I thought I was in for an intense course of study, but comforted somewhat by the fact it was a small book.

One night before bed, I picked up the book and started reading it. I was so entranced by its style and holding me in suspense that I didn’t put it down until I passed out a 2am. I finished it the next night.

I remembered thinking that I want to write like that, where people become entranced with my book and cannot put it down.

But I found the personal lessons I learned and applied to my leadership practice were far more valuable than writing style.

In the Box

I mention the book because it introduces the concept of being “in the box”, which is hard to adequately explain here. In essence, when we are in our box, we are viewing others subjectively as objects.

This makes it easy to paint targets of blame and criticism on their backs. And in essence, project on them our insecurities, shortcomings, and mistakes (hence “self-deception” in the title). And we look for company who do likewise.

In previous articles, I have connected brain function to leadership. The function in your brain and in mine that is the most important to effective leadership is executive function.

Executive function is our knight in shining armor that can rescue us from our boxes and protect us from falling into them.

This part of the brain resides behind our forehead, and is often at odds with the inner structures of the brain. These inner structures are responsible for us getting into our box, and it builds it in the first place.

And it sometimes builds the box around us, and we’re in our box before we know it. To be effective leaders, we need to prevent this.

Developing Remarkable Leadership

I won’t delve any deeper into the brain here, but my point is that there are biological origins of human nature we all share that makes it hard to be effective leaders.

Remarkable leaders don’t come from remarkable individuals; they come from ordinary individuals developing remarkable leadership.

As a matter of ritual, I often remind myself that leadership is about people, because people comprise the machine that gets jobs done and why leadership exists in the first place.

The machine works best when its cogs, people, are healthy and working well together. And making that happen is my job as a leader.

However, I use the machine and cog analogy solely to put skills and focus on people. I cannot otherwise afford to look at people as objects; as cogs.

They are human beings like me, each with some common, but mostly unique humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

This is all easy to say, but not always as easy to remember in the trenches. Most companies require this thing called achievement to survive, and high achievement to grow. Achievement by nature requires effort and effort sometimes brings stress.

Stress is certain to occur when diverse individuals and incompatible agendas come together to achieve, to turn chaos into order and create a product or provide a service.

When stress and uncertainty hit, the walls of the box start to rise. And unless we cut them down early, we’ll find ourselves in our box.

Executive Function

This is where your brain’s executive function comes in. Your brain’s executive function is the box cutter.

To illustrate, I’ll share what I did for the math competition students I coached at my son’s elementary school. I taught them how to counter nervousness and distraction with exercises to invoke executive function.

For them, it was balancing a pencil on their finger and rolling it, looking for and counting patterns on a distant wall, and counting backwards from 100 by 3’s, then 4’s, etc.

When executive function is engaged, it causes the inner brain structures to disengage. The cool thing is that one of our students, a fifth grade girl, took the state championship.

How I invoke my executive function involves self-talk. I would practice it when I had quiet time for introspection.

I would visualize recent stressful conversations, how I felt, and practice self-talk out loud when I recognized stress bubbling up. Success with this lies in how well you visualize.

I would say things like:

  • Calm down
  • It’s all good
  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • In her shoes, I might be likewise
  • He just cares about the mission

After my dry run practice, I would be ready for using self-talk while the conversations were taking place (in my head).

Before long, I didn’t need to finish the self-talk. I had essentially automated intercepting this bubbling up as I call it. The box would never finish building.

Focus on Solutions

Sometimes it was the content of the conversations, the implications on whatever project we’re in of what was said that produced the stress.

I recognized that my first tendency was to kill the messenger – to focus on the individual as the source of my stress.

Doing so resulted in my judging the individual and that lead to blame, criticism, and even name-calling (albeit in my head). The box started rising all around me, and fast.

To counter, I would weed through the conversation in my head and identify what concept, verbiage or conclusion was the source of my stress.

I removed any individual as the source and focused on the content. This would make it easier to elicit ideas and enlist assistance while staying out of my box. We could then focus on solutions.

Overall, I needed to master a two-step process before any of this would work. Without this process succeeding, nothing else mattered. This process is:

1. Recognize the “bubbling up” of emotional response in real-time, when it first happens.

2. Practice interception at the earliest possible opportunity moving earlier with practice.

Window of Time

I first thought of this nearly 20 years ago when I read in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits book, between stimulus and response, [we have] the freedom to choose.

But I soon discovered that it wasn’t space between stimulus and response but rather a window of time.

The key concept to remember wasn’t space but rather timing.

Shifting the recognition of stress origins from a person to the work has been a valuable tool.

However, the most valuable tool as a leader is continually building trust.

There are plenty of articles on trust, including my own. But I mention this now because when trust becomes a regular part of achievement, it makes it easier to stay out of the box and to cut the box down before it builds in the first place.

How Can Leaders Cut the Box?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.