The Mutiny Against Our Conditioning

As adults we come up against facets of our­selves that we wish to change. Uncon­scious big­otry, for exam­ple, or cer­tain aspects of intro­ver­sion or exces­sive guilt, impa­tience or ego­cen­tric­i­ty — our weak­ness­es and the results of our “over-strengths.” Tak­ing on these chal­lenges sounds good and promis­es a desir­able trans­for­ma­tion but in real­i­ty also por­tends the dif­fi­cult work of address­ing our con­di­tioned inner worlds. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, too often the nature of lead­er­ship devel­op­ment these days ignores this con­di­tion­ing and sug­gests per­son­al change is sim­ply a mat­ter of fol­low­ing a few eas­i­ly designed steps, when in fact it is most often very much harder. 

That is one of the rea­sons why I have cho­sen the word mutiny care­ful­ly. It con­veys what it may take to heed the call to true change, which is this: a refusal to obey the orders of what­ev­er aspects of our­selves claim author­i­ty over our thoughts, feel­ings or actions. These are not nec­es­sar­i­ly aspects that may be entire­ly, con­ve­nient­ly, con­scious to us. They may be aspects that are either invis­i­ble or some kind of shape shifter. One day my impa­tience comes out as manip­u­lat­ed pres­sure on oth­ers who are respon­si­ble for a cru­cial project, but on anoth­er day it’s noth­ing but pet­ty crank­i­ness erupt­ing at some­one (a store clerk, a tele­mar­keter, a child) who has noth­ing to do with that project at all. It decides when and how it is going to show up.

Indeed, our traits seem giv­en to us, not self-gen­er­at­ed, and it is these traits, in aggre­gate, that take up res­i­dence as our con­di­tioned respons­es, our con­di­tioning.


Who am I to have a vision?” a busi­ness own­er asked me one day, as if own­ing a com­pa­ny for twen­ty years, reg­u­lar­ly pay­ing a staff of twelve peo­ple and feel­ing respon­si­ble for their well-being did not yet give him the right to hold a view of what his com­pa­ny might some­day become. It was­n’t that he could­n’t con­struct a per­son­al vision. It was that he was bow­ing to some part of him­self that was say­ing vision is only for the famous peo­ple run­ning huge orga­ni­za­tions or for thought-lead­ers whose names every­body knows, only for peo­ple who have actu­al­ly done some­thing sig­nif­i­cant. What was he bow­ing to exact­ly? The rules for who he is sup­posed to be, the rules of his self-con­cept as a hum­ble ser­vant leader. And yet this con­flict of rules vs. real­i­ties sub-opti­mizes his capac­i­ty to lead. From with­in his nar­row view he asks, “Should I jump the fence? But would­n’t that just be arro­gance?” I sug­gest­ed he talk with his staff about that very point.

Who, indeed, is in charge? Sure a con­sul­tant could help this client con­struct a vision — that’s almost a no-brain­er — but the real deal is the shift in inner lead­er­ship — and that’s a jour­ney, a jour­ney with drag­ons who put up a fight, who pro­tect their accu­mu­lat­ed trea­sures by roast­ing those who dare come too close, who sleep with one eye open. You get the picture.

A skilled man­ag­er told me, “I’m no good at con­fronta­tion,” yet he was some­one known for his insight­ful diplo­ma­cy, some­thing he casu­al­ly dis­missed as most­ly a form of avoid­ance. And anoth­er told me how much she wor­ried she had grown up with­out much empa­thy. A third shied away from deci­sions she need­ed to make. “What if I fail?” she asked, and then added, “Look, I know I need to deal with this fear of fail­ure thing but I also just need to get through the next few months. Can we talk lat­er?

All of these things share one cen­tral theme: they are about “who I am” as a per­son, as a leader; about some aspect of iden­ti­ty that in the­o­ry can be removed or changed — until we actu­al­ly try it, after which the chal­lenge looks a good deal tougher, the fear­some chal­lenge being, in fact, me. And it seems so true and so per­son­al that these drag­ons, these demons, these trolls under the bridge, so to speak, will lurch out into the open to reveal my core inse­cu­ri­ties. Bet­ter to sneak past them in the dead of night and keep doing so for years. Yes, for sure, let’s talk lat­er.

My expe­ri­ence as a coach is that these expressed flaws and inse­cu­ri­ties present as being split off parts of our­selves that harass the rest of the per­son­al­i­ty, often via the very cir­cum­stances we find our­selves in. A client approached me say­ing he want­ed to learn more about how to deal with cowork­ers who could be insen­si­tive and intim­i­dat­ing. He was wor­ried about them in the mid­dle of the night. They were a clique, almost a gang dressed in pro­fes­sion­al man­ners. How­ev­er, in the con­text of this arti­cle, he knew this was not so much about learn­ing how to fight this gang direct­ly as it was with neu­tral­iz­ing the bul­ly with­in — his own con­di­tion­ing that was caus­ing him to kow­tow to what­ev­er aggres­sive ener­gies might sur­round him. I hon­or those who get this cen­tral point.

A sim­i­lar chal­lenge came up in a train­ing ses­sion. A young man­ag­er raised her hand. “But how do you deal with some­one who is hos­tile?” she asked. A few ques­tions clar­i­fied she was talk­ing about one of her reports — some­one old­er and quick to throw a snarky remark her way. She want­ed the for­mu­la that would enable her to address this antag­o­nist. “I can’t tell you what that might be,” I said in reply. “Because it’s not about chang­ing the oth­er per­son. It’s about you. How do you think you would have to grow in order to be more effec­tive with your report?” After a pause, she said, “I would have to be a whole lot more assertive than I am today.” So there, right there, is the start­ing point.

Oh, how we want a quick solu­tion! Oh, how we want a for­mu­la! And how often, in fact, not find­ing them we “refuse the call,” as Joseph Camp­bell and oth­ers have described our avoid­ance as part of the hero’s jour­ney.

I may be able to explore my past, recall­ing mem­o­ries of inci­dents where I learned to hide from my life, feel­ing the churn in my gut that makes (and keeps) me exact­ly as I am. And I may be able to explore the future per­son I want to be, my pre­ferred image of myself, my intend­ed self-con­cept tuned to hope and maybe dis­tract­ing fan­ta­sy. But between the past and the future there’s the Now, with its stub­born real­i­ties, with its unpre­dictabil­i­ty and hid­den dan­gers. There, in the Now, that’s where the real jour­ney is either embraced or reject­ed, a point at which I must make a choice about fac­ing what I haven’t faced all along — and stick with it. This is the point where I begin to over­throw the old ener­gies to which I’ve habit­u­al­ly giv­en author­i­ty, over­throw them with rad­i­cal self-hon­esty and con­scious determination.

One day you finally knew 
what you had to do, and began, 
though the voices around you 
kept shouting 
their bad advice-- 
though the whole house 
began to tremble 
                             -- Mary Oliver, The Journey

If you don’t know the poem, please fol­low the link and read it through. Such is the nature of a jour­ney, not a ratio­nal­ized pas­sage from one set of words and con­cepts to anoth­er set of words and con­cepts, as if we are mere­ly tourists, but a real mutiny against inner voic­es at their source, against inner author­i­ties that tell us who we are: what we can be and what we must be; what we can’t do and must nev­er do; those inner gods that claim their com­mand­ments are only for our own good and safe­ty, who keep us good and safe accord­ing to their def­i­n­i­tions and in so doing also keep us small and caged in the com­fort­ing dark­ness of our ordi­nary worlds.



  • Amaz­ing, Dan…

  • Dan Oestreich wrote:

    Thank you so much, Mark! All the best to you!

  • I real­ly appre­ci­ate this insight. We have to look with­in to make a change.

  • Exact­ly. Look and be brave enough to keep going back into the for­est. Thank you, Deb!

  • Marcie O Peck wrote:

    I love how this arti­cle chal­lenges the read­er to look beyond the quick fix and do the hard work of exam­in­ing and chang­ing one­self. So thought pro­vok­ing, I’m read­ing it a third time. Thank you!

  • Thank you, Mar­cie. And, yes, the jour­ney is there for us and we can either rise to meet it or hide our­selves away. Good luck!

  • […] The mutiny against our con­di­tion­ing by Dan Oestre­ich is anoth­er arti­cle about not seek­ing solu­tions from oth­er peo­ple but find­ing our own for­mu­la instead. I didn’t set out to give this month’s links a theme, but it seems I have unin­ten­tion­al­ly end­ed up here. […]

  • Byron murray wrote:

    Thanks for a great insight. Being a life long con­trar­i­an I appre­ci­ate the word mutiny and the aspect of tak­ing a risk to chal­lenge “me”. It is always the “me” it seems I have to push into the unknown. Have to engage both my Druid and my Celtic Warrior.

  • Hel­lo Byron!

    Yep, that Druid and Celtic War­rior are like­ly to be in action mode. The cir­cum­stances of fac­ing our­selves require being in touch with many forces and aspects of our­selves, some friend­ly, some not so much! Thanks for stop­ping by — hope you are doing well. All the best to you


  • […] ​The mutiny against our con­di­tion­ing by Dan Oestre­ich is anoth­er arti­cle about not seek­ing solu­tions from oth­er peo­ple but find­ing our own for­mu­la instead. I didn’t set out to give this month’s links a theme, but it seems I have unin­ten­tion­al­ly end­ed up here. […]

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