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“A leopard can’t change his spots” is a saying that is meant to say that people don’t change.  But of course, people can change (perhaps stubbornly) but why?  And when?   

Before we begin to unpack these impetuses for change, we have to understand what role our self-created narratives play in the way we see the world. We often think of our brains like a database: it collects and uses facts to determine how we operate in the world.  However, our brains are actually a lot less accurate than we may think them to be.  The brain is a narrative-generating machine. We gather data and as soon as we can, we create a “story” that explains the data.  These “stories” are so powerful that they shape our perception of the world and of ourselves. When we receive data that does not fit the narrative (story), we simply reject the data in favour of the “truth” we have created for ourselves. This is why change is so hard – you really have to understand the unique narratives that individuals hold. 

Getting an organization to change is difficult.  A common change tactic is to use training programs as a way to stimulate group change but often these programs fail at the collective level.  Individual leaders might change but collectively there is an immunity to change. 

Change can occur even with false narratives in place, so the question is: “What causes change?”  If we want to change the world, we have to change our social structures (for example our organizations) and if we want to change our social structures, we have to change ourselves.  So, why and how do people change?
In the world of transformation there are three major impetuses for dramatic, positive change:  
1. An AHA! moment
2. Self-reflection and,
3. Crises (click here to read last month’s blog post)


Why People Change #1 – A moment of personal insight stemming from training or a coaching dialogue 

The narratives that we hold are very much related to something called mindsets.  A mindset is a set of beliefs that shape the way you look at the world and is an integral part of our narratives.  If, for example I come from a mindset of privilege I could see the world as a place that rewards hard work and loyalty with promotions up the corporate ladder.  My narrative might be that the only reason a colleague is not at the same level as me is that they haven’t worked hard enough. We know this is a false narrative because a multitude of complex factors could influence how fast a person moves up in a company. For example, systematic racism and unconscious bias works against people of colour to keep them in a lower position, even if they are working just as hard as anyone else. 

There may be ample evidence that people have demonstrated competence and have put in more than sufficient hours to earn more responsibility, but this data will be rejected in favour of the strongly held narrative. When exit interviews reveal complaints about lack of upward mobility, we simply say that the complainers didn’t work hard enough. 

The only way the narrative changes is if we have an AHA! moment (what I like to call a realization moment) and one of the sources of AHA! moments are training or personal coaching.  When we are involved in a training session, assumptions can get surfaced that cause conflict or at least discomfort.   


I remember a senior executive who was in a training session about delegation and the importance of empowerment saying, “If I delegate these decisions to my people what will I do with my time?”  AHA!  The narrative he had was that the role of manager is to make decisions and that people down the org chart can’t be trusted to make important decisions.  Delegating involves asking others to make decisions and that was totally at odds with his narrative.  The subtle mindset shift for this leader was realizing that it was his role to decide who was going to make the decisions, not to make all of the calls himself. With the insight he gained from this training session, his whole approach to leadership changed.  He decided that he had to work harder at developing his people and delegation was the most important tool he had to do that. 

Why People Change #2 – A moment of personal insight stemming from personal reflection 

One of the hardest things to do in life is to see ourselves accurately.  The role of the Ego (aka the persona, or the personality and yes, we all have one!) is to create the image that we present to the world. The image it creates for us is meant to keep us safe.  The persona that we create is like a mask, and it is crafted by the Ego so that the people around us like us, love us, admire us, respect us, etc. and we do this by telling ourselves stories (narratives) about who we are in the world.  Over time and through experience the Ego refines the mask so that all the holes or rough spots are puttied and painted and the story gets stronger.  Part of a successful life is to build a developed personality and since we craft our persona from within it is very hard to see how others see us. 

The funny thing about the masks we create – the personas we present to the world – is that we are surprised when people don’t really “get me”. 


But how can they?  The me that we are talking about is the real me – the person behind the mask.  But how does anyone ever see the real me if I only ever go out wearing my mask? 

Have you ever had the experience of walking past a mirror and for an instant not recognizing yourself and wondering “who” was staring back and maybe even not liking what you saw?  The phrase, “you have to look yourself in the mirror” is about seeing the mask you wear from the perspective of your most real, authentic, deep inner self. 

The practice of self-reflection is like walking past that mirror on purpose.  When we quiet the mind through practices like Mindfulness, we quiet the busy mind and all of the story-telling that goes along with it.  In fact, one of the most beneficial outcomes of mindfulness training is that we are able to see ourselves more clearly without judgement.  We learn to recognize what our mask looks like and when we use it, and we tune into the voice of our inner self – the wisest part of ourselves.  

They say the greatest liars first start by lying to themselves.


When we meditate, the inner wisdom comes forward and calls out the lies. One of the lies I told myself for the longest time was that I wasn’t good enough.  Ego doesn’t just pump us up – sometimes it works to keep us small – because that is how it creates the conditions of safety.  I remember the moment when I realized that I was a person worthy of trust.  And, my experience in so many situations was of value to others.  I realized that often I knew as much or more than other people so what was stopping me from offering that in service?  This isn’t about developing a bigger ego.  It is about seeing the self accurately.  When we do, life changes. 

Developing the capacity for self-reflection is a pathway to change.  It takes time to develop this capability, but it enables transformation from within. 

Why People Change #3 – A crisis that challenges existing narratives 

Organizations change when the people in those organizations change – especially the leaders.  The greatest opportunity for quantum shifts for individuals and with groups is in a crisis – read last month’s blog post entitled The Pandemic – A Crisis that We Shouldn’t Waste. 

You can’t make a Leopard change its spots.  You cannot force a person to change. But you can invite them into dialogue where the possibility for growth exists.  Asking great questions in a safe space will elevate awareness and create the conditions for positive and sustainable change.

At the end of the day, a person has to be ready to give up the old, worn out narratives or “spots.” That’s when the old spots start to fade and new spots begin to emerge. 


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Nick Foster, on behalf of the 1-DEGREE/Shift team, May 31st, 2021