Inner Worlds, Outer Actions

At the sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion with a new client, she said to me, “I real­ly got the point of what you said in our first ses­sion. It was kind of, ‘Stop whin­ing and get back to work.’ ”

This was way off. I’d said no such thing. This was clear­ly the inner world of the client act­ing out pre­con­ceived notions — her men­tal mod­el and belief sys­tem pro­ject­ing some­thing onto me. 

I wait­ed in the con­ver­sa­tion to tell her that. We explored oth­er things and then even­tu­al­ly we got back there. In the end, we dis­cussed a pat­tern of imag­in­ing every­thing was on her shoul­ders and some­how ask­ing for help and accept­ing it was show­ing inad­e­qua­cy and, there­fore, a kind of weakness.


Imag­in­ing. That’s the key word. Our imag­i­na­tions are dri­ven by our con­di­tion­ing. We can’t see anoth­er’s imag­i­na­tion, but often we can cer­tain­ly feel it. 

I once gave a pre­sen­ta­tion at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege and asked par­tic­i­pants to do some work iden­ti­fy­ing sen­si­tive top­ics that need­ed atten­tion at the col­lege. One of the table groups had formed a list that began with the words: “Inept top man­age­ment.” The Pres­i­dent of the col­lege was in the room. She became so desta­bi­lized emo­tion­al­ly she could­n’t speak to close the event and peo­ple won­dered what was going on. Her inner world had gone a lit­tle crazy — she was so sure this inept man­age­ment thing was about her, even though the event had begun with the audi­ence of man­agers award­ing her a plaque for her excep­tion­al lead­er­ship. It turned out those crit­i­cal words referred to a time before her arrival at the col­lege, but in the moment her imag­i­na­tion had been deeply triggered.

A tech­ni­cal man­ag­er lead­ing a pro­fes­sion­al team became huge­ly upset when some of the mem­bers com­plained to HR about favoritism in the unit. In his inner world he had been betrayed in such an egre­gious way they all need­ed to be pun­ished. Betrayed! Betrayed! One by one he pushed them out of the orga­ni­za­tion, attempt­ing to humil­i­ate them.

We see it in oth­ers but less in our­selves. I don’t get an email back from some­body impor­tant to me. In my inner world I think I’ve been reject­ed. Then it moves to “I deserve to be reject­ed.” Then I’m angry. I’m hurt. Then, final­ly, I get an email: “I’m sor­ry for not get­ting back to you. I’ve been help­ing my son through divorce.” 

The inner world. They say that’s where the gold is. But there’s a lot of shit there, too. There are a lot of trig­gers there, trig­gers some­times we don’t even know we have — until we are trig­gered in some mys­te­ri­ous way and have to deal with the mystery. 

This is not to say none of our reac­tions have valid­i­ty or truth in them. They most­ly do, but not always, not infal­li­bly. So we need the “observ­er self” who can take a step back and ques­tion who­ev­er it is in our inte­ri­or world that’s step­ping for­ward with some pro­grammed emo­tion. Maybe it’s that pitiable prince fig­ure again, the one who was reject­ed by his father, the King, in that same old fairy tale assem­bled as a small child to explain why the boy felt alone. See­ing that I can reclaim the boy’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty, under­stand and melt some of the pain.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, all too often the inner world of a leader becomes the cul­ture of an orga­ni­za­tion. Because lead­ers induce and repli­cate their own sto­ries in the world around them, the world they have some con­trol over, that sto­ry begins to be the orga­ni­za­tion, too.

It isn’t hard to imag­ine the inner world of a leader who’s gone para­noid, who responds to staff mis­takes with bul­ly­ing and crit­i­cism, who’s become so self-ref­er­en­tial that any mis­take is felt as a per­son­al attack. And imag­ine the cul­ture that cre­ates, that sense of oppression. 

It’s not hard to imag­ine the inner world of some­one who is always try­ing to please, whose inner world is made up of one ruth­less, guilt-induc­ing demand after anoth­er. And imag­ine that cul­ture of mar­tyr­dom, too.

As lead­ers, we live out our inner dra­mas and are jarred once in awhile when our esti­ma­tion of real­i­ty isn’t con­sis­tent with a plot we thought was unfold­ing. We aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly com­pas­sion­ate with our­selves, about that. This keeps our delu­sions in place.

Life is such that if we start lis­ten­ing more deeply, we may come face to face with these strange scripts we’ve writ­ten for our­selves. Once we see them for what they are, I sus­pect, the gold is not far off.


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