Building Inner Excellence

"I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong."—Medea

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Why do leaders not behave as they intend? Maybe it has happened to you. You wanted to lead the team to success, whether on the basketball court or in delivering that new manufacturing project on time and on budget. You saw yourself as a good leader, but somewhere along the way, things broke down.

Vanderbilt business school professor Richard L. Daft asked that question and answered it in his new book, “The Executive and The Elephant: A Leader’s Guide To Building Inner Excellence,” just published by Jossey-Bass. In one study that Daft cites, the records of 38 ineffective chief executive officers (CEOs) revealed that all were good at cognitive skills—vision, strategy, ideas and the like. Things broke down during execution. The CEOs’ behavior did not follow through on their thoughts and words.

Says Daft, “The big challenge in leadership is not in figuring out what to do but in actually doing the thing you know will produce great results. The challenge is learning to lead yourself to do what needs doing when it needs doing. Personal mastery aligns your behavior with your intention.”

Divided self

Daft’s research points to people containing divided selves as the root of the problem. “If passion drives, let reason hold the reins,” said Benjamin Franklin, reflecting the two selves.

“The metaphors I use in this book for our two selves or parts are the executive and the elephant,” explains Daft, “which I will often refer to as the inner executive and the inner elephant. The inner executive is our higher consciousness, our own CEO, so to speak. The inner elephant symbolizes the strength of unconscious systems and habits.”

The inner elephant manifests itself in many ways, but Daft offers helpful methods to overcome it and do what you want to do. He cites six mental mistakes that occur because you let your unconscious systems and habits rule. They are: reacting too quickly, inflexible thinking, wanting control, emotional avoidance and attraction, exaggerating the future and chasing the wrong gratifications. Certainly, upon reflection, you will notice that you’re guilty of at least one of these—most likely all six, at one time or another.

Concentration and focus are keys to overcoming the inner elephant and putting the inner executive back in charge. Once, at a party, people were asked what factor was the most important in getting to where they had gotten in life? Warren Buffett said it was his focus. Bill Gates gave the same answer.

One thing that will help to improve focus, attention and concentration is to write down intentions. Then you can refer to them when you start to drift. Then, Daft says, “A good way to improve concentration is to shift your attention away from future goals to the present moment.” He also advises learning to calm down to speed up. Some students have told him that if they are unable to concentrate at home, they go to the library where others are present, and they focus better.

To help his Master of Business Administration (MBA) students achieve needed changes in their lives, he adopted a coaching method. Students chose something about themselves that they wanted to change and were paired with another student as coach. The coach had two responsibilities: to call and ask a few questions each evening, and to be very supportive and encouraging. The coaches were not to be analytical, rational or critical, as if an authority figure. Roughly 80 percent of the students reported solid progress over the three weeks.

The lesson—overcome your inner elephant and do what you intend to do.

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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