I’ve been working as a councilor and a coach for the past 16 years.

Throughout this period, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many leaders, trying to make changes in their personal lives or in their companies with the aim of furthering their success and that of those around them. I want them to have a more peaceful and meaningful life. For an even longer time, though, I’ve been busy with myself and my own progress. The most significant thing that I have learned on this path of knowing, substantiating, and being myself is the acquisition of complete awareness of the inner and outer conditions I happen to embrace and a sharpness of attention to enable that awareness.

I also realize that several questions support this awareness and attention. When I get lost, they bring me back again and again to my body, my heart, my mind, and the environment I’m in. I believe these questions should be a beacon for anyone trying to get from A to B but struggling to change anything, anyone who is trying to become a leader.

Who am I? Really, deeply, who am I? Am I my body? Am I the thoughts that stroll in my mind and toss me around? Am I my emotions that come and go, torturing me most of the time? Am I the roles that I willingly play or others impose on me? Am I the ego that I have meticulously created from the accumulated scars since childhood, whose primary goal is to avoid pain? Am I the sum of my achievements? Am I my past? Am I the things that I learned from religious and spiritual teachings? Am I the ideas I admire but never experienced firsthand? Am I my relationships? Who or what am I really? Who or what is asking and answering these questions?

If I were lost in inner conflicts and confused about my own identity, and if I were mistakenly seeing myself as something I am not, then nothing could keep me on the path I am following.

What is the deepest desire or commitment of my heart? What affects me deeply? Is it seeing what makes my heart happy, excited, and peaceful? Putting aside all the temporary feelings—all the whims, greed, and fears—with my heart deep inside calmly observing, what does it actually want? On which deep commitment shall I base my life on, so my heart can find peace and happiness?

If I were not in touch with my heart’s deepest commitment, I’d be a slave to my constantly changing thoughts. Evolving situations would trigger my emotions and lead to unrealistic desires, and I’d be constantly chasing moving targets. Whatever I achieved would not ultimately satisfy me. It would be a fleeting moment and never give me the meaning I’ve been searching for.

So, what do I want to give as a present? What do I want to create? What is my vision? Where do I want to go, and where do I want to take the people I’m with? What is my situation and condition? What needs to change, because I am there, in that environment, working in that company? It could be because I am the leader of a team, because I am a citizen of my country, because I belong in a group, because I’m a family member, or because I’m someone’s parent or wife. How do I want my existence to affect those around me? What do I want my existence to have an effect on? When I pass through somewhere, is it going to change it for the better? Will it be more beautiful, peaceful, or quiet? Or will things just continue as if I was never there? Am I aware of the effect I have? Once I really consider my leadership, what is the gift that comes from the deepest commitment of my heart?

If my existence and non-existence is the same thing, if I do not make a difference through my existence, if I make no contribution at all, then what’s the meaning of it all? As Victor Frank said, “When you ask what’s the meaning of all this, you are the one the question is asked to.” And this contribution, this meaning, won’t happen automatically. You should think over the first two questions and their answers, think with your heart and feel with your mind and define where you’d like to be, the future you want to create. Afterwards, consciously focus your awareness and attention on the vision you’d like to bring about. Sure, you will need to make an effort to keep your focus on it, but the next question is about what you would do in order not to get there.

How could I block my way? Which of my deficits, the sides of me I refuse, the scars that hurt each time I touch them, my ignorance, will make me forget who I am and my heart’s commitment. What will prevent the gift I’d like to give, my vision and aim, and make me become a slave to my feelings and thoughts? My ego, my desire, Mara: How do they take me prisoner? What disturbs me the most and forces me off track? How does the world I live in put me to sleep over and over again? To which ignorance of mine shall I focus on and be aware of, so that I don’t fall, but if I do, I will be able to get back up quickly?

The moment you decide to change something, everyone who created the current situation will naturally take action to protect it. They don’t mean any harm—they’re actually just trying to protect themselves and you. Everybody wants change, yet at the same time nobody wants to change. If you really want to go from point A to point B, then you need to be aware of strong feelings inside you. You’ll have to figure out new ways to overcome these rather than jump to actions that you’ve already tried without getting rid of those strong feelings.

If you cannot somehow find ways to cope with these feelings, the external conditions we will talk about in the next question will throw you around. As a result, you will loose your focus and your ability to control your attention. Your attention will then not be focused on questions like “Who do I want to be? What does my heart desire? What do I want to create.” It will instead be on whatever your emotions are dictating to you, and nothing will change.

Robert Kegan says that, “There are two significant questions for change: What do I really want [the first three questions here are directly related to this], and how will I be an obstacle for myself?” If I know, then I can manage.

Where am I, and what’s happening here? What is the context I am in, the situation, the environment, the conditions, and the system? How does this work out? How would this context, this environment, and these conditions trigger my obstacles? How does it trigger the others? Whatever’s happening here, how and why does it happen? What are the dynamics for this system to work? Who is here? Really, what’s happening here?

Ronald Heifetz says, “All leadership mistakes are diagnosis mistakes.” If we cannot properly analyze the environment, context, and conditions we are in, then we cannot intervene in a correct manner.  Some 80 % of human behavior is determined by the conditions people live in, and most of the time, we diagnose our situation without recognizing the effects of these conditions over the systems, over people, and, above all, over us. In such cases, we cannot hope to manage or change what we do not understand. The systems we live in work in collaboration with our emotional systems (Question 4) and distract our attention from the goals we’d like to reach at (the first three questions).

So, how can I stay awake and keep my heart open? All these external and internal conditions, the fears inside me, the things I hold onto, my hunger, the fears of those around me, the things they hold on to, and their hunger—all of these try to beguile me and divert me. How will I becoming trapped? How will I stay vigilant? How will I avoid personalizing the internal and external resistance and straying from my heart? How will I prevent my mind loosing clarity due to all the worries, fear, desire, lust, and anger? How will I pick myself up off the floor if I fall down? How will I remind myself over and over again? How will I stay awake? How will I master my focus and attention? If I cannot stay awake, if I allow both the internal and external worlds to continue doing what they’ve been doing so far, I will do the same things again and get the same results again. I will live the same way. That’s why I need to find a way to stay awake, to improve my awareness and concentration. I have to find a way to wake up again if I drift back into sleep. I need to develop a strong body, an open heart, and a clear mind. I have to find a way to control my attention and awareness, no matter what.

How am I supposed to move forward under the existing circumstances? What is the best move, step, or action that I can take right now in the light of my answers to the first three questions? What am I supposed to do in order to both survive and move forward? What should I do in order to stop being a leader and turn into a target? How can I push both myself and the others within tolerable limits? Who can I get support from under these circumstances? Who would suffer and become annoyed with the results of my change? How am I supposed interact with them? Who would try to stop me and how? How am I supposed to go forward considering all this?

Being a leader is the art of annoying people within reasonable limits. If you try to go faster than the circumstances feasibly allow, people will try to protect their interests and you may be attacked. Someone who moves too fast without first finding out where the glass walls are will surely crash into them, break them, and bleed. That’s why you should act strategically and evaluate your circumstances realistically and correctly. Remember, If you’re one step ahead, you’re the leader. If you’re 10 steps ahead, you’re the target.

After asking all these questions, try recalling that amazing quote by Rilke:

I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

—Rainer Maria Rilke