Taming your crocodiles: Tune into Owl FM & learn leadership depth

How do we really grow as human beings and as leaders?

Michelangelo was once asked how he created the beautiful sculpture of David in Florence. He responded: “I saw an angel in the stone and carved to set it free.” Similarly, when we truly grow as human beings, something beautiful comes to the foreground as we carve away what no longer serves us. What is looking from behind our eyes matures, and as a result, the way we see the world and how we interact with it expands as well. You could say that we are gaining leadership ‘depth,’ as we scrub our inner landscape – freeing ourselves from beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that no longer serve us so that our deepest truths can come to the surface.

Leadership depth complements leadership breadth. Developing breadth is about learning a technical skill like finance, project management or marketing. Breadth and depth are both important to be effective as leaders. Still, from what I have seen, true leadership development is more about learning depth. Acquiring breadth by honing a technical skill is certainly helpful. Yet it is not sufficient to become an effective leader.

Depth is about our consciousness: how we see things and experience things, our belief systems, and how our inner landscape works. The more depth we have, the more we’re able to work adaptively with complex challenges while staying true to ourselves – what we stand for at our core.

How do we cultivate leadership depth? And why should we care about it – aren’t we too busy to work on our depth?

Let’s start with the second question. Think about some of the challenges we as leaders are currently facing. According to Gallup, employee engagement hovers around 30% (in the U.S.) – many people come to work without their heart being fully in it; stress and burn-out are at an all-time high; the pace of change is accelerating – 88% of the companies in the Fortune 500 from 1955 were no longer on the list in 2014; information availability is exponentially increasing; and a recent Pew survey found that 35 percent of adults say the Internet, email and cell phones have increased their hours worked.

Einstein said that “problems cannot be resolved from the same level of consciousness that created the problem.” When we try to approach our current challenges from our current level of consciousness – our current level of depth – we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. We keep doing and thinking the same thing while expecting different results. Now, more than ever before – or so it seems – we need to cultivate leadership depth and put it to good use.

How do we create great depth? It all starts by taking an honest look at ourselves, particularly at the self-talk in our head. When we tune into our self-talk consciously, we may discover some patterns – we can see them as radio stations – that are broadcasting frequently. They are broadcasting messages that mold our thoughts and feelings.

To increase leadership depth, we need to be able to recognize our inner radio stations, so we can consciously choose whether we keep tuning into them, or whether we start listening to other ones – or no stations altogether.

Having studied my own internal radio talk and that of thousands of leaders that I have coached over the years, I noticed 7 radio stations that have many listeners. These radio stations operate like static – they obscure our inner silence which is more about truth, courage, and compassion.

These are: The Safe One, The Us vs. Them One, The In Control One, etc. You’ll recognize the acronym SUCCESS. You can also think of them as identities we take on.

Radio Station/Identity Core Message: I should …
Safe … be rich
Us vs. Them … please others
Control … do it perfectly
Certain … stay in my comfort zone
Essential … dominate others
Sapient … know everything
Special … be the one

When we listen to these messages often, we may start believing that they are true. And, before we know it, we base most if not all of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, choices, and actions on them. We can live our whole lives based on these radio-induced hallucinations without ever realizing it, as these stations are playing their static non-stop in our heads. They become the background noise that runs our lives.

You may notice a correlation between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (survival, relations, self-esteem, etc.) and these stations. And when you study the 7 stations closely, you may discover that each of them is broadcasting fear: I have to be safe or else …, I have to belong or else …, I have to be in control or else …, I have to be special or else …

Neuroscience helps us understand that these fear-based radio stations are broadcasting from our primitive reptilian brain whose primary function is our physical and egoic survival. Because they are reptilian and fear-based, we also call these radio stations “crocodiles.”

To explore how our crocodilian radio stations operate, I will share a part of my life story. As I do, I invite you to see if you can spot the crocodiles in it, and perhaps also reflect on your own life and the potential crocodiles that have been influencing it.

I was born and raised in the North of the Netherlands on a farm with many more cows than people. I loved the land, the big views, the church steeples on the horizon, and the beautiful music I heard being played on the 17th-century church organ every Sunday. Unlike many of my friends and family, I wasn’t interested in the cows, the farm work or the tractors. I often felt awkward that I didn’t share their interests: why were the people around me so excited by the number of liters of milk that a cow could produce each day? I just didn’t get it. I sensed I was different and didn’t belong there. Fortunately, I found a solution for my awkwardness – I became an accomplished French Horn player and a great student in school. As the talented one, I felt I could fit in again. I had found a role in my community and that was my specialness.

And yet I never felt quite settled. My underlying mantra soon became, “I have to get out of here as quickly as I can.” And I did. I ended up in New York City in my early twenties. I still remember riding the Greyhound bus into the city from Washington DC, and just before we entered the Lincoln Tunnel, I saw, for the first time, the awe-inspiring view of Manhattan – the Hudson River and the skyscrapers, lit by the afternoon sun against a stark blue September sky. I still remember thinking, I will make it to the top of one of these buildings as quickly as I can. Not as a tourist, but as a managing director, CEO or owner. And I did. I got part of the way there. I was elected one of the two youngest partners in the strategy consulting company I was working for, had a corner office on Lexington Avenue next to the Chrysler Building, was flying first class all over the world and thought I had it made.

“Not so fast,” said life, “You have a lot to learn.” Some seemingly strange things started to happen. At a holiday party, a colleague came up to me and said: “Hylke, you seem to be really good at what you are doing, but do you really like it?” I thought that was a strange question. “Yes, I love it,” I responded, thinking, I don’t really. What do work and joy have to do with each other? The farmers I grew up with didn’t really love what they were doing, or so I thought. Work was about making money!

A few months later something else occurred. We were presenting the final recommendations of a strategy project we had been working on for a German pharmaceutical company on whether they should invest in one or more large asthma drug-trials. They had invested millions of dollars with my company and this was D-Day for our project. The project manager who reported to me came into my office an hour before the final presentation to the board and said: “Hylke, we have a problem.” I cringed: Ouch, that’s really bad. Isn’t our analysis bulletproof!?! The manager said, “Hylke, the problem is you. You are the worst manager I have ever worked with and I will never work with you again!”

I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking: Thankfully the numbers are right, the client will be happy! Criticism is something I had learned to deal with through a feedback course I had taken, and so I suggested to my colleague that we have a meeting to discuss his perspective when we were back in New York. Fortunately, our presentation went great. Unfortunately, I never worked with this manager again. Nor did I give the whole situation a second thought.

Then it came time for performance reviews. I had always loved these: As an A-student, I usually had gotten the top grades in school, and now in business, I was raking in the biggest bonuses and promotions. This time, instead of praising me, the Managing Partner said to me, “Hylke, I will fire you, unless you completely change your behavior. No one in this firm wants to work with you anymore.” I thought he was kidding. I had brought in way more money than my target that year. But hearing “nobody likes to work with you anymore” stung.

When I thought about it some more, I thought I understood. I was smarter than my ‘farmhands,’ who feared me, just like the farmhands I had observed as a boy. They were intimidated by their boss. No wonder my colleagues didn’t like working with me. They were afraid of me like they should be!” The farmers I talked to prided themselves on running efficient farms by having their laborers follow their orders. Really, what did these guys know about running a farm? That’s why they were mere farmhands. I didn’t say any of this. I wanted to keep my job. I said I would work on my behavior and hired a coach. I kept my job and not much changed, as I kept seeing myself as special and better than others.

What crocodilian beliefs do you see that were running my life?

As it turns out, life wasn’t done teaching me. It wanted me to go deeper. Ironically, as I had been working on the asthma study for our client, I developed severe asthma. I managed my condition by using the strongest inhaler-medications I could find – potential competitor products for the drugs my client was about to put on the market. Also, I developed pretty severe insomnia. I tried all the medications I could find, and nothing helped. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to sleep for 7 nights in a row. Going to bed at night became a nightmare. I panicked at the thought of having to get to sleep and not being able to. I would lie in bed, wide awake, and full of despair and pain – totally lost.

It was during one of these sleepless nights, that it hit me I couldn’t go on like this. I had turned into a robot, completely obsessed with money and prestige. What had happened to the little boy who loved the fields, the church steeples, and who had wonderful friendships with many people in the village? My body had started to fall apart. My relationships weren’t working and I felt terrible. I was lost.

That sleepless night I resolved to make a drastic change. And with my mind made up, I started to look for a solution. During this quest, I discovered yoga and meditation, and with it, I connected with a whole new world that had been hidden from me for so long. I rediscovered sleep. After having meditated for about an hour, the cycle of insomnia broke, and I slept at last soundly for seven hours – something that hadn’t happened to me in years. Also, meditating I reconnected to a deep sense of joy, warmth, and compassion that I had sensed as a child and had completely lost touch with since.

I became so enthralled by my new experiences that I almost became a monk. In the end, I didn’t make that jump, and decided instead to serve as a coach, facilitator and writer to help people at work – the place where the majority of us spend most of our waking hours – connect with the love, compassion, and wisdom I began experiencing meditating (and eventually during my day-to-day activities away from the meditation cushion).

Do any parts of this story sound familiar to you? And what crocodilian beliefs did you see shape this time of my life? Yes, all seven of them were active. Here’s how:

  1. Safe: I wanted to be rich, which I now understand was a way for me to prove that I was worthy, insulating myself from the judgments I felt from my community;
  2. Us vs Them: I wanted to please my dad by doing my job well and being the best;
  3. Control: I wanted to do everything perfectly. And micro-managing others seemed to be a sure bet to stay in control and guarantee great outcomes;
  4. Certain: I wanted to play it safe. I felt I had to walk the path of my community – by becoming a business person. Finding a less mainstream profession, going into something unknown was unthinkable for me;
  5. Essential: Afraid of losing my pole position at work, I tried to dominate everyone else and be above them;
  6. Sapient: To dominate, I felt I had to know better than others;
  7. Special: And I was still in my French Horn prodigy energy, playing the special one at work, the one who outshines everyone else, as a way to protect my place on the team.

Do you recognize any of these crocodilian radio broadcasts? Do you tune into any of these in your life and leadership? Chances are you do, as they are not personal, but a part of our collective conditioning. We are blasted every day with messages that tell us to become rich, to be liked, to be perfect, to be special and to be in control of our lives. And this all starts when we’re very young when our minds are still very pliable. We internalize all the external noise and transform it into internal radio stations most of us end up listening to our whole lives without realizing it.

That’s the bad news.

The good news that we don’t have to keep listening to Crocodile FM. The first step is to become aware that this static is playing in our heads. Naming our crocodiles, we tame them. By simply being aware that these radio stations are broadcasting in us and around us, we can choose to tune them out. How do we do this?

Listening to Crocodile FM doesn’t feel good. We feel on edge, stressed out, and when we check in with ourselves more deeply, we may notice that we are not acting in integrity. We are not grounded in our authentic values – our highest selves – when we buy into the messages of Croc FM. Listening to Croc FM, we stop playing our own music.

Listening to Crocodile FM, our relationships suffer – people around us feel judged, excluded, used as a means to an end, or taken for granted. And we become less and less effective. Trying to be perfect, we focus on the short-term battles and lose the war. Having to be in control, we lose the heartfelt engagement of our teams and disempower them. Having to be the special one, we isolate ourselves and become obsolete as we lose touch with the needs of our environment.

Taking an honest inventory of the costs of listening to Croc FM can help us fuel our resolve to change what we give our attention to. We can ask ourselves the Dr. Phil Question: “How is this working for me, listening to my crocodilian self-talk?”

We can choose to stop listening to these self-limiting stations. The less we listen to them, the less they tend to broadcast – at some point they go out of business, as any radio station does that has no listeners. In neuroscience, this healing process is called “neuroplasticity:” neurons that fire together, wire together. The more often we repeat a new thought, the more likely it is we will think the new thought in the future. The less often we think the old way, the less likely it is we will think the old way in the future.

When we sense that we’re hooked in again to Crocodile FM, we can switch our inner dial, simply by asking “Who’s talking now, the owl or the crocodile?” The owl stands for our deeper wisdom and compassion that comes through the heart and our prefrontal cortices. And when we still feel drawn to keep listening to our self-destructive self-talk, we can ask ourselves, “How is this working for me?”

The more often we ask the question “Who’s talking now, the owl or the crocodile?” the more we tame our crocodiles. The more our crocodiles calm down, the more easily we start noticing the deeper owl wisdom that comes online as we make space for it. Try it out. Ask yourself right now for a challenge that you are facing: “Who’s talking now, my owl, or my crocodile?” And then ask: “How would my owl respond to this situation?” See what becomes possible for you when you let go of the crocodilian static and tune more into your true self.

Enjoy Owl Radio.

Hylke Faber serves as a leadership coach and facilitator and leads the coaching organizations, Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His first book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear& Become a True Leader, was released in May 2018 and was soon selected as one of Bloomberg’s 10 Best Books on Leadership in 2018. Through his ongoing collaboration between Constancee and Columbia Business School Executive Education, Taming Your Crocodiles has become the curriculum cornerstone for Hylke’s sought-after online learning series, Leader as Coach.