Real Leaders

Win the Battle for Your Mind


Many years ago I volunteered to counsel criminals. I visited a maximum security prison Thursdays and Sundays to work with about 60 men who had committed serious crimes. Some had committed terrible crimes.  One thing I discovered is that all these men suffered from a similar psychological malady…  low impulse control.

If you want to imagine what prison is like, just imagine yourself being surrounded by physically powerful males who have low self-worth, high frustration and virtually no impulse control. It’s cruel, scary and violent. Living your life controlled by your temporary emotions is a living hell. That’s what prison is like.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to be in a prison to be imprisoned by our own minds. In fact, what I discovered in interviewing my inmates was that the stories they believed about themselves were largely horror stories.  Developmental psychologists report that most children have no psychological defenses until about age 5 or 6.  They actually believe what their caregivers tell them about themselves. As young children my prisoners were told they were stupid, useless and literally  ‘good for nothing.’ Children believe adults, so that’s what they grow up believing.

To make matters worse, new research confirms the early childhood stress inhibits the development of impulse control and emotional intelligence.  Most of my prisoners grew up in violent and impoverished conditions surrounded by screaming adults tangled in constant conflicts.

Sadly, I failed to help any of my inmates make permanent, healthy changes.  The most I did was offer temporary comfort and encouragement.  What I discovered is that my prisoners had literally “lost their minds.”  They had lost control over the inner voice that tells us who we are and what we are capable of.

Of course, working with inmates exposed me to an extreme outcome of extreme circumstances.  But all of us fight a constant battle to be in conscious control of who we think we are. And that is vital because our self-story either limits or expands the quality of our lives.

I bring this up today because I am increasingly talking to white male senior executives about the economic benefits of fostering cognitive diversity.  Hundreds of group intelligence studies clearly prove that the most valuable ideas come from initially considering the largest number of different ideas. That’s not hard to understand.  What’s hard for the dominant leadership class of business organizations to understand is how their prevailing biases shutdown ideas that don’t conform to their worldview. The result is that they patronize women and diversity programs as a politically correct necessity without really understanding the enterprise value of systematically changing the way employees are heard and lead.

The unintended result of most diversity and inclusion programs is to reinforce the story that women and minorities need special help because they’re not equal to the demands of ‘big-boy’ business.

It’s not easy for men and women who are trying to find better ways to work together.  Not really.  Most of us are highly conditioned by our early childhood modeling.  The way our fathers treated our mothers are a signal to boys about how women ought to be treated. And the way our mothers responded to our fathers is a pattern that girls learn as to how women ought to respond to men.

Thus, our childhood experiences become a deeply imprinted pattern about how men and women relate to each other. If those experiences were not healthy, or worse, dysfunctional, we become imprisoned by our story about what we must do to avoid pain and get what we want.

It’s a very rare leader who has the empathetic intelligence to really understand the effect of invisible prejudice that discourages both women and minorities from speaking up and fully participating in the intellectual grist of daily work. New research from Wharton confirms that nearly 60% of corporate employees are primarily compliant rather than engaged.  These workers are reduced to order-takers and doers because they are unheard and undervalued.  What an incredible waste of talent.  We have huge numbers of employees that are literally imprisoned by cultures they work within.

When I am training women to thrive in typical corporate cultures I start by stressing one thing:


Whatever you have been told about your limitations is just someone else’s thoughtless opinion. You ARE good at math; you ARE good at solving problems.  In fact, you are great at systems thinking and seeing unintended effects in complex circumstances.  And no, you aren’t too emotional. Your hormones do not rule you. In fact, brain science confirms you’re much better at impulse control than males. In fact, testosterone is the most powerful hormone that affects behavior. Especially risky behavior.

That doesn’t mean women are perfect.  All I am trying to communicate is that classes of people who have been systematically left out of leadership, such as women and minorities, need to take control of their inner story.  I encourage them to follow the path of high functioning people.  People who exhibit something called positive constructive personality.  It has three main characteristics:

Positive Intention. When your thoughts are filled with optimism about your life and genuine hope that good things will happen to others you become a force for good.  Literally, your emotional energy becomes a source of strength and encouragement to yourself and others. This is a force that can now be measured. Research indicates that one of the beneficial outcomes to you is having more opportunities.
Take Responsibility. Clean up your own messes. We all make mistakes.  We all fail to keep commitments. Mature people take responsibility for the consequences of their choices and behavior. Don’t self-justify. Apologize thoroughly and completely, once. Don’t over apologize. Fix what you can, learn what you must.  The central theme of life is continuous improvement.

Practice the Golden Rule. According to the renowned authority on world religions, Huston Smith, treating others the way you want to be treated is the essential moral law of the 17 major religions that have thrived over the course of human history.  The Golden Rule is what separates selfish jerks from decent people.  It’s not hard to be good if you simply choose to be.
The bottom line…

Don’t imprison yourself by allowing the conditions of your upbringing, or the family or work culture you find yourself in, to diminish your self-worth. Do not let prejudice and bigotry take away your power as a human being to make your difference.

Remember always: You do not have to be perfect to be great.


More like this

Most Recent Articles