How One Courageous Choice Changed The Course of My Career

“You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.” ~ Brené Brown

I’ve had an amazing life with many wonderful moments. I’ve also experienced challenging Transitions, moments when I had to face the fact that a phase of my life was ending.

One of those Transitions came in the late 1980s when the business that I’d been building for years with a close-knit team was no longer viable. What had been working , no longer worked. An era was ending.

Ready or not, I was now in Transition. William Bridges, the author of The Way of Transition, says there are three phases: Endings, The Neutral Zone, Beginnings.

The Neutral Zone was the most challenging for me. It was difficult living in limbo between a known past and an unknown future. I felt like I was locked in a car stuck in neutral. No matter how hard I tried, I could not engage the gears. I could not move forward.

The best advice I’ve ever heard about how to break free from the Neutral Zone came from Steve Jobs:

“Have the COURAGE to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

Listen to The Whispers

Late one night I was explaining my predicament to my older and wiser mentor. “I’m trying as hard as I can to figure out what to do, but I’m stuck. I’m worried about my future. I’m losing faith.” 

After a pregnant pause, she leaned over and spoke softly in my ear. “The solution is simple, Leland.”

“Stop the noise for a while and listen to the whispers. If you don’t, you will miss many important messages.”

I took her advice. By relaxing physically and mentally, I stopped the noise in my mind. I learned to cultivate calm and listen for the whispers. It took a while but finally I heard one message very clearly: “Do something totally new. Do something bigger and better than you’ve ever done before.”

Unfortunately, that was all I got ─ a message with three key words: “New, Bigger, Better.” It certainly lacked the specificity I was hoping for. It did, however, cause me to focus my thinking on a key question: What would be totally new for me?

I pondered that question for several weeks with no results. Then, another whisper,  one word: LEADERSHIP. That was broad, but it was enough for me to shift my mind out of neutral and engage my creative gears. 

I moved into learning mode. I read some great leadership books, like On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, and The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership by Sally Helgesen. I subscribed to respected periodicals, like the Harvard Business Review. I attended conferences that focused on leadership.

At my first conference, there were compelling presentations and drill-down workshops on a wide range of topics. Hearing diverse perspectives about leadership from some of the smartest people in the field really fired my neurons, but it also left me feeling overwhelmed.

Absorbing so much knowledge in one dose had a definite downside — once my cognitive capacity was surpassed, the additional knowledge was just noise. 

After the conference, I reflected on what happened. Was the problem merely too much knowledge in one dose? Maybe that was a part of it, but I sensed there was something else the way I was “downloading” the knowledge. Everything was flowing into one big file folder in my mind in no particular order. It was a mess. 

After doing some research, I concluded that the real problem was between my ears. I had no mental model, no master cognitive framework to help me organize, prioritize, and apply the knowledge I was downloading. This core concept ultimately affected everything that followed.

Something Bigger and Better

By learning relentlessly about leadership, I was following through on the first part of what my heart and intuition had whispered to me: “Do something totally new.” But I had not yet addressed the second part of the message: “Do something bigger and better than you’ve ever done before.” I wondered what that could be.

There were several possibilities and they all aligned around the theme of leadership and the critical importance of mental models. 

To put what happened next into context, let’s time travel back to 1989. It was the beginning of an era of unprecedented change unleashed by the end of the cold war. The world had become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before. What did this mean for leaders?

 I remembered feeling overwhelmed by too much knowledge during my first leadership conferenceI suspected that leaders might be having a similar problem dealing with the avalanche of new knowledge about how to manage change. That insight triggered the choice that changed the course of my life.

I would design and deliver an innovative leadership forum. It would provide leaders with a mental model for responding to the global change forces unleashed by the end of the cold war.

Looking back, it’s clear that it was a courageous choice because I was a novice in the field of leadership. I had no scholarly credentials or personal contacts who could give me advice. I was on my own sailing into the unknown. 

In short, I had no idea HOW I would design and deliver an innovative leadership forum. I did, however, have self-confidence and I believed what W.H. Murray, the Scottish mountaineer, had said:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. 

Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

The bold idea was to create a macro mental model for responding to global change. I soon came up with one — The GEO Paradigm™. 

  • “GEO” was an acronym for the three global change forces reshaping the world: Globalization, Empowerment, and Orchestration of Technology.
  • “Paradigm” is a way of perceiving the world. It frames the boundaries of your attention and defines the rules for success within the boundaries.

After that, just as W.H. Murray predicted, magical things began to happen.

My friend, William Shatner, agree to support the idea financially and be the spokesman. His involvement led to major organizations — Motorola, General Electric, Northern Telecom, and several others — becoming sponsors. Then, Fortune magazine agreed to promote it.

With that extraordinary support in place, thought leaders from a variety of fields agreed to contribute their insights. I spent several months conducting video interviews with over 80 of them — CEOs, prominent authors, top executive educators, and even a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton.

The format for the forum was, as intended, truly innovative. A multidisciplinary creative team helped me actualize the vision of a one-day “Knowledge Concert”. The key GEO learning points were illuminated with panoramic multimedia sequences, thought leader insights on video, music-image videos, and stage scenes with live actors. All of this was grounded by short, single point presentations, small group dialogues, and an elaborate 100-page “Handbook for the Future” with application knowledge organized under three tabs — The Future Now, Blueprints for Success, Resources for Action. 

When we delivered the GEO Paradigm™ Knowledge Concert to over 600 senior leaders, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Click here to see a 2-minute video overview of the Knowledge Concert.

When we asked participants what most appealed to them about the GEO Paradigm™ Knowledge Concert, the responses fell into three categories:

  • The ‘stickiness’ of the G-E-O acronym. It accomplished exactly what I had intended — it embedded a macro mental model that helped leaders make sense of the world that was then unfolding.
  • Actionable Knowledge for Mastering Change. Fortune magazine described the forum as an “advanced corporate education program to prepare senior management for the challenges of change.” 
  • A Synthesis of Emerging Leadership Practices. One of the attendees summed it up this way: “They’ve have taken years of experience, results, and good concepts, and put all into a one-day presentation. It’s an amazing event.”
What A Difference A Day Makes

The ‘word of mouth’ about the one-day forum triggered ripple effects that continued for several years. Here are a few examples:

  • Over 1000 organizations around the world licensed the leadership development video —Tearing Down the Walls: The GEO Change Forces — that was created from the Knowledge Concert™ content. 
  • General Motors licensed the GEO Change Forces video as the centerpiece of a series of change management workshops that ultimately reached 57,000 GM managers. 
  • AT&T invited me to deliver a keynote address for a national leadership meeting on managing change. They also licensed the GEO Change Forces video to use in a series of large-scale events that the CEO held across the country to ‘rally the troops’ to deal with the challenge of change.
  • National associations in a variety of fields engaged me to customize GEO Paradigm™ Knowledge Concerts for their annual conferences and produce follow-up video learning packages for their members.

Last, but certainly not least, was the founding of GEO Group Strategic Services. Its initial mission was to help leaders meet change-related challenges and opportunities.

The firm has been the most enduring ripple effect. GEO Group Strategic Services is now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

There are three leadership lessons in this Knowledge Byte:

  • EXPECT TRANSITIONS – At points in your life, you will experience the challenge of Transition, moments when an era of your life is ending. A Transition has three phases: Endings, The Neutral Zone, Beginnings. The Neutral Zone is the most challenging because for a time you will be living in limbo between a known past and an unknown future. 
  • CHOOSE COURAGEOUSLY – When you are in Transition, you must decide where to go next. Steve Job’s advice is to “have the COURAGE to follow your heart and intuition.” Brené Brown points out that “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.”
  • CHOICES HAVE RIPPLE EFFECTS – A choice you make during a Transition can have ripple effects that go far beyond what you might imagine. In my story, one courageous choice changed the course of my life. But every choice, even small ones, also have ripple effects.