Monday, March 16, 2015

Self-Action Leadership Theory (Part 2)

Review an explanation of the Self-Action Leadership Theory and its metaphorical analogy to space travel, click HERE.


The Education stage corresponds to the Earth’s surface in the analogy. This is where you begin your journey to Self-Transcendence.

You cannot do what you do not know. You must, therefore, learn knowledge before you can apply it. The Education stage is where you first learn about SAL. Here, you are introduced to the first major principle of SAL: that certain thoughts, speech, and actions lead to higher levels of Existential Growth and others lead to lower levels and failure. This stage is where you first experience that great personal leadership epiphany that you don’t have to be a victim of your circumstances—you are not a helpless entity subjected entirely to whimsical external realities.

Far from being a one-time exercise, this stage continues throughout all other stages. It is an ongoing process of learning lessons that are necessary to reach higher levels of Existential Growth. In this sense, it can be compared to Mission Control in Houston – the traditional command center of space missions. Mission control and their colleagues train (educate) the astronauts (self-action leaders) before they begin their journey into Outer Space (Self-Transcendence). After leaving the Earth’s surface, the astronauts continue to communicate with Mission Control in a process of ongoing education about new obstacles and opportunities that will greet them on their journey.


The Beginner’s Stage is likened to the troposphere. It is here that Existential Gravity exerts its greatest negative influence on your efforts, often making it a very unstable level. Like the arbitrary behavior of the weather in the troposphere, the this stage is filled with metaphorical hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning and thunder, rainstorms, snowstorms, hailstorms, fog, and wind. These metaphorical weather events manifest themselves in a variety of internal and external problems and difficulties. External variables might include poverty, poor parenting, illnesses and limitations, abuse, neglect, bad luck, difficult peer and residential environments, interpersonal pressure to make poor choices, the poor or evil choices of others, lack of educational opportunities, etc. Internal variables might include a bad attitude, a pessimistic outlook, a victim’s mentality, dishonesty, unkindness, maliciousness, low levels of emotional intelligence, narcissism, jealousy, insecurity, vindictiveness, etc.

Existential Gravity exerts its greatest impact in the Beginner’s Stage. It is in this stage that you are introduced to Existential Crabs or the “Crab Effect.” The “Crab Effect” refers to a phenomenon that can be observed among live crabs placed together in a bucket. If one crab is placed in a bucket, it can escape, but if multiple crabs are in the bucket together, none of them will escape because their fellow crabs will continually circumvent any attempts by its fellows to gain their freedom. Jealous of the progress of their fellows, crabs will not let one another succeed, but will just keep pulling each other down to shared mediocrity.


People and organizations that act to undermine and limit your Existential Growth.

Human beings, especially in the Beginner’s Stage, have intense crab-like tendencies and often seek to prop themselves up by pulling others down. As the age-old cliché goes: “misery loves company.” The “Crab Effect: explains, in part, why elementary, middle, and high school can prove more socially difficult than adulthood, since most children and teenagers reside at lower levels of Existential Growth.

The pull of social mores and negative peer pressure combined with a person’s initial lack of Existential Growth can prove overwhelming one this level. In fact, if a person does not have external advocates to support and guide them through this vital stage, they will likely never rise above it. Just as we will not succeed if we do nothing, we likewise will not succeed without the help of others.

No matter how naturally gifted a person may be, failure is common at this stage. One may work very hard and suffer quite intensely with relatively little to show for their efforts and pains. As a result, many feel overwhelmed. Without vision and faith in possibilities lying beyond extraordinary adversity, many choose to quit trying, or, in more severe cases, even end their life.

It is easy to become discouraged at this juncture, and self-doubt is commonplace. Self-esteem and worth are typically very low, even though it may be masked with an outward display of swagger, bravado, and pseudo self-confidence. Aside from any external limitations you may face in this stage, a person’s internal limitations are also at their peak. These limitations are borne of insecurity, diffidence, and a tenuous track record of success.

SAL beginners are apt to blame most – if not all – of their problems on other people, events, and circumstances. But it is also where they have the opportunity to begin exercising their faith in SAL principles of personal responsibility.

For some, this stage will be the most difficult to transcend. For others, it will be relatively easy. The difference will be determined by a person’s unique formula of SAL limitations and benefits. For example, those born with natural inclinations toward mental hygiene and a supportive family with a mom, dad, and sufficient resources will likely progress through this part more easily. Someone born with neurosis or psychosis, or to a fractured family (or none at all) with a tenuous (or non-existent) support system and few resources will likely have a very difficult time transcending this stage. But all self-action leaders should remember that no matter what their challenges and limitations are, it is possible to make it past this stage. Difficulty does not spell impossibility.


