As kids… much to our parent’s dismay… we regularly thought “out of the box”. But now, as adults, it’s hard for us. Why? To answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time.

When we were beginning to learn what to do and how to do it, we needed “a protective box”… a parent or teacher beside us to keep us on course; someone to program basic rules and limits in our minds and bodies so we would be safe as we tried and failed, tried again and succeeded.

Always look both ways before crossing the street. Always know how before you start. Always obey the rules. Our leaders repeated our startup programs over and over, rewarded us when we used them and punished us when we didn’t.

Cows in “Electrified” Pastures

Like cows that grow up in “electrified fences,” we soon figured out how to avoid constantly getting zapped. We learned to live comfortably in our confined area… by limiting what we imagined, what we tried and what we wanted. We moved “their limits” from outside to inside.

As we continued growing, our parents and teachers began updating outgrown programs. “Never speak to strangers” became “sometimes you need to”. “Never say bad things about anyone” evolved to “you need to speak out” when someone does something wrong.

Here’s the problem. By attaching the limiting words, always and never, our caretakers inadvertently locked some of our programs, and didn’t make time to unlock them. (Or didn’t know they needed to because their parents never unlocked those always/never programs for them.) Some of these locked startup programs still control our thoughts and emotions. Some of “their protective fences” are highly charged, not in outer reality but, in our own bodies and minds… unconscious structures that give us the chills, turn our stomachs, or make us run and hide when we think about doing things we need to do now.

Today We Live in Even More Powerful Fences

As adults, we are barricaded in by a series of even more highly charged boxes. This time, instead of the rewards our parents gave to get us to taste spinach, ride a bike or get good grades… our employers are offering financial incentives to do what they want us to do, the way they want us to do it. And to do it more-better-faster-cheaper. Instead of parental restrictions, these are adult risks we urgently want to avoid… ones we’ve heard whispered about in the hallways of our company… when Joan spoke out about a manager. And Jim refused to miss the birth of his child.

Not surprisingly, we prefer to go along “cow-like” rather than run the risk of not being able to pay our mortgages and credit cards. Or getting passed over for promotion or losing our job and having to explain that financial setback to an upset spouse or disappointed child. Or a threatening banker.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on…

Success Has Gears

As we drive, we use gears to move us ahead, slowly at first, then more rapidly and easily. As we succeed in life, we use gears too. No gear is better than any other. All are essential—each has its own timing and use. Like skilled drivers, we must shift up and down as circumstances require.

First Gear is for starting and restarting, for becoming effective at anything new. It’s accompanied by a long list of familiar limiting keywords … always/never, can/can’t, safe/dangerous, possible/impossible, right/wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn’t, have to and must. (Keep in mind, the word familiar comes from the word family.)
Second Gear is for accelerating our productivity and honing our competitive edge, for deleting unneeded First Gear rules and developing short cuts. Keywords include… more-better-faster-cheaper, quantity/quality, win/lose, produce/compete, longer hours/higher stress, injury and even death.

Third Gear is for moving beyond the familiar and the previously productive into creativity and innovation. For imagining and intuiting, trusting hunches and embracing chance events so we can make breakthroughs and discoveries, invent new products, services and approaches.

Leadership has gears too
Each Success Gear has a corresponding Leadership Gear designed to meet the needs of individuals and teams operating in that gear.

First Gear Leaders provide startup rules and limits plus frequent praise and acknowledgment to build our self-confidence and enthusiasm. They closely supervise our progress and quickly turn around mistakes and setbacks.

Second Gear Leaders describe what they want and manage from more distance… providing regular feedback and appraisals. Even though they’re not beside us all the time, they are still in charge, managing by numbers, charts and graphs.

Third Gear Leaders are different! They are no longer in charge of us. Their job is to support our creative ideas, to help us find experts and build a powerful team, to hold our dreams with us, and even for us, when unexpected obstacles and setbacks seem to wipe them from our mind.

Who is responsible for shifting our gears?

First Gear Leaders are responsible for determining when we’re ready to shift into Second. They supervise, test, graduate, certify and license us. We learn early on to wait for their permission to gear up.

Unlike the shift from First to Second, the shift to Third Gear is one we must make ourselves… in our own timing. No one can do it for us or tell us when to do it. We have to update enough old limits and build enough experience and self-confidence to trust in our creative ideas and our ability to explore brand-new territory and lead others there with us.

Today we spend most of our time accelerating in 2nd Gear and most of our leaders are accelerating in 2nd along with us, squeezing out time we need to gear up to develop new ideas and approaches (Third), and gear down to learn and relearn (First). The shift to Third Gear is one most people rarely make, and most of our leaders fail to make either.

At home and at work, we unconsciously limit ourselves to the gears in our boxes… our parents’ boxes, our teachers’ boxes, our bosses’ boxes. We all love the familiar… familiar foods, familiar places, familiar routines. We’re creatures of habit and it takes extra time and energy to think newly and do differently. Like us, our leaders are more familiar with following and competing than cocreating and supporting.

Instead of leading individuals and teams “out of the box”, we subtly… and not so subtly… incent them to stay inside. We over-reward and disproportionately bonus more-better-faster-cheaper 2nd gear behaviors. And under-reward the 1st gear learning and relearning we need to keep up. Are your company’s suggestion boxes full to overflowing but rarely implemented? What incentives are in place for 3rd Gear? What support system does your company have in place for new ideas and approaches? For the ones we will all need in the future?

Where is your box?

Throughout our lives, we expand and contract our boxes. The key question now is… where are your dreams? Are they inside your box or outside… in “someday I’ll”, I don’t know enough, I don’t have enough money or time or…? Are your dreams in your control, or others’ control?

It’s time to decide… Is your box BIG ENOUGH? And are your leaders’ boxes BIG ENOUGH? Do they have room for all three gears? SVBS

Susan Ford Collins Headshot PhotoSusan Ford Collins is a sought-after speaker, trainer, and the founder of The Technology of Success. The Technology of Success book series includes: The Joy of Success: 10 Essential Skills for Getting the Success You Want,

[New edition, Greenleaf Book Group Press, October 20, 2015] Success Has Gears: Using the Right Gear at the Right Time in Business & Life, [2014],Our Children Are Watching: 10 Skills for Leading the Next Generation to Success, [2014],Find Susan on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter,