By Erik Van Alstine on September 1 2017

(Excerpt from Erik Van Alstine’s Automatic Influence Online Video Course)

I like to picture change as a river, with us in canoes. If we’re not paddling, we’re drifting. There’s no status quo on this river, no staying in place. We can’t be passive. We must be aggressive.

  • Competition increases as more players get into our industry.
    Business models evolve, making the models that worked in the last decade completely obsolete in the next (think Blockbuster here).
    Thanks to the internet, consumers have more ability to explore competitive options than ever before.
    Globalization and technology are increasing the rate of change and the breadth of business opportunity.

Working with business leaders I find the river metaphor helpful. Leaders are inspired by it. They use it to talk about change with fellow workers, who get inspired too.

That’s because there’s something inside us that loves tackling a challenge. We love to improve. Paddling the river triggers a deep sense of happiness. Whenever life hands us a challenge we feel we can tackle, we come alive. It’s the reason we challenge ourselves in sports and hobbies and video games. We love to drive forward, develop our skills, and win in life.

Working with business leaders I find the river metaphor helpful. Leaders get inspired by it. They use it to talk about change with fellow workers, who get inspired too.

At the same time, it’s easy to get caught resting in success. We imagine we can keep doing the same things year after year and get the same results. We forget we’re doing business in a dynamic ecosystem, where competitors are innovating and client expectations are evolving. What was exceeding expectations last year is only meeting expectations this year, so if we’re going to thrive in the river of business, we’ve got to recognize the river and get paddling.

So, here’s the big question: Will you rise to the challenge of change? Will you and your workers learn to love paddling the river?

Erik Van Alstine is a northwest-based leadership strategist and author of Automatic Influence: New Power for Change in Work and Life (New York: Stone Lounge Press, 2016). His 12-lesson online leadership course released in September 2017.

Here’s a link to a recent podcast I did for Srini Rao’s podcast, The Unmistakable Creative. Enjoy!

The Power of Perceptual Intelligence with Erik Van Alstine

This week I joined a small group of leaders for a two-day stay on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the Navy’s ten nuclear-powered supercarriers known as “The Big Stick,” as its team of 5,000 workers conducted training exercises 150 miles off the Pacific Coast near San Diego.

Here’s a picture of the phenomenal people in my group that I now consider close friends.

It’s an understatement to say it was a trip of a lifetime. Words can’t do justice to the scale and power of this ship and the commitment of the team that makes it all work. In later posts I can describe the gut-kicking 1.6g hook landing and catapult takeoff that started and ended our visit. Or what it’s like to stand a few yards from thundering F-18 jets in full-throttle the moment before catapult. Or what it’s like to watch a surface-to-air missile fire from the deck and strike a drone missile. Or the honor of a breakfast briefing with the carrier’s commanding officer Craig Clapperton and a lunch briefing with rear admiral James Bynum, the leader of the entire Carrier Strike Group.

But today’s focus is on execution. Getting things done right. It’s about what it takes for teams like these to operate with excellence in an environment where doing things right is a matter of life and death.

At the end of the trip, as our group was planning to board the plane and leave the carrier, I noticed a poster on the wall of the flight deck with these seven principles. In the world of supercarrier operations, these are the seven principles of excellence:

Principles of Operational Excellence

  • Integrity. Adhere to the highest standards at all times.
  • Level of Knowledge. Know your job and procedures. Never stop learning.
  • Procedural Compliance. By the book procedures. No short cuts. Fight complacency.
  • Formal Communications. Use clearly stated and standardized language that minimizes misunderstanding.
  • Questioning Attitude. Speak up, ask, investigate when you sense or know something is not right.
  • Forceful Backup. Speak up, ask and act when you know something is wrong.
  • Risk Management. Identify, understand and mitigate risks.

The poster finishes with these words: “These seven principles apply to every activity at all times. Following and adhering to these principles will ensure safe mission or activity execution no matter your role or experience. Virtually every mishap, close call or operational failure, both on and off duty can be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles.”

It’s not every day that we get a look at the operational principles in an organization that’s been getting things done for 241 years. It makes me think we should take these ideas to heart.

Feeling bitter? Frustrated? Depressed? Like there’s nothing you can do about so many of the situations of life? Most of us who feel that way can find instant relief by realizing,

the biggest problem is between our ears.

Most of our frustration is a result of our focus. Which means we can switch our focus and pull the plug on bitterness and frustration.

