By: Dale A. Hicks, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified CEO Effectiveness Executive Coach

In his recent post, Bill discussed the critical edge that is gained by “leaders who are not paradigm-bound by early beliefs and mental models.”

As a college freshman, even before attending my first class, I feel fortunate that my advisor recommended Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn articulated the idea that scientific (and other) disruptive and transformative breakthroughs typically require a paradigm shift. (A paradigm can be defined generally as a framework of accepted assumptions, ways of thinking and methodology.) These paradigms, which are akin to mental models, tend to be very resistant to change, even when they no longer hold up to scrutiny (i.e. evidence, data, logic), which then limits our ability to embrace new scientific or personal beliefs that can result in exponentially greater benefits.

The history of disruptive and transformative scientific and technological change supports the premise that paradigm shifts, such as those brought about by Newton, Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus, Gutenberg, Kepler and Freud, are necessary for breakthroughs to occur. This is because existing paradigms, so deeply entrenched in our being, preclude our ability even to envision anything outside of our established perceptual and cognitive processes. Only by being open to entirely new ways of perceiving and thinking – literally moving outside of our paradigmatic boxes – can we be open to new possibilities and transformative breakthroughs.

In past posts, Bill has emphasized that “self-knowledge changes everything.” In fact, most of the major scientific breakthroughs (e.g. in medicine, astronomy, computer technology) have come about through paradigm shifts involving the willingness and ability to challenge existing beliefs and theories, to let go of those which no longer hold up to scrutiny and to accept new beliefs and theories. That which may have seemed “crazy” or inconceivable yesterday but might now be more consistent with new knowledge, information and discoveries. The discovery of germs and the effectiveness of vaccinations, understanding that the earth is round and not flat, and the development of the microchip were major game changers!  Gaining self-knowledge involves a similar process of exploration and discovery, casting aside beliefs and behaviors which feel natural to us, but are not consistent with the actual data, and beginning to accept new beliefs and possibilities that allow us to gain self-mastery and move toward optimal functioning.

By nature, most human beings resist paradigm changes because they challenge the very beliefs that provide an element of comfort for us. In fact, at an unconscious level, we can be unwilling to make changes, even when those changes are recognized as highly desirable at a conscious level, because change (and the unknown) can be uncomfortable and even scary. We remain stuck in a hardened chrysalis state, afraid to emerge as a butterfly!

My advisor served me well. Much of my work as a psychologist has involved the facilitation of paradigmatic changes in individual and organizational thinking, which has allowed the emergence of self-knowledge associated with happier, more satisfying and successful personal lives and which can transform an organization from average to exceptional and allow the leap from imagination to reality.