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Want Leadership Mastery? Control Your Unconscious Mind — Here's How to Do So The unconscious mind is where real, lasting change occurs.

By Karen Brown Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • Effective leadership development involves using neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to address unconscious behavioral patterns.
  • Rather than relying on superficial coaching methods, NLP creates a lasting change in leaders and their organizations.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

All of us, including the most gifted entrepreneur, have blind spots — unconscious thoughts, feelings and assumptions that drive ineffective habits and unproductive behavior patterns. Blind spots affect our personal and professional lives, and in the business world, they hold leaders back from mastery, hindering their ability to help teams perform at their highest levels, elevate results and drive their organization forward.

Unaware of the unconscious root of the problem, leaders can become stuck. This awareness often surfaces too late due to poor team performance, ineffective communication and substandard company performance. When leaders recognize the unconscious behavioral patterns early and bring them to the surface – moving them from the unconscious to the conscious level – these patterns can be examined and changed.

Related: Why Leaders Need to Stop Using These Phrases if They Want to Communicate With Their Team

The road often taken: A superficial approach

Executive coaching can be very effective in helping business leaders and entrepreneurs dissolve their blind spots. However, traditional coaching often fails to focus on the unconscious, where the roots of behavioral patterns live. The results are typically limited and temporary because these methods work only at the surface level and never reveal the true source of ineffective or uninspired performance.

Think of it as the tip of an iceberg peeking out of the ocean: the only issues showing up and being addressed are the ones above the surface, when an entirely unconscious level of issues lurks below. Over the long term, leaders remain stuck because they have not changed how they think and act on a deeper level.

Common methods usually involve complex assessment systems that graph problematic behaviors and results. This may be useful for analyzing the details of job skills compared to performance, but the effects of leadership development are often superficial.

Coaches who use these methods typically ask, "What's the problem?" and "What are your options?" then interject their own solutions, limiting results to the coach's knowledge and experience. This well-meaning advice is based on subjective judgments and does not tap into objective, deeper levels for the answers that can move leaders forward on a profound level.

Related: I've Coached Many Successful Entrepreneurs — Here are 7 Lessons I've Learned Along the Way

Diving beneath the surface for lasting change

Lasting leadership development happens by tapping into the unconscious level – that place just beneath the surface where the real barriers to elevated performance exist. This is where the brain's neurological sequencing, which is based on core beliefs and previous experiences, lives. The scientific principles of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) are highly effective at identifying and changing ineffective behavioral patterns and enhancing the patterns in the unconscious mind that underpin elevated performance. This approach leverages five steps to get below the surface and ensure deep, lasting change:

  1. Identify the situation, goals and objectives.
  2. Use neurolinguistic programming to unravel problematic behavioral patterns.
  3. Establish development plans, metrics and target goal dates for individual leaders.
  4. Pinpoint patterns, root cause, impact and resolution options with opened neural pathways.
  5. Evaluate and measure accomplishments and determine the next level.

Starting with a completely open mind is vital to a leadership coach's ability to uncover the past or present experiences that have created the neural pathways that created a leader's beliefs and resulting actions.

By listening closely and utilizing principles of neurolinguistic programming, an expert coach can pinpoint behavioral patterns and their origins by examining the leader's words. Language typically comes straight from our unconscious and, therefore, is a window into deeper thought patterns.

For instance, phrases such as "am not," "can't, "unable to," and "must not" reveal an assumption of the impossibility of a desire or goal. NLP-trained coaches listen deeply, not only to the words used but the tone, pace, energy level, and smoothness of speech, as well as the use of fillers, such as "like" and "ya know," to uncover the experiences that lead to negative neural pathways and the resulting behavioral patterns.

Typical questions that an expert behavioral and NLP coach might ask include:

  • What is the root of the issue?
  • What is really stopping you?
  • If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What is the thing we are not discussing that we should be (reveals a blind spot)?

Related: NLP: What It Is and How Female Entrepreneurs Can Use It to Erase Self-Doubt and Other Obstacles

At a deeper level, by observing how leaders conduct or participate in meetings, coaches are able to observe them in their "natural habitat," which reveals behavior patterns the client may not report because they are simply unaware of them. Observation is conducted virtually, making it easier and faster for the coach to melt into the background. The coach reads sensory acuity and words, noting leadership approach and style as well as the team's non-verbal reactions.

Neuroscience techniques are applied to change the leader's thought patterns and the resulting behavior. The tangible results come to light once they are aware of their own unique, limiting thoughts and behaviors and learn how to implement them with this three-step technique:

  1. Identify the thought/behavior pattern in the moment.
  2. Interrupt it every time it repeats.
  3. Run a new, enhanced pattern.

Lasting leadership development elevates the entire organization

The blind spots that hold leaders back, personally and professionally, repeat themselves until unconscious patterns surface at the conscious level, where blind spots can be transformed.

When leaders have the opportunity to consciously work with their submerged, unconscious behaviors in this way, they can unleash their full potential and make a powerful impact on their organizations. The best part is that using the NLP approach to coaching, the results are fast-tracked, with leaders typically achieving their first round of objectives within five weeks.

There's a lot going on in our unconscious and subconscious minds. Some of it is very positive, while some is holding us back in terms of reaching our ultimate leadership potential. A good leadership coach is one who is not afraid to get out their figurative shovel and dig deep into those areas, uncovering the negative patterns and thoughts that act as speed bumps to our advancement.

It's not just a good way to effect real change. It's the only way.

Karen Brown

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Exponential Results

Karen Brown has over 20,000 hours of senior executive coaching experience. She has a B.S. in Applied Management from National American University, ICF Executive Leadership Coaching Certification, Master Practitioner of NLP and Behavioral Patterns from the Association for Integrative Psychology.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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