The Freedom Killer and the Power Builder

There’s nothing that kills our sense of freedom and power more than complaining about and dwelling on unchangeable realities.

  • You work for the owner’s son, and he’s not a good leader. But he’s the heir apparent in the company, and he’s not going away anytime soon. There’s nothing you can say or do that will get him replaced. Complaining about him, and dwelling on it, will only make you more miserable and eventually get you fired.
  • You’re an American who didn’t vote for Trump and you detest everything he stands for politically. But there’s nothing you can do to change the fact that you’ll be hearing about him for at least the next four years. Complaining about it, and thinking about it, will only make you feel more powerless and will get your focus off more productive areas of life.
  • You’d like to live in sunny San Diego, but your four siblings and your parents live in the bitter cold of Minnesota and they like it there. You’d prefer to be close to family than have better weather, and you can’t get all of them to change their minds and move South together. Complaining about Minnesota weather, and thinking about how miserable it is, only makes you feel more miserable and powerless.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more empowering and liberating than working on changeable realities. We’re most alive when leading positive change, taking opportunities to make a difference, even in difficult situations.

  • You work for the owner’s son, and he’s the heir apparent, so you support and advise and encourage him so he can become a better leader. You tell him you believe in what he can become over time. You overlook the irritating and unchangeable realities to find opportunities for change. You’re patient and optimistic, because you look for every sliver of good in your work situation. In the meantime, you’re getting more education and planning for a move to a similar company with better leadership and more opportunity for advancement.
  • You didn’t vote for Trump. But you don’t focus on that, and instead, find some local political opportunity to invest in. You’re part of some campaign for improving the city that gives you a sense of purpose and power.
  • You live in Minnesota and switch your focus from the few bad months of weather to the many opportunities to enjoy family time. You’ve actually begun to enjoy ice fishing with your siblings, and you maxed out your catch on the last fishing expedition.

Step 1: Separate Changeable and Unchangeable Realities

Whenever we face a problem or a difficult circumstance, we should identify what we can change and what we can’t. Sometimes we confuse the two and try to change unchangeable things (creating destructive frustration), or accept changeable things (creating destructive apathy). But when we identify them accurately, we can feel more power. We can break free from apathy on one hand and frustration on the other.

Step 2: Accept the Unchangeables

Then we accept the unchangeable realities. We refuse to focus on them. We stop complaining about them. “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain,” wrote the United States’ founding father Benjamin Franklin, “and most fools do.” We don’t spend another millisecond focused on things we can’t change, or fretting about problems we’ll never be able to solve.

“When you complain,” writes German author Eckhart Tolle, “you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it. All else is madness.”

Step 3: Change the Changeables

Then we face the changeables with wisdom and courage. Whenever we run into a problem, we ask, “What step can I take toward solving it?” We take that next step. When we take that step, we feel new power flowing into our lives. It builds the willpower to take another step. Then another, and another.

Instead of wasting our energy finding fault, we invest our energy finding remedies. Eventually, this pattern turns us into problem-solving powerhouses who are full of vitality.



We all want to feel free and powerful.

The challenge is, many of us feel coerced by the responsibilities of life. We feel we “have to” go to work and pay our bills. We “have to” be home at a certain time. We “have to” go to the dance recital and the soccer game. Life requires things of us, and therefore, we believe we can’t be free.

Until we get a look at the life of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described and witnessed “the last human freedom” in the death camps. According to Viktor, there’s a sense that we’re always free. Even when our circumstances look the opposite.

Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz

Frankl ran the “suicide pavilion” at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna between 1933 and 1937, then started in private practice. A year later, the Nazis took over Austria, and four years after that, September 25, 1942, they deported Frankl, a Jew, with his wife and his parents, to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Two years later the Nazis moved Viktor and his wife Tilly to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother Elsa and his brother Walter died there in Auschwitz. The Nazis moved Tilly to another camp, where she died as well. Viktor and his sister Stella were the only survivors in his immediate family.

For three years in camps Frankl observed the suffering and death of his family, his friends, his people. He got a front-row look at the depravity, the coercion, the helplessness, the agony. He was forced to march for miles, barefoot, with hardly any clothes in freezing weather. He saw fellow prisoners lose their minds.

The Last Human Freedom

But he saw something else amid the coercion and horror. Here’s how he described it in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”1

We can’t control all the circumstances of life. But we can control the way we respond to the circumstances.

  • We can control the way we think about our circumstances.
  • We can offer comfort to others despite our own suffering and pain.
  • We can find something good and focus on it.
  • We can give to others, even when they don’t give in return.
  • We can forgive offenses and overlook insults.

We have tremendous power within us, even in what seems to be a totally powerless situation. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” Frankl said, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”

When it seems like life is controlling us, we can remember that our response to life is always in our control. Every challenge of life becomes a test of our freedom. There’s a fundamental power in human nature, a power to choose the most constructive response to every situation. Every situation is a test of that power, an opportunity to keep our sense of freedom, no matter what happens.

Will we choose right and pass the test?

1Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1984).

Want a lasting sense of freedom?

The crazy irony is, it requires we rein in our freedom.

For a part of us, at least. Lasting freedom requires we to identify and put a harness on “Night Guy.”

Who is Night Guy? It’s the Guy in the mirror. It’s you. It’s me.

Partly, at least. No one better explains it than Jerry Seinfeld:

Night Guy is the part of us that wants to feel free, and then makes choices that screw things up for the other parts of us, meaning, the parts of us that have to suffer the consequences of our choices.

  • Today Guy leases a car that Tomorrow Guy has to pay for.
  • Fat Guy eats stuff that makes problems for Fit Guy.
  • Rash Guy says something in the heat of the moment that gets all his Guys fired.

Sometimes it’s better to see the self as a collection of selves, as a society of selves living in one person. There’s a large population of “Guys” inside us: Night Guy, Morning Guy, Noon Guy, Lazy Guy, Fitness Guy, Spending Guy, Saving Guy, Work Guy, and so on.

In that society of selves, some selves can run free. Other selves are criminal and need to be locked up.

The freedom-killing reality is that consequences are real, and they always follow choices, and they can create more freedom or less freedom. A choice today can lead to more or less freedom tomorrow.

The problem is, life offers a lot of appealing choices that make sense in the moment but don’t make any sense at down the line. They look like a road to freedom. But they’re a freeway exit to a blind alley with a prison door at the end. We think we’re making choices in the name of freedom, but we’re trading a small sense of freedom now for a larger and longer sense of limitation later on.

Today Guy feels free. But he walks Tomorrow Guy into a prison cell.

  • Modern culture flaunts “sexual freedom.” But they don’t talk much about the long-term imprisoning consequences of that freedom. Most of what passes for sexual liberty today leads to the breakdown of the self and others over time.
  • A teen decides to quit college in the name of “feeling free,” and doesn’t think about the long-term limit it will have on his career choices. He’s just taken an exit ramp off the freeway.
  • There’s a strong cultural pressure to “be yourself” that tempts us to validate and elevate all aspects of self. We can’t reign in Bad Guy when culture tells us that every guy in the society is a Good Guy that deserves free expression.

When we think of ourselves as a collection of selves in time, each experiencing the cumulative effect of the choices of the previous self, we’re on track toward understanding the nature of lasting freedom and ultimately living free.

Freedom is a freeway that often looks like it’s trending away from freedom. It often feels so narrow, so constricting. And along that road are many appealing exit ramps that look so liberating. Everything isn’t what it seems, and that’s the mysterious conspiracy of life.

Canadian singer/artist Leonard Cohen’s captured the mystery and tragedy of this deception in his 1992 song, “Closing Time.”

looks like freedom but it feels like death; it’s something in between, I guess.


Freedom is a tricky topic, and I’ve been wrestling with it for several blog posts now. How do we help people maximize their sense of freedom and power, but still hold them accountable to follow the rules? How can we maximize our own sense of freedom and power, without letting the consequences of our choices sabotage our lives?

When I think about consequences, and how our choices today can create more freedom or less freedom tomorrow, I start wondering about the limits of freedom.

To better understand the limits, let’s see a dictionary definition of our topic:

Freedom: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

Freedom: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.

Given this definition, and all the blog posts, here’s what I feel like I know:

  • We’re incredibly free to make choices. We don’t “have to” do much of anything. We don’t have to show up on time. We don’t have to eat. We don’t even have to breathe. We have more free choices than we think we have.
  • But we do have to accept the consequences of our choices. If we show up late, we’ll lose our jobs. If we don’t eat, we’ll die.
  • This means the choices we make today have an impact on our freedom tomorrow. We’ll either have more options or less options later, depending on the types of choices we make now.

So we’re incredibly free, but consequences create limits.

How the Laws of Nature Limit Freedom

There’s another limiter as well: the laws of nature. The structure of the physical world, and the structure of the mind and body, create constraints and restraints on our desires.

  • We’re not free to go back in time. We’re bound to live in each moment. Even though we want to go back and change things, we can’t. History is what history is.
  • We’re not free to be in two places at the same time. If we want to spend the evening at a dinner party in New York, we can’t spend that same evening at a similar dinner party in Seattle. We can’t get what we want. We have to choose one or the other.
  • We’re not free to land a space ship on the surface of the sun, or burrow to the core of the earth. These things are too hot for us to endure. We might want to visit these places, but we can’t get what we want. There are places we can’t go and things we can’t do.
  • We’re not free to go without sleep. We can want to stay awake, but our body won’t let us. The world record is eleven days straight by Randy Gardner in 1965. Researchers have been able to study participants staying awake eight to ten days, but that’s it. All it takes is one day without sleep to start harming the body.
  • We’re not free to go without water. The record holder there is Andreas Mihavecz, who was accidentally abandoned in a police station basement cell for 18 days without water. By the time officers discovered him, he lost 53 pounds and was near death.

How Social Norms Limit Freedom

Still another limit is social laws and norms. There are things people won’t let us do. The moment we try, they’ll coerce and restrain us.

  • We’re not free to yell “Bomb!” in an airplane, call it a joke, and keep our seat. We want to crack the joke and keep our flight, but stewards and marshalls will usher us off promptly.
  • We’re not free to board that same airplane wearing only a speedo. We may want to wear rubber underwear, but we can’t get what we want. They’ll block entry for that.
  • We’re not free to assault airline workers who block our entry. We may want to, but the second we try, they’ll swarm and hold us down.

So when we talk about freedom, we need to see it as a bounded freedom. There are things we may want but will never be free to have. Within certain boundaries, we are free. Just like a sailboat is free to sail in the sea, but can’t sail into the land, human freedom is bounded.

  • There are structural limits to freedom.
  • There are social limits to freedom.
  • There are consequential limits to freedom.

Living Free by Loving the Limits

The secret to feeling free is accepting these limits. Loving them, even. It does no good to try and defy real boundaries.

The irony is, accepting the limits of freedom is the way to feel most free in life. It keeps our sailboat in the water for more sailing, instead of tempting us to crash the shore.

Are we empowering people? Do the people we lead to feel a sense of freedom? Do they follow us because they “want to” instead of “have to”?

If not, we can change that. We can start toward a culture of empowerment by affirming people’s freedom, then reminding them of the principle-driven consequences of their free choices.

Step 1: Affirm Their Freedom

We can start by telling workers they’re free to choose to come to work or not. They’re free to follow orders or defy them. They’re free to show up on time or be late. We can tell them they don’t “have to” do anything, except that one thing I mentioned in the speech I gave my children years back: suffer or enjoy the consequences of their choices. 

Step 2: Remind Them of Principle-Driven Consequences

Leaders must affirm freedom and consequence. But the vital key here is to prove to followers that the consequences are principle-driven and not capricious. Show how the consequences are a natural by-product of principles of teamwork and achievement, not just consequences we will impose because we want to. Capricious consequences, meaning, sanctions against workers by leaders who don’t show a clear and consistent principle for their rationale, will always always always create a culture of resentment and resistance.

There’s nothing a worker hates more about a leader than this. When a leader imposes consequences that don’t seem fair or don’t make sense, trust is lost, and a need for payback is born. Leaders who do this are like criminals running the streets spraying random bullets. When the bullets run out the bystanders attack back. This type of leader eventually becomes vulnerable and gets taken out by the group.

Leaders must constantly point out the consequences and take care to show that they are principle-centered, not personality centered. When leaders show how certain consequences are a natural byproduct of the situation, and not just a product of the leader’s whims, the leader can impose those consequences and still keep respect and trust.

Empowering the Worker Who Consistently Shows Up Late

Edwina has been showing up late to work. It’s been several times now, and we’re her boss. How do we affirm her freedom and responsibility at the same time?

“Edwina, it’s come to my attention that you’ve shown up late three days in the past two weeks. I’d like to talk about that,” we say.

“Okay,” says Edwina. She’s nervous.

“First of all, you don’t have to be on time,” we say. “You’re free to choose to show up late. You don’t even have to come to work at all. You have the power to choose what you do with your life. We all do.”

Edwina is confused at first. It takes a couple of minutes to clarify what we mean, and the conversation validates her sense of power, freedom, and choice.

Then we get into the consequences. “But while we can make just about any choice we want, we can’t choose to avoid the consequences of our choices,” we say. “Every choice we make carries a consequence with it. That’s just the nature of things. Think about planting a seed. Whatever grows there is a consequence of our choice to plant. If we plant a carrot seed, we’re going to get a carrot. We’re not going to get a tomato.”

Notice how we’re pointing to principles, not just our whims. We didn’t just blurt out, “If you show up late again I’m going to fire you.” While that approach might work in the short-run, it breeds resentment when it is perceived as a capricious consequence instead of a principle-based consequence. When followers believe leaders are just imposing consequences rashly and randomly, trust dies and resentment is born. When a leader fails to show the principle behind their sanctions, they come across as manipulators.

But when they point to principles, they come across as fair-minded and trustworthy.

So we point out the principles.We give solid reasons. “When you show up late,” we say, “it affects team morale and productivity. It sends a signal to me and others that you don’t care about your work or that you can’t manage your time. It says you don’t respect the rules or honor authority.”

“We can’t be effective as a group when that happens,” we say. “And since it’s my responsibility to help this group be as effective as it can be, I can’t allow behaviors that undermine team morale and productivity. If you keep showing up late, the only proper thing for me to do is to let you go.”

That’s the negative consequence. The rationale is clear, the principle is evident. This isn’t a power play on the part of the leader, it’s a principle play.

Then the leader can spell out the positive consequences as well as the negatives. “Here’s what I want from you, Edwina,” we continue. “I want you to show up on time. Every time. When you show up on time, you improve morale and productivity. It tells me and others that you care about your work. It says you can manage your time. It says you respect the rules and honor authority. It also empowers you to keep your word and follow through in other areas, not just here. From now on, for yourself, for all of us, show up on time. I believe your new commitment to timeliness will make you better and our group better.”

“Yes, I agree,” says Edwina. “I’m going to show up on time, every time.” She leaves the conversation without resentment, ready to work.

The empowering leadership approach encourages freedom, consequence, and responsibility.

People often follow leaders because they feel they “have to.” If I don’t do what she says, I’ll lose my job. 

That’s not freely following.

But then there are other leaders people freely follow. They don’t follow because they feel they “have to” but because they “want to.”

What’s the difference? Why do some leaders incite resentment while others inspire loyalty?

There are many reasons, but all revolve around a sense that things are better with the leader than they would be without them. Here are three examples:

  1. The follower has a greater sense of achievement that requires the group and the leader.
  2. The follower has a greater sense of personal betterment from working with the leader.
  3. The follower has a sense of belonging. Good relationships offer the love and security that make people want to stay in groups.

When followers get any or all of these from the work of the leader, they follow willingly. They see that the leader is adding value to the follower in some way.

The Power of Group Achievement

Let’s think about the achievement factor. Truth is, groups can do some things that individuals can’t. The TEAM acronym holds in certain situations: “Together Everyone Achieves More.”

  • Individuals can’t win basketball, baseball, or football games. Only groups can.
  • Individuals can’t manufacture a million widgets for national distribution. Only groups can.
  • Individuals can’t police and protect an entire city. Only groups can.

When we’re part of a group, our sense of collective achievement and meaning can go up. We can feel like we’re accomplishing more together than we can on our own.

That’s why we want to form groups.

And groups require leaders.

In the late 1800’s the Western Shoshone Indians in North America were as unstructured and independent a group of hunter-gatherers you could get. They ate pine nuts, roots, and seeds. They had no reason to work together, and they pretty much didn’t.

Until it came time to catch rabbits. There were lots around, and since antelope kills were few and far between, it would help everyone to catch them.

Problem is, they were tough to catch.

Someone in the tribe came up with an idea that required a large group of people. Half the group would line up and walk slowly through a large field, driving the rabbits to the other group on the other side who held a woven net of plant fibers hundreds of yards wide. Together they could herd and harvest hundreds of rabbits in one coordinated effort, then split the catch evenly.

To maximize the catch, the group designated a “rabbit boss,” an ad-hoc leader who would make sure everyone was walking in step. The boss led the group for the catch, then promptly resigned.

In a 2013 blog post I described the reason for leadership and teamwork:

Why do teams form? To seize opportunities unavailable to individuals. And why do leaders lead? To help teams work together. Synergy is the root of teamwork and leadership.

When followers see how a group achieves things together that people can’t achieve on their own, they see good reason to follow. Leaders who consistently show followers how the group is doing more because they’re a group tend to get more willing followers.