How you do one thing is how you do everything

The oth­er day I hap­pened to read a blog post on frac­tals and human behav­ior, one that includes this provoca­tive title line — a line that seems at first glance too sim­ple for the com­plex­i­ty of our lives but also some­how holds an intu­itive truth. Our self-aware­ness is built on a sense that we are inde­pen­dent and free in our con­scious choic­es but we also know that our thoughts, feel­ings and actions are influ­enced by deep­er patterns.

Many years ago I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a week-long work­shop that asked atten­dees to iden­ti­fy key behav­ioral pat­terns of their par­ents or pri­ma­ry care-givers. The first exer­cise asked for twelve such pat­terns (e.g., my father could be per­fec­tion­is­tic and crit­i­cal, espe­cial­ly about aca­d­e­mics) and I recall that it took me awhile and some hard think­ing to iden­ti­fy twelve for my two par­ents. By the time I left the work­shop I had named more than two hun­dred, astound­ed by how deeply chan­nelled my own life had been. As I called each pat­tern out, I was encour­aged to also notice whether I had repli­cat­ed the pat­tern in my own life (Did I now do the same thing to my own kids?) or had I rebelled against it, form­ing a counter pat­tern, just as con­trol­ling. The work­shop helped me and oth­ers begin to trans­form pat­terns of think­ing and behav­ior we con­scious­ly want­ed to change.


There were oth­er major antecedents to my long-term inter­est in human pat­terns, but the work­shop has been emblem­at­ic of that theme as part of my voca­tion. I think now of how much my work over time has been guid­ed by the val­ue of their dis­cern­ment, whether it’s by con­duct­ing a 360 degree eval­u­a­tion for a leader or by con­duct­ing a cul­ture (or “cli­mate”) assess­ment for a team. It’s often all about “the one thing” and its influ­ence on “how you do everything.”

For indi­vid­ual lead­ers, I think there are three lines that count, with one line count­ing more than the oth­er two.

  1. How your par­ents or care-givers once treat­ed you
  2. How you now treat yourself
  3. How you now treat others

In my expe­ri­ence, the line that counts the most for under­stand­ing your lead­er­ship is the sec­ond. I have coached some lead­ers who treat­ed them­selves as gods, and some that treat­ed them­selves as pari­ahs, and some who treat­ed them­selves both ways depend­ing on the issue and time of day. What­ev­er pat­tern it is, we learned it some­place, either via imi­ta­tion or rebel­lion. And then we forged a belief about who we are. There’s lit­tle alter­na­tive if you want to real­ly under­stand the “per­son­al­i­ty” of your lead­er­ship oth­er than to explore Points 1 and 3 on the way to tru­ly com­pre­hend­ing Point 2. That’s the real work.

I think of lead­ers I’ve coached who are crit­i­cal of oth­ers, who may treat oth­ers as com­modi­ties, who seem to believe that it is through imper­son­al crit­i­cism that oth­er peo­ple will do more or get bet­ter. But when we begin to exam­ine what’s under­neath that behav­ior what’s found is a very nasty pres­sure cook­er of self-judg­ment com­bined with oth­er dam­ag­ing beliefs, such that achieve­ment over oth­ers is the only way to pre­serve iden­ti­ty. The race­horse runs until its heart explodes.

I think of lead­ers I’ve worked with who strug­gle with set­ting bound­aries or giv­ing direc­tion, and when we take a look inside there’s a his­to­ry of dis­place­ments or aban­don­ments so that the leader has learned to dis­place or aban­don them­selves, too. Ini­ti­at­ing poten­tial changes in rela­tion­ships is accom­pa­nied by over­whelm­ing anx­i­ety and sec­ond-guess­ing that there is risk of an absolute fail­ure, like falling down a well, and this repli­cates some very old child­hood sen­si­bil­i­ty or expe­ri­ence. So now, on the big stuff and stand­ing on the edge of that well every day, there’s fan­ta­sy and avoid­ance, putting off the chal­lenges that might bring up look­ing straight down into the emp­ty depths.

These are exam­ples, not the whole sto­ry. The whole sto­ry is unique. It’s yours, the one that unfold­ed for you, that’s still unfold­ing inside you accord­ing to its rules and that is also repeat­ed­ly emerg­ing for you in the world.

So I say, for all of us, just go back to Point 2. How do you treat your­self — answer­ing this ques­tion ful­ly, not sim­ply good or bad — but how? And what are the antecedents? Why do you treat your­self this way? What pat­terns did you learn and from whom? And then, how now do you treat oth­ers as a result? In the process of explor­ing these ques­tions, it may come to you, that one thing that is the way you do every­thing. And some­thing else, too, may appear: how this is a path that lit­er­al­ly nev­er ends. There may be some­thing ulti­mate­ly a lit­tle bit­ter­sweet in the aware­ness that there will always be anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to sort it out, to see “how you do one thing” from yet anoth­er van­tage point, one you had­n’t ever noticed before.


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