You make the shift from a hesitant or reactive leader toward creative leadership the moment you begin to look within.

For the first 26 years of my life, my identity was formed from the outside in.

Everything that I believed, all the stories that I told myself, and the majority of my action and behaviours, were the result of trying to meet the expectations of others.

Trying to be recognized, to be seen, to fit in, and to earn approval.

My mindful leadership journey began in 1996 when I picked up my first professional development book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey.

It was at this moment that I shifted from reacting to creating.

It started slowly at first.

Setting goals, changing habits, and building self-awareness.

However, as I continued to learn, to look within, I discovered something unexpected.

I discovered the ghosts in the machine.

Ghosts In The Machine

Ghosts in the machine is a term used by software developers to describe left-over, no-longer-useful, outdated code, buried deep within programs. While useful at some point, these obsolete subroutines get in the way of current operations.

We all have millions of lines of such code buried deep within our minds. Each subroutine containing the operating instructions for how we view ourselves, engaged with others, and navigate the world.

Like everyone, I have hundreds of outdated ghosts in my mind. These subroutines may have had a positive intention in the past. Now, they just get in the way.

In a previous stage of the mindful leader’s journey, we discussed the emotional hijack and the need to widen the gap between stimulus and response. At the creative leader stage, you need to ask, what is triggering the emotional hijack in the first place?

Ghost #1 – Fear

We give this particular ghost lots of adult sounding labels like stress, overwhelm, doubt, uncertainty, and frustration.

At the deepest level, it’s all about fear.

  • Fear of not being good enough.
  • Fear of not being seen
  • Fear of not being accepted for who we are.
  • Fear of not being loved.

Because of these fears, we build a host of reactive behaviours. These are our ghosts in the machine, and our task as a mindful leader is to name and tame them.

My fears manifested themselves as anxiety and hate.

Ghost #2 – Anxiety

For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from panic attacks. My heart skips a beat then jumps into overdrive — each episode lasting from anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours.

Until I started my regular meditation practice, these attacks happened three or four times a week. Now, about once every two or three weeks.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine the nature of this particular ghost.

It turns out that it started from the moment I was a born.

My mother tells a story of when I was a baby and how I stopped breathing when visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Montreal. It turns out that I was having an asthma attack triggered by their cat. They had to bury me into the snow to shock me into breathing again.

After the attack, I was diagnosed with both asthma and allergies.

This was at a time before schools and restaurants were allergy friendly. Every place I went, there was the potential for death.

Growing up with asthma and allergies laid the foundation of being hyper-alert for things that might kill me. You know, from deadly things like house pets and food.

Ghost #3 – Hate

This particular ghost manifested itself in my life in several ways.

First, I developed anger at myself for being weak since I was a skinny kid with health issues.

Second, I felt abandoned when my father left my mom, two sisters and myself, when I was about seven or eight years old, and I was thrust into the role of being the man of the house.

Third, in my early teens, my step-father was a master of being verbally abusive, which played havoc on my self-esteem and confidence. He grew up in Germany during the time of the Nazi’s and was a member of the Hitler Youth and unfortunately, he never learned to deal with his ghosts. And like most people, he just passed them on.

I was upset with myself for being weak, angry at my dad for leaving, and mad at the world because of my step-father.

Your Journey Starts Here

This is no such thing as a quick-fix for becoming a mindful leader. The simple truth is that your ghosts, whatever they might be, are preventing you from being the leader you are meant to be.

Up to this point in your life, everything that has happened to you has shaped your from the outside in. All past events, both good and bad, have formed you into the reactive leader that you are today.

And you are fooling yourself if you think that you can shape a culture, create effective strategy, discover your purpose, or simply be a good parent if you don’t understand how your unconscious stories and beliefs (ghosts in the machine) influence your decisions and manifest themselves through your reactive behaviours.

It’s now time to start your mindful leadership journey by rebuilding your identity from the inside out.

Lesson #1 – Squirrels.

The prime directive of your mind is to protect you and keep you safe. The last thing your brain wants to do is to bring up painful stuff from the past. So to fulfil the function of keeping you safe, it keeps you distracted.

One of my favourite Disney characters is the talking dog Doug from the movie “Up.” You might recall the scene of him stopping in the middle of whatever he is doing and saying, “Squirrel!”

We all have squirrels. They come in the form of constant messages from our phones, social media platforms like Facebook, and binge-watching movies on Netflix.

Our squirrels are the distractions that keep us from looking within, and to combat them, we need to create space by pausing.

Pausing can come in the form of stopping the world for just a moment. We can focus our attention, become present in our bodies, and take three deep breathes.

I’ve had great success in dealing with my ghosts by establishing a regular meditation practice.

Lesson #2 – Learn the lesson.

Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

Each time one of our ghosts appear, there is a lesson to be learned.

Anytime we …

  • feel threatened and withdrawal to safety,
  • raise our voice and lash out,
  • experience anxiety, stress, or uncertainty,

… there is a lesson to be learned.

It takes time to identify your ghosts and to learn the lesson.

Be patience, be persistent, continue to pause.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Lesson #3 – Forgive.

It takes a lot of energy to hate.

It’s so easy to blame the others for our misfortunes instead of owning our part.

It took a long time for me to forgive my father for leaving us when I was seven years old, and I was fortunate enough that we reconciled our differences before he passed away.

Let go of the hate; let go of the anger.

Forgive others.

More importantly … forgive yourself.


I started this article thinking that I was going to create another checklist of practical leadership skills.

It’s interesting what shows up when you practice the skills of being a mindful leader.

Here’s a recap of the core lessons and what’s required to shift from a hesitant or reactive leader toward creative leadership.

Shift 1 – Create space and pause when you notice your ghosts in the machine.

Shift 2 – Our greatest growth as a mindful leader occurs when we learn the lesson that the ghost is here to teach us.

Shift 3 – Let go of the hate and anger. Forgive others. Forgive yourself.

Do you have a challenging ghost that you are dealing with? Post it in the comments below.

NOTE: I was reminded of the term Ghosts in the machine while reading “Reboot” by Jerry Colonna. It’s a fantastic book. Highly recommend.

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