In general, financial status is an imperfect metric by which to judge Existential Growth. I have met or known of very wealthy people who frequent lower levels, or who entered higher levels, only to digress to lower levels after becoming victims of their own avarice. On the other hand, I have met or known persons who have risen to the highest levels without ever becoming monetarily rich.

But despite these inconsistencies, financial solvency and success are meaningful benchmarks to measure Existential Growth against. This is only true, however, when wealth is earned in an honest manner through diligent industry that benefits others. Wealth that was inherited or gambled into has little, if any, effect on Existential Growth. While many exceptions exist, the Beginner’s Stage is typically marked by financial dependence on one’s parents or initial caregivers. If you are on your own, you are likely struggling to make ends meet, as I was at that point in my life. Some will even be homeless.


The Practitioner’s Stage is likened to the stratosphere, where most jet travel takes place. Transcending Existential Gravity sufficiently to arrive at the Practitioner’s Stage is not easy, but when you do, a newfound freedom awaits you. This freedom is evinced more by internal power than external rewards or altered circumstances, although both may accompany your advancement. Existential Crabs still exist in this and other stages, but their numbers and toxicity diminish with each succeeding stage. Unfortunately, this means their techniques for dragging you down will be more clandestine and clever.

Nevertheless, as you grow more confident in yourself and your life’s direction, your capacity to disregard the unimportant and invalid criticism of others expands. Arriving at the Practitioner’s Stage is a significant achievement from the simple fact that many people never fully break free of the Beginner’s Stage.

The Practitioner’s Stage is a relatively calm period compared to the Beginner’s Stage. Externally speaking, you may have transcended a lot of the toxic relationships and/or troubling circumstances that marked the time you spent in the Beginner’s Stage. Internally speaking, you no longer see yourself primarily as a victim of circumstance or the actions of others. It’s easier to recognize the power you possess to determine your own destiny. This knowledge may motivate you to exercise that freedom and power to contribute to the lives of others while furthering your own education. Financially, you have likely acquired the means to provide basic life essentials for yourself, or are at least proactively progressing toward supporting yourself financially.

This level is called the Practitioner’s Stage because you have sufficiently developed your SAL knowledge and skills to the point where you can competently practice them on a consistent basis. Moreover, you have developed the inner strength, security, and resiliency to continue your rise in Existential Growth even if those who helped you in the Beginner’s Stage are no longer with you. This stage marks the beginning of the transition between dependence and independence.[1] For some, it is a magnificent stage where they can really begin to stretch their wings in conjunction with learning more about SAL. For others, it may be a disillusioning stage with two options: digress back to the Beginner’s Stage, or move forward in faith toward a greater, but unknown, future.

Breaking free of this first stage is a significant achievement that should be accompanied by a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Accompanying this celebration will be an eagerness to keep on progressing towards the Refining Stage. Do not confuse this achievement as a pseudo-arrival; that will lead to a cessation of effort and a plateau to your progress. This stage is often accompanied by a tangible life achievement such as graduation, getting your first “real” job, or getting married. Be cautious of viewing this stage and its accompanying achievements as a destination rather than a milestone lest you end up living the rest of your life in the Practitioner’s Stage. Such stagnation precludes countless possibilities of future achievement and greatness.

A filtering process occurs in the Practitioner’s Stage to separate proactive self-action leaders from those who settle for paths of lesser resistance. The former will work harder than ever to rise to the next level; the latter will begin to settle for a status quo of relative mediocrity.

This plateau represents an existential comfort zone wherein the reactive decide that life is good enough, and that whatever freedom or additional benefits exist beyond this point are not worth the extra effort and sacrifice required to obtain them. It is the place where avoiding pain to maintain comfort trumps sacrificing temporary pleasure for greater growth down the road. After all the hard work invested just to get to the Practitioner’s Stage, many may find themselves feeling content to coast along the highways and byways of SAL stasis. They work hard enough to maintain a basic set of habits that enable them to avoid slipping back to the undesirable external circumstances of the Beginner’s Stage, but they fail to embrace any opportunities that will produce greater internal growth and external opportunities available in higher stages. They are content to merely maintain an existential state of above-average mediocrity.

