Leadership and Self-Deception

Summary Written by Ken Ott
"No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside. And how we’re feeling about them depends on whether we’re in or out of the box concerning them."

- Leadership and Self-Deception, page 32

The Big Idea

"Are you in or out of the box?"

"The public remains generally unaware of the [self-deception] issue. That would be fine except that self-deception is so pervasive that it touches every aspect of life."- Leadership and Self-Deception, page 1

In-the-box behavior begins when we start to see others as objects rather than people and when we are focused on ourselves, not the results or the person in general. We need that person, that group, that department to be wrong again and again to justify our stance and feed our box. Once we get into the box ourselves we give each other the reason to stay in the box. If in-the-box behavior toward people is the act of self-deception, then what is the trigger that starts the deception?


The act of self-betrayal is when we act contrary to our sense of what is appropriate. It is when we find that we have betrayed our own sense of how we should behave toward another person. For example: Think of a time when you felt you should have helped another person but then decided not to, or a time when you knew you had some information that would be helpful to a co-worker, but you kept it to yourself.

I can think of many instances when I could have and should have helped a fellow co-worker with a project or issue, a simple piece of information, or general advice. Likewise, I know there are times I should have helped my wife with the chores around the house. This behavior is in every action and reaction we have continuously throughout the day. Have you ever felt this way?

When I am in the box, I am actively resisting others. When I stop resisting others, I am out of the box; I see people for who they are. I see their hopes, their fears, their dreams, and their gifts. When I can move out of the box toward a person, I am liberated from self-justifying thoughts and feelings. When I am able to honor them as people in each interaction, then I am out of the box. I am no longer justifying myself or my behavior. So the question stands, “How do I get out of the box?”

“‘How do I get out of the box?’ is really two questions. The first question is, ‘How do I get out?’ and the second is, ‘How do I stay out once I’m out?'” In order to not only get out of the box, but stay out of the box, “it’s critical that we honor what our out-of-the-box sensibility tells us we should do for these people. However—and this is important—this doesn’t necessarily mean that we end up doing everything we feel would be ideal.” We have our own responsibilities and needs that require attention, and it may be that we can’t help others as much or as soon as we wish we could. In such cases, we will have no need to blame them and justify ourselves because we will still be seeing them as people that we want to help… even if we are unable to help at that very moment or in the way we think would be ideal. We simply do the best we can under the circumstances.

Insight #1


"People who come together to help an organization succeed actually end up delighting in each other’s failure and resenting each other’s success."- Leadership and Self-Deception, page 113

Being in or out of the box is an internal action, but when we start to blame others, we invite them to get into their own box. We begin to “feel justified in blaming them, we feel their blame is unjust and blame them more.” Once this cycle begins, both parties response to the other’s blame is to stay inside their own box; provoking each other to commit more of the negative actions that we ourselves so resist in the first place. This is collusion: when two or more people are in their boxes facing toward each other, mutually betraying themselves and condemning themselves to ongoing mutual mistreatment.

Even when the person we are blaming begins to act the way we want them to act (ie. they start climbing out of their own box), we do not automatically get out of our box; that takes deliberate effort on our part. An example may be in order…

In the book one character discussed her “in-the-box” relationship with her teenage son. The son was continuously late for curfew. When he asked his mom to borrow the car one night, she gave him a time that she knew it would be difficult to return by. But when he did make it back with a minute to spare, she still could not thank him or praise him for respecting her curfew. She immediately criticized him for cutting it so close. That’s what we call in-the-box.

When we begin to notice that we are in collusion with another person(s) we need to stop and get ourselves out of the box. “Collusion spreads far and wide” and the result is that co-workers position themselves against co-workers, groups against groups, and department against department. Once we begin to pull ourselves out of the box – toward a person – the cycle is broken.

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Insight #2

What/Who Focus?

"As long as I am focused on myself, I can’t fully focus either on results or on the people whom I am to be delivering these results."- Leadership and Self-Deception, page 109

Our focus on the who and what helps to drive us to achieve results together. Think back to when you first joined an organization. You were happy and focused on results that would help the organization succeed. Your “what focus” was the results and the “who focus” was the organization. Over time, however, many people become unhappy with the organization and/or the people they work with, and their focus shifts from results to themselves. They begin to go in the box and collude with others.

While in the box, my “what-focus” turns from a healthy priority to an unhealthy justification. The box needs that justification and it thrives on it. So when we are in the box we are focused only on justifying the self-betrayal we sold ourselves on, undercutting results.

Furthermore, when we use a who-focus lens and are in the box, we end up focusing on ourselves. Remember, when we are out of the box, we are seeing people for who they are – their hopes, their gifts, the value they bring to the team. When we turn that “who focus” on ourselves however, we do not see other people as anything more than objects and roadblocks.

When just one person in an organization is in the box and failing to focus on results and people as people, he or she can easily start to bring his or her coworkers into that mindset as well, and collusion begins to spread far and wide. The result is devastating to the organization.

When we begin to identify the what-focus and the who-focus in our own situations, we should identify who around us is in the box and who is out of the box. This will remove any of the devastating effects and begin to create a supportive environment where people are working toward common results and treating each other well.

I can tell you that after reading the Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception, I am armed with a knowledge of self-deception – when it strikes and the impact it can have. I now know that “people problems” can be solved with an efficiency that I never had before, and I now know that there is a clear way to attack and solve such issues, not just one by one, but in one disciplined stroke.

Read the book

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The Arbinger Institute

The Arbingers Institute helps organizations, families, individuals, and communities worldwide to correct the trouble created by the little-known but pervasive problem of self-deception. Arbinger is led internationally by founding partners James Ferrell, Duane Boyce, Paul Smith, and Terry Warner. Headquartered in the United States, Arbinger now has operations around the world, including throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, Oceania, and Asia.

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