Leaders live by Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. ~Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
I’m certainly not a science buff and in fact it was my least favorite subject while in school. However, Newton’s law is one of the scientific nuggets that may have stuck in nearly everyone’s mind. I’ve been thinking about Newton’s law a lot this past week. One of the advantages (or maybe it’s a consequence) of consulting for 16 years and having worked with well over 100 organizations and more than a thousand individuals, is that I’ve seen scenarios repeated and have observed some patterns.
One of the patterns I’ve seen is that when things aren’t going well (either for an individual or an organization) we sometimes start to believe, and act, as if these “things” are being done to us and we have no control over them. We can only react to what’s coming at us.
Here are a couple of examples. A leader in an organization complains that no one seems to respect her. Her perception of the situation is focused solely on the reaction of her subordinates, which she believes is not respectful. She views the situation as something that’s being done to her. She clearly hasn’t applied Newton’s Law to the situation. She hasn’t considered that maybe her subordinates are actually reacting to her behavior, and therefore, are not appearing to be respectful.
I’ve seen a similar scenario when an organization or a department head can’t seem to stay on budget. They respond with a litany of rationalizations that are beyond their control. It’s the economy, everyone is losing money, someone else is responsible, etc. It’s as if they aren’t actually making financial decisions (which they are); and therefore, believe they have no control over the outcome. Again, they believe it’s all happening to them. In reality, each and every financial decision they make will have a “reaction.”
Brendon Burchard, in his book, The Charge, says “Most of the events and experiences that happen to you in life are often random, unexpected, and coincidental; they just happen and are outside of your anticipation. Our response—the meaning you give to these occurrences—is 100 percent within your control.”
So what would it look like if we wanted to give different meaning to these occurrences? I believe we would start asking questions. Here are a few possibilities.
1. How is my action or behavior contributing to the negative outcome?
2. What is the reaction (or outcome) I’d like to see?
3. What action (or behavior) do I need to exhibit in order to get that reaction (or outcome)?
4. What’s keeping me from exhibiting that action or behavior?
5. Do I want the outcome bad enough to change my own behavior?
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Am I happy with the reactions that are coming at me? If not, am I willing to change my actions? It sounds obvious, in writing it may even sound simple, but somehow in real life it’s something leaders struggle with and even battle against nearly every day. As leaders, are we willing to lead by Newton’s third law?