In the Practitioner’s Stage, proactive self-action leaders become increasingly internally motivated. On this level, your desire further development transcends merely eating and paying your bills. It extends to seeking self-improvement and personal fulfillment. It also manifest itself in a desire to help others and influence them for good. The forward-thinking person wants something more. This desire inspires you to work your way up into the Refining Stage, where the authenticity and strength of your desire will be tested like never before.


Your initial entrance into the Refining Stage may occur against a backdrop of some significant personal achievement, success, or milestone. For example, you may have finally graduated from college or trades training, received a graduate degree, earned a significant promotion in your company, or started up a new business. As a result, your graduation from the Practitioner’s Stage may be marked by pomp & circumstance, excitement, celebration, personal satisfaction, and the adulation of others. This personal triumph serves as a cleverly camouflaged “calm before the storm,” and can be very deceiving. This mirage of your “ship coming in,” however, never lasts indefinitely, as the fiery heat of the Refining Stage begins to blast away at you in the form of all kinds of unexpected adversity.

Many enter this part of their journey with high hopes that their troubles are now behind them—only to discover that in reality, their greatest challenges lie ahead. This realization may lead to profound disillusionment, which is common, justified, and understandable. It is not, however, cause to give up and fall behind. Remember, a refiner’s fire serves to strengthen and purify, and this necessitates a certain amount of discomfort to gain more Existential Growth.

Examples of trials you may encounter in the Refining Stage include:

  • The death of a loved one
  • A job layoff
  • A personal disappointment or rejection
  • A major career set-back 
  • Severe physical illness or injury
  • Experiencing a nervous breakdown, depression, anxiety, or other mental disorder
  • A crisis of self-confidence or security 
  • Battling through a spiritual or mid-life crisis
  • Feeling trapped in the “existential vacuum”[2]

The Refining Stage is likened to the mesosphere in Earth’s atmosphere. Just as the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere are found in the mesosphere, the Refining Stage offers the greatest challenges of your existential journey. As difficult as the challenges in the Beginner’s Stage may have seemed, the challenges of the Refining Stage are often far more painful and difficult to transcend. Unlike the trials of the Beginner’s Stage, which can be solved despite a very low level of existential development, the challenges of the Refining Stage occur after you have already experienced significant growth. By this time, you are relatively mature, experienced, and capable. Such challenges can therefore come as a great shock to your system, a “system” you once believed was indestructible and omnipotent. This is a time of rude awakenings, failure, and set-backs, but not of surrender.

This stage was by far the hardest I’ve ever gone through, and it will likely be the hardest you’ll ever go through as well. Self-action leaders go through the Refining Stage at different periods of life. Some may be refined relatively early in life; others may experience their refining in middle age; and others still may be much older when they eventually face their personal refining process. I was blessed (or cursed, depending how you look at it) to face intense refining periods in my own life in my teenage, adolescent, and young adult years. Though these periods will always carry echoes of pain and heartache, my progression has made my suffering entirely worth it. And while I would never want to pass through such a hellish period again, I wouldn’t trade anything in the universe for what I have become through the process. As someone who has passed through this fiery phase of life, I therefore urge you will all of my heart and soul to hold on to the idea that this will all be for your benefit later.

The challenges of the Refining Stage are designed to polish and humble you. Such lessons in humility are often excruciating. Intellectually speaking, any sane person would gladly accept this process because it is the only way to advance to the next level. Realistically, however, the challenges of the Refining Stage break many otherwise highly intelligent and capable men and women. This “breaking” occurs when people choose to cling to ego and selfish pride, even when doing things “their way” is damming up their progression. Consequently, they refuse to accept any information, even when it is true, if it conflicts with their worldview.

Sadly, such individuals will sometimes go to great lengths – up to and including dedicating their lives – to coming up with all kinds of clever arguments for why their way (the Wrong way) is in fact the Right way. And the more ardent and energetic they are in their quest, the more convinced (self-deceived) they become that Wrong is Right and vice versa. They become like delusional demi-gods determined to poison the minds and hearts of anyone willing to listen to the pseudo truths of their cherished ideologies. The result? They voluntarily give up their opportunities for further Existential Growth and progress. They build their own glass ceiling, and refuse to ever break through it. For these people, the Refining Stage has an impenetrable ceiling attached to it. This ceiling is not impregnable because it cannot be breached, but because they choose not to breach it. They would rather hold on to their way and remain forever in the Refining Stage, or, as is more often the case, digress to lower levels previously attained.

If you had a relatively easy experience transcending the Beginner’s and Practitioner’s Stages, the trials of the Refining Stage may catch you completely off guard and prove even more difficult and painful because you have not yet faced serious adversity in your life. For example, if you’ve had a healthy and privileged upbringing with access to many resources and opportunities, you may have met with a lot of initial success and very little failure in the first three stages. Perhaps you were also sheltered from many painful and precarious situations inherent in a less privileged upbringing. While there’s no shame in this natural naïveté, it might mean that you may be less prepared for the emotional realities of the severe adversity you will most certainly meet in the Refining Stage. Ironically, this naïveté is often fueled by highly involved and well meaning – but ultimately unwise – parents, teachers, coaches, etc.

If, on the other hand, you had a very difficult time transcending the Beginner’s and Practitioner’s Stages, you may be better equipped for this stage because you’ve developed certain survivor’s instincts through a familiarity with adversity. In the process, you have developed tenacity, resourcefulness, courage, and self-reliance.

The Refining Stage is “no respecter of persons.” It does not care whether you are rich or poor, gifted and privileged—or not. Everyone who rises to the level of refining will eventually get one’s chance to be refined. It is not fun, and can be terribly painful, but the results are beautiful beyond description. Victor Frankl once wrote about the ironic existential egalitarianism as it relates to adversity in the Refining Stage when he wrote that, “the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”[3]

The Refining Stage has the power to incinerate the roots of personal weakness that inhibit your Existential Growth. It also has the capacity to sever relational ties with Existential Crabs that have been holding you back in lower levels. The co-dependency of your past grows into the independence of your present and the interdependence of your future.[4]

To transcend the Refining Stage, you must demonstrate high levels of physical, mental, emotional, social, and financial self-reliance. The Refining Stage provides you with an opportunity to prove to yourself, other people, and life itself, that you are capable of facing extreme difficulty, challenge, or even tragedy, and successfully come out the other side confident, courageous, and standing on your own two feet.

“Life is a grindstone, and whether it grinds you down or polishes you up is for you and you alone to decide.”
– Cavett Robert (1907-1997) 

The Refining Stage will test you to your very core. Its purpose is to see you are really made of, or, looked at another way, to see what it can make of you. Just as gold, platinum, diamonds, high-grade steel, and other precious stones and valuable metals cannot be refined without the fiery heat of blue hot flames, you cannot be refined without the scorching heat of personal adversity.

The Refining Stage is an existential sieve that separates the strong and humble from the prideful and weak. It is an opportunity for you to prove to yourself that you can “partake of life’s bitter cups … without becoming bitter.”[5]

Not much is known about the Mesosphere because it is too high for hot air balloons or airplanes, yet too low for orbiting satellites or space stations. Similarly, the Refining Stage produces a series of trials and challenges that are uniquely tailored to YOU—the individual. As such, no other human being can tell you precisely how to best navigate the journey and cope with the pain. In this sense, it is a journey you must ultimately make on your own, making the Refining Stage is a profoundly lonely phase of your existential development. This is not to say others cannot help you along the way. It merely means that no one else can make the journey for you. In her poem, Solitude, the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox eloquently articulates the loneliness of this stage:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you ;
Weep, and you weep alone,
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer ;
Sigh, it is lost on the air,
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you ;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many ;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you life,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.[6]

Not everyone will experience the Refining Stage as one, long, extended trial as I did with OCD, depression, despised love, and professional failure. More often, people go through many cycles of the Refining Stage with a variety of deep and difficult challenges at different junctures in their lives. In my case, a chronic mental illness—and all its concomitant problems—dominated my life for over 20 years. In someone else’s case, several acute episodes may be spread out over many years. Realistically, everyone (myself included) will experience several periods of refinement throughout one’s life. The regularity, intensity, and longevity of each subsequent period will differ vastly from person-to-person. But no matter what comes your way, if you work hard, remain determined, and patiently endure the crucibles faced in the Refining Stage, you will come out on the other side refined, newly strengthened, and ready for the next level—the Polishing Stage.

In my next blog post, I will introduce Levels 5-9 of the SAL Theory.

[1] See Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, NY: Fireside.
[2] “The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.” Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Page 106 (see pages 106-108). I have spent a great deal of time in an OCD-influenced existential vacuum accompanied by depression and a dread of life. I found living to be an odious condition, and one I had no zest for during that period.
[3] Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Page 44.
[4] See Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, NY: Fireside.
[5] Maxwell, N. M. (2004). Remember how merciful the Lord hath been. The Ensign (Online). Page 1. Retrieved from URL:
[6] Wilcox, E.W. (1889). Poems of Passion. Chicago, IL: Belford, Clarke & Co. Publishers. Page 131-132. . (Google Books version).

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