In coaching, one of the most powerful tools is visualisation. Often people find it relatively easy to explain what’s wrong with their current predicament but they struggle to define what good looks like for them. Asking them to visualise their future state and look back at themselves from that viewpoint can help them to see that there are a variety of perfectly attainable other states. But then, even if we want to bring our future state into being, sometimes we struggle to make the first move. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Here are four that come to mind.
We’ve all been guilty of saying that we can’t do something. And we’ve all felt rather glum when someone far less capable gets up instead of us and does it anyway. It is surprising how many of us create reasons for limiting our own brilliance. As Herminia Ibarra says in her excellent new book Act like a leader, think like a leader: “No one pigeonholes us better than we do ourselves.” We sit in our self-imposed silos waiting for permission. