gordian leadership perspective

The New Gordian Leadership Perspective, part 3: What secret for longevity of leadership success do GI Joe, Jack Welch and Jeff Bezos share?

Thought Leadership on Execution Strategies presented by Simple Solutions.

This article identifies self-awareness as a leader’s most important asset, describes how it empowers a leader to perform at maximum effectiveness and enables longevity of high performance.

G.I. Joe has been an international sensation since Hasbro introduced the line of movable plastic military figures in 1964.[1] At the end of every G.I. Joe episode of the cartoon series that ran from 1985-1986, G.I. Joe announced what he, Jack Welch, Jeff Bezos and many other executives of long-standing success[2] practice as the cornerstone of their lasting success: “Knowing is half the battle.”

All of these high-performing leaders understand that one has to know what’s going on as the first and most significant step to taking effective action and achieving anything. For G.I. Joe, “knowing” refers to the situational awareness necessary to be safe at all times. For Jack Welch and Jeff Bezos knowing means making decisions on the basis of verifiable data and statistical methods, rather than assumptions and guesswork.[3]

For those of you who want to take your leadership to the next level or confront the stubborn organizational challenges you’ve been avoiding, replace suppositions and hearsay with “knowing” as the first step to any other action you take.

Three ways you can win half the battle by ‘knowing’

  1. Substitute knowing for assuming and guessing.

It is astounding how many leaders show up to their jobs and rely on the daily demands of others to know how to allocate their time, depend on staff anecdotes to know how people and the organization are performing, and await a crisis to know where improvements need to be made. This is reacting, not knowing. And the performance that results from this style of leadership is more often than not, mediocre at best. Instead:

a. Use data analysis to inform you on what is happening in your organization.

Take whatever steps necessary to integrate your sources of data so that it provides you with all of the useful information you need to know about what your customers are asking for and how well your organization and staff are performing. If you don’t have the data you need, start collecting it. If your data is a compilation of spreadsheets, that doesn’t matter. What will give you the power of being “in the know” is the insight into reality that useful data will provide. Make the use of data analysis a foundational part of your work culture and mature the processes of integration and reporting over time.

b. Ask questions instead of giving direction and providing answers.

Learn to work through others more than giving directions and teach your staff to be accountable for providing accurate information. Examples of ways to do this include:

  • Identify to yourself the areas of your operation that you do not fully understand and request briefings until you are comfortable.
  • Engage your staff in a manner that provides you with honest assessments of operations, i.e. good and bad.
  • Conduct independent analysis to verify the honesty of the information you receive.
  1. Know the boundaries of your comfort zones.

If you can know the boundaries of your comfort zones, your leadership effectiveness can expand beyond the limits of your personal preferences and enable you to deliver what your organization and customers need from you. The results you can achieve will be unlimited.

Why is this so? Because you will be able to adapt to new demands and requirements for success as they present themselves to you, rather than respond based upon more static behaviors and practices. Your discomfort won’t hold you back.

The difficulty with understanding the limits of your comfort zone stems from the feelings of defenselessness against perceived dangers you “believe” are present when trying to do something differently. Keegan and Lahey call these beliefs “hidden competing commitments.”[4]

Hidden competing commitments are your internal beliefs and goals that are silently yet powerfully at work behind the scenes motivating your behavior, and sometimes competing with your outward goals to do something differently, even if the change is for the better.

These hidden competing commitments are often in some way connected to your sense of identity, values, belonging, competence, ideals, fears, social status, desires, etc. which makes changing them feel unsafe and something to be feared and avoided.

Keegan and Lashow Lahey offer examples of how hidden competing commitments undermine goals. They provide examples of professionals who have difficulty reaching their goals due their hidden competing commitments by mapping the internal motivation and behaviors associated with the new goal and those that support the Hidden Competing Commitment. Example 1 below shows this map for an individual. Example 2 shows the map for an organizational department.[5]

Example 1: A nurse’s difficulty enforcing clinical rules


1. Improvement goal 2. What I am doing instead of this goal 3. Hidden competing commitment 4. Big Assumption
Consistently enforce clinic rules on prescribing narcotics Not telling physicians about feeling undermined (when they violate clinic rules on prescribing narcotics) Need to avoid the discomfort of criticizing doctors If I criticize the doctors they will get angry, avoid me, criticize me in return, and that will prevent me from enjoying my job


Example 2: An education department’s difficulty holding high expectations for English language learners


1. Collective improvement goal 2. What we are doing instead of this goal 3. Collective hidden competing commitment 4. Collective big assumption
We are committed to accelerating the rate of academic achievement for our English language learners We do not hold high expectations for English language learners We are committed to protecting our students by not being too demanding We assume if we really did push our students they would not succeed; they would be crushed; we would feel terrible for them and personally defeated


As you can see, the fear that fuels the hidden competing commitments may not be valid and the assumptions (like all assumptions) do not necessarily reflect the reality of the situation. But your perceptions can tell you otherwise. For some, this feeling is so powerful that they will ignore their own improvement goals in order to avoid it.

Keegan and Lashow Lahey report that leaders of companies who initially ranked their self-improvement goals as “important’ or “extremely important” (a rating of 4 or 5 on a 5 point scale of importance) were so alarmed to learn that accomplishing their goal depended upon altering their self-protective commitment that they immediately reassessed the importance of their goal. That is, a goal that was at the top of these leaders’ priority lists suddenly was no longer as critical!

What this all means is that potentially standing in your way of your success are your own justifications for why you should NOT do anything differently.

It’s up to you which of your goals and commitments will determine your behavior.

  1. Know how to successfully go beyond your comfort zones.

Like a muscle that becomes more flexible and strong with use, your ability to traverse your comfort zones when necessary can be developed with practice. You may struggle through it at first as you learn what the experience feels like, and you will feel “sore” along the way. But it gets easier the more you do it, and the results are well worth it! But you must take your first steps:

a. Know the stumbling blocks:

  • Your ego. A concern about losing a perceived status or importance is one of the largest barriers to seeing anything in a different way.
  • Being in love with your competing commitments. The belief that your opinions are best and “right” can inhibit you from opening to alternative ways of seeing things.
  • Absolute statements. Rarely are circumstances clearly black or white. Explore beyond your “shoulds” “and “nevers” as they are usually harbingers of comfort zone boundaries.
  • Your discomfort with the discomfort. The process will require humility and a capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty and perhaps insecurity. You must be willing to take-on this extra effort in your daily life.
  • Not struggling through it long enough. Only when alternatives paths of behavior and action begin to replace your hidden competing commitments have you successfully expanded beyond a comfort zone. And only when you habitually approach matters from the initial perspective of inquiry about what’s needed to be successful – rather than from the habits and practices of your comfort zone – will you have acquired the tools for longevity of success. This is the practice of G.I. Joe and other successful leaders. This is the New Gordian Leadership Perspective.

Like with anything new, the experience will be unfamiliar and therefore threatening, but you must stick with the process to achieve results.

b. Know how to get beyond the stumbling block to reach your goal:

  • Pay close attention to your inner narrative. Learn to listen to what your inner voice is telling you at all times, especially when you become uncomfortable. Like an onion, begin to peel back the layers of your inner narrative to know what thoughts and feeling really motivate your behavior. Your inner voice constantly narrates your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and motives inside your heads. Start by just becoming aware of it, hearing it. Then begin to explore your true reasoning behind it.
  • Become curious about your external world. Ask others for input, thoughts and suggestions before enacting your habitual responses. Learn from others where you can grow.
  • Use professional support. If you have an aversion to coaches, consultants and therapists, add that to your list of issues to get beyond as they are in the best position to help bring self-awareness to individuals and organizations.

The goal of these three tasks is for you to learn the process of knowing yourself and living and operating from a position of self-awareness.

Knowing one’s self is the starting point for lasting success. One has to know what’s going on as the first and most significant step to taking effective action and achieving anything. Awareness, specifically self-awareness is a Leader’s most important asset. It empowers a Leader to perform at maximum effectiveness and enables longevity of high performance. Look to lasting success of G.I. Joe, Jack Welch, and Jeff Bezos for proof.


[1] G.I. Joe’s appeal to children made it an American icon among toys. The development of G.I. Joe led to the coining of the term “action figure.” Since its introduction in 1964, the action figure was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and the GI Joe has been made into multiple animated series, comic books, video games, an abundance of merchandise, and continues as blockbuster movies to this day. In modern depictions “G.I. Joe” is the code name for a highly trained special mission force that defend human freedom against a terrorist organization determined to rule the world. “G.I.” is a generic term for U.S. soldiers.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Six_Sigma_companies

[3] Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement. A cornerstone of the Six Sigma doctrine is a clear commitment to making decisions on the basis of verifiable data and statistical methods, rather than assumptions and guesswork; an increased emphasis on strong and passionate management leadership and support, and: a clear focus on achieving measurable and quantifiable financial returns from any Six Sigma project.

Six Sigma was introduced by engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola in 1986. Jack Welch made it central to his business strategy at General Electric in 1995. The term Six Sigma originated from terminology associated with statistical modeling of manufacturing processes. The maturity of a process can be described by a sigma rating indicating the percentage of defect-free products/results it creates. A six sigma process is one in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are statistically expected to be free of defects (3.4 defective features per million opportunities). Motorola set a goal of “six sigma” for all of its manufacturing operations, and this goal became a by-word for the management and engineering practices used to achieve it.

[4] Immunity to Change, Robert Keegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Press, Boston Massachusetts, 2009, p. 49

[5] Immunity to Change, Robert Keegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Press, Boston Massachusetts, 2009, p. 90 and p. 107

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