The Trigger for Action

*By Chris Chittenden

"Being oppressed means the absence of choices.”

… Bell Hooks (b. 1952) US educator, feminist theorist & poet

When coaching people who are seeking to develop their leadership style, we will often ask them to identify people they know who they see as good or great leaders. Although many people come up with the obvious answers such as Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jnr, most struggle to think of too many good leaders they know personally. Although we recognise there are many good leaders in the world, they seem to be less common than you would think given the amount of money that is spent by organisations on developing their leaders.

As part of the industry that aims to develop leaders, this is somewhat disquietening and gives us pause for thought. Certainly, if we ask leaders to tell us about leadership, they can do so. So it is not that poor leaders don't always know what good leadership entails, it is that they do not apply what they know. Geoffrey Pfeffer called this the "knowing-doing gap".

Our basic ontological premise offers two key questions that we apply in our work:

  1. Of all the things I could do in a given moment and situation, why do I do what I do?
  2. How could I do things more effectively in a similar situation in a future moment?

Exploring the first question offers us a way of understanding ourselves better. Many people think of being "authentic" as acting in alignment with how we think we should act. We prefer to look at this another way. We hold that we cannot be anything but authentic as we always act to take care of our core concerns in life; it is just that this does not always match how we think we should act, or indeed, how we think we do act. In many ways, it is this difference that creates the knowing-doing gap. If we take the view that being authentic is to act as we know we should act, it is easy to focus on what we know rather than how we act and then assume we act in alignment with what we know. In this case, the emphasis is on the knowing not the doing.

On the other hand, if we focus on what we actually do and explore the impact on our core concerns that triggers that action, then we can open up the possibility of understanding ourselves better. This is not to say that we should not aspire to act in ways that are consistent with how we would like to act, rather that we can recognise that we will not always do so and that tells us something about ourselves. This awareness is important if we are to become who we want to be.

The second question then provides us with the avenue to be more aligned. If we can accept that we are often triggered to act in ways that contradict how we would like to act, then we can begin to establish how to create greater consistency between our beliefs and our actions. The key is to recognise that to do so, we need two key elements - awareness and choice. Awareness is required as without it our patterns of action (our habits) will simply be triggered. However, awareness is not enough, we need strategies to act differently. We have to anticipate a future situation in a future moment and identify how we would like to act and then make sure we have those skills in place. With awareness, we then have the ability to make a conscious choice and it is only when these two aspects combine that we can change our actions to be more aligned with how we want to be. Ultimately, the key is to focus on the doing not the knowing.

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© 2012 Chris Chittenden