Update Your Internal Operating System

Rewrite your core beliefs to transform leadership.

By Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

One of the most transformative practices is to see into and rewrite our Internal Operating System (IOS) code. Our IOS is made up of well-patterned beliefs, assumptions, and mental models. Most of these are accurate and serve us well, but some are not. Maturing our IOS requires us to observe, reflect on, and modify the invisible

assumptions embedded in our IOS. This is hard because they operate beneath the surface. We do not see them—we see through them (like a set of lenses)—and we are subject to them until we can make them an object of our reflection.

The most powerful beliefs are those by which we establish our Identity. These powerful self-defining beliefs become incorporated into the core of our IOS from emotionally powerful, positive, or painful experiences. They also are

installed by key people—parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, mentors, leaders—and by institutional, national, and cultural affiliations.

As we adopt, live by, and reinforce these assumptions, the brain puts them on autopilot so that we don’t have to think about them anymore. They are just seen as true.

For example, we might assume this: I must be perfectly successful in order to be okay. We may come by this belief honestly, and the experience that created it may have been positive. Hence, we work believing that my worth and self-esteem, the success and security of my future, depend on being flawlessly successful all the time. Mistakes, imperfections, and failure are not an option.

This belief may serve us well for a while, causing us to work hard and learn to create exceptional results. However, the belief meets its limits when, for example, in order to scale the business, we must teach others how do to what we have learned to do. Have you ever tried to learn from a perfectionist? It can be a painful process—one that undermines confidence. When we are challenged to lead, delegate, develop, and mentor others, our perfectionist standards and the fear of failure that is underneath them, can seriously interrupt our ability to build teams and develop others.

The structure of these core identity beliefs is simple:

Worth = X
Security = X
I am OK if I am X
To be is to be X

We fill in these equations with specific X’s, depending on our formative life experience. At the Reactive level, we identify with three main categories of X’s—relationships, intellect, and results. The most common X’s are:

Relationship Intellect Results
Liked Smart Number one
Loved Self-Reliant Best
Approved of Brilliant Perfect
Accepted Superior A winner
Belong Above it all Higher than others
Supportive Distant In charge
Submissive Aloof In Control

X is always a good thing—there is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, liked, admired, or smart. However, these beliefs are self-limiting because they are structured from the outside in. We are identified with always being X or seen as X. To not be X or not to be seen as X, is not to be. This makes not being X (or seen as X) very threatening.

These beliefs form the core of the Reactive Operating System—the mechanisms by which we form our externally validated identity. This Operating System is Reactive we because are, more than we may consciously realize, defined by others and behaving in ways that meet their expectations. Because we need to be seen by others as X, our self-esteem, security, and future is in their hands. They make us up. How they see us defines us. This is why Steven R. Covey called this stage of a leader’s development Dependent. We depend on external validation for our sense of self-esteem, security, and our very identity. Psychologists call this External Locus of Control.

Most leaders (75%) are running a Reactive Operating System. This handicaps them as they try to lead change. The very nature of the Reactive Structure of Mind, because of its outside-in dependence on external validation, requires that we fit into and live up to the current surrounding cultural expectations. Not to do so threatens our very sense of self and security. Therefore, Reactive Mind is not mature enough to lead cultural and system transformation. For that Creative Mind is required.

Creative Solutions

Change efforts fall short of intended results when we try to create change from a Reactive mindset designed to maintain the status quo. When we create a new vision, one of a transformed culture and dramatic performance improvements, that vision usually requires leadership behavior and capability beyond the boundary of our current beliefs. If it did not, we would likely have created it already. When the new vision is a stretch beyond the confines of our current operating system, we face an adaptive challenge.

Choosing to create outcomes that lie outside the bounds of our belief system produces anxiety, fear, doubt, and internal conflict. Reactive structure is designed to reduce this anxiety and so we default to old behavior consistent with our unseen current belief structure—behavior that was patterned to meet the expectations of the current reality we are intending to change.

As this happens, even though we are championing a new vision, we end up behaving in ways that keep the old culture in place. Unless, as we champion bold change, we see how we habitually return to old habits of behavior and explore the self-defining assumptions that drive these behaviors, we will undermine the change to which we aspire.

Einstein observed: “The solutions to our current problems cannot be found from within the consciousness that created them.” They can only be found from higher-order consciousness. Reactive Mind cannot orchestrate dramatic shifts in performance. The ways we want to lead today require Creative Mind to support and sustain the new structure, culture, and performance.


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Excerpted from Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results, by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams (Wiley, 2015)


Bob Anderson is Chairman and Chief Development Officer and Bill Adams is CEO of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group. They are coauthors of Mastering Leadership (Wiley). Visit www.fcg-global.com or http://www.leadershipcircle.com.

Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • The most powerful beliefs are those by which we establish our Identity. These powerful self-defining beliefs become incorporated into the core of our IOS from emotionally powerful, positive, or painful experiences.

  • Kate Wilson says:

    In my point, a view, updating the operating system is a really important part of the computer. If we are not updating we can not get new features and also our device becoming old. Keep sharing.