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Can our biggest change challenges be THE growth opportunity to thrive in today´s demanding (corporate) world?

Veröffentlicht am 19.02.2015

No leader needs convincing that improvement and change is at the top of the agenda. And every leader knows how challenging it is to bring about change – whether in oneself or in others.
Most likely you are familiar with the following scenario: you have formulated a clear development goal and have a profound desire to realize it; you are committed to not seeing it come up again in your next assessment or feedback conversation. But instead of doing what it takes to get there, you surprise yourself by acting in ways you know are contrary to your objective. Even worse, you have been working successfully on your issue, only to discover in a high stress situation, that you have reverted back to your old behaviour – feeling quite powerless, you can only observe yourselves as you jeopardize your much desired development goal once again.
So, why is it sometimes so difficult to change? Why are certain old behaviours so persistent? What hidden dynamic might they be serving?

I have come to calling this hidden dynamic our inner dragon because it is due to the protective reaction of a part of our brain referred to as the reptilian brain. It is indeed our reptilian brain which jeopardizes our most sincere intentions, our hard work and dedication to becoming a better listener, better at delegating, better at time management, better at eating healthier, etc. Our reptilian brain is quite independent from the part of our brain where the logical thinking happens (the neo-cortex), where we make the decision to get better at something. Our reptilian brain will react whenever it feels there might be the slightest hint of danger and it will override the intentions of our neo-cortex in order to keep us safe. With its overcautious reactions it can shrink the world of its owner quite a bit.
Many people have given up on these issues and simply accept “that’s the way I am and there is nothing I can do about it”. However, the price to pay for such thinking is high: a stalled career, living in continuous overwhelm, or stumbling over that one last step just before reaching our goal. Not dealing with our dragons has yet another consequence: we miss the opportunity to expand the complexity of our mind by building a bridge between our reptilian brain and the neo-cortex. It is this bridge that will allow us to live more effectively, provide increased resilience to hold competing commitments and to set boundaries more appropriately.

The large number of leaders and individual contributors in organizations who are overwhelmed in their work shows how urgent it is for people to start their development journey. While there are a few very popular dragons which everyone will recognize, the way they impact us, and which behaviours they generate are highly individual. Please bear this in mind when you look at the examples I share with you below from my coaching practice:


Challenges you would
like to overcome

Dragons discovered
underlying the client’s issue

Growth spurt occurs &
complexity of mind expands

  •  Does not listen
  • Cuts people off in the       middle of a sentence
  • Already thinking about the next issue on the agenda

If I listen to what everyone has to say, things will get out of hand and I will lose control and…, etc.

The leader changed from being a controller to being a facilitator and catalyst for levering his team’s ideas.

  • Does not delegate


If I don’t do things myself, I’ll stop being valuable, I will no longer be the doer and hero.

The leader changed from being a doer to being an architect and developer for his business and his team.

  • Poor time management
  • Always over-booked
  • Overworked


If I do not attend all the meetings I am invited to, there will be a moment when I will not know or have the right answer and people will think I am incompetent.


The leader changed from being a stressed and overwhelmed expert, to being a creative innovator able to access and leverage his large background of knowledge; now feels comfortable setting boundaries and declining invitations.



As the examples above show, the dragons are very powerful. Looking at them from our logical brain, one can only wonder why an adult person would still make such assumptions. But anyone who has once seriously struggled with an issue knows how real they can be and hence how crucial it is to work with these dragons and tame them.

Leadership in a complex world

Studies show that 58 percent of the workforce in large organizations does not have the necessary complexity of mind required to work effectively in such environments. And, only 4 out of 21 CEOs have the complexity of mind which is required at their level of the organization. The companies headed by these CEOs showed significantly better performance. (Source: K. Eigel, Leader Effectiveness)
One of the big challenges of starting a successful development journey is to have the appropriate level of difficulty and the appropriate support structure. If the learning journey is too overwhelming, people/leaders will become paralyzed or blocked - this is what we are observing in organizations today. Our dragons are deeply held beliefs or embedded assumptions which do not respond to the logical and linear learning approach of our neo-cortex. In order to tame our dragons and reduce their impact, we must considerably increase our ability to observe what we think, what we feel and how we behave. When we discover the protective commitments of our reptilian brain towards its owner, we can finally start to work on the real issue rather than continuing to work on listening skills, or delegation, or any other technique which will not bring the desired outcome.

So, the big and sometimes longstanding struggles and recurring feedback issues which we all have come across at some stage of our life do have a purpose. Indeed they are not only learning opportunities, they are growth opportunities. Schools have taught us how to learn, but they have not taught us how to grow as human beings on our adult growth agenda. In our struggle with an issue lies the opportunity for us as adults and leaders to engage with our development challenges.
With every growth challenge we take on, we are building the bridge between our logical brain, the neo-cortex, and our old fight and flight reptilian brain. The bridge will become larger and more solid and hence allow us to hold bigger and more complex issues. It is this bridge that increases our resilience, our capacity to live with open questions and in uncertainty. It allows us to look at our challenges rather than seeing the world through our challenges, and therefore, allows us to engage gradually with bigger issues, bigger responsibilities and most of all, allows us to be more at ease and more successful in our complex and demanding corporate world.

Author: Regula Maerki/Senior Executive Coach & Leadership Consultant/Switzerland/ November 2014