Want to Be A Leader? Tame Your Crocodiles and Let the Owls In

by Peter Halbersma, Friesch Dagblad, May 30, 2018

Born in the Netherlands and based in the United States, Hylke Faber (46) helps organizations around the world grow their cultures into ones of self-discovery. “Only when you are not driven by your fears can you make choices based on who you really are,” states Faber.

“As coach and facilitator, I work from the hypothesis that by developing yourself and by focusing on inner growth, you can achieve tremendous progress in engagement, enthusiasm, innovation and the cultivation of human relationships in an organization,” says Faber. “To build a self-discovery culture, we focus on groups of employees, leadership teams, and on one-on-one journeys with the leaders of an organization.”

Faber works from Seattle, Washington, and leads Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear and Become a True Leader, was just released this past May. The preface and an endorsement are written by Toni Townes-Whitley, a senior leader at Microsoft. Faber works for Microsoft and other big technology companies in Silicon Valley, although he is not at liberty to disclose their names. “We work all over the world, with very small to very large organizations.

“The core of our method can be summarized in two questions: how are you growing? (instead of how are you doing?) and who’s talking, the owl or the crocodile?” In the U.S., people ask immediately how you are doing. The question ‘how are you growing,’ becomes – in our method – just as important as ‘how are you doing?’ Then, it becomes about letting go of who you are not; that’s all of the survival tactics that we have taught ourselves. The crocodile is a symbol to help people become conscious that we are often driven by our survival urges. If we choose our heart, our values, or our authenticity, then that becomes another driver. We call that the owl.

“When people ask themselves daily, ‘who is talking, the owl or the crocodile?’ they will see whether they are being driven by their survival urges or their authentic self,” says Faber. Examples of crocodiles are ego, silo-culture, resistance against change, and pretending to keep the peace. “When people go from crocodilian thinking to the owl, they start to work together, they are honest with each other and respectful, and they are curious about change. An often-used crocodilian expression is: ‘That’s just how it is.’ Then, your crocodile is stuck in the semi-certainty of how things have always been in the company.”



To bring about a culture change, you need inspiring leaders, says the executive coach. Faber recalls the example of Mandela as President of South Africa. “In the film, Invictus, you see how Mandela became President and how the country was stuck (in that moment) in the crocodiles of hatred, apartheid, and divisiveness. Mandela inspired togetherness, forgiveness, and collaboration. One of the pillars of inspiring the collective was a symbolic bet. He bet on the Springboks winning the World Championship in his own country. This national rugby team was the poster child of white supremacy and was hated by the black population. Mandela was advised to do away with the team, but he saw it as a symbol for reunification and forgiveness. After their victory, people of all races danced in the streets together.”

Faber believes that every entrepreneur or person can be an inspiration. “Inspiration comes from the words ‘in spirit.’ That has nothing to do with who we are as individuals but who we are together, the greatness in that. When a child comes into the world, it’s very inspiring when it smiles or says something. As we get older, we make up all kinds of (social) layers around us. In that way, we distance ourselves more and more from that inspiring core. We have to be careful we don’t become zombie-like,” says Faber.

“Besides, the word ‘leadership’ comes from the word ‘leith’, which means to die. When we have the courage to let our ego die, we lead. It’s letting go of always trying to be good, to be perfect, to please, to be liked, the be the best, to make the most money and to know better. Inspiration is not something you do. It’s something you return to. When you are truly yourself, and not your learned self, you become inspiring.

“The return to the ‘inner self’ is a journey of lifelong self-discovery,” says Faber. “It can be a challenging journey. We are conditioned to look at ourselves from the outside. That’s only becoming stronger with smartphones and the social media. This way we are losing the connection with what’s happening inside of us – our feelings and thoughts. Being an inspiration for others is a continuous internal clean-up job. Some people don’t like to do the dishes. With this method, we try to help people to become dishwashers of themselves. And we keep asking: ‘who are you listening to? The owl or the crocodile?’ It always comes back to the unlearning of fear.”

According to Faber, the letting go of social conventions is a very fulfilling process. “Every time a piece of crocodile falls away, you get more oxygen. A feeling of ‘Ahhh, a bit lighter.’ I apply this every day.”


Transforming culture

But if there’s an entrenched company culture, how do you get rid of it? And who dares to make the first move? “We live in a society of hierarchical conditioning. In our lives, we first fall back on the question, what do mom and dad think? Then, what about my teacher? And finally, what does my boss think? This is changing a bit with the youngest generation, but it’s still there. To create a tipping point, you need leaders who have support in the organization. And when they transform, the rest follows. That doesn’t have to be the CEO, but it has to be someone with influence,” says Faber. “Subsequently you create a tipping point around that person.”

Faber and his team support this process of change for about 18 months. Then, the responsibility falls back on the organization. Part of this includes “Change Agents” who are able to coach people when they are falling back into old behaviors. “When people complain ‘I don’t feel like doing this,’ and ‘why me?’ someone needs to be able to talk with them in a calm way: ‘let’s push the pause button.’ That is hard to do without judging people. At the same time, it’s the art of leading a group. It’s also important to realize that the crocodile is not a problem: it’s part of our evolution as human beings. We get to work on this together, just like doing the dishes and removing waste. If you don’t do the dishes, things start to get smelly after a while.

“The promises of this process are better results, togetherness, innovation, and fulfillment. But the process fails when these results are the only reasons to do this work. Intrinsically the reason has to be: ‘We want a culture in which we grow together.’ And becoming conscious of who we really are is always applicable. In your family, your community, your sports team, and in your company – no matter its size.”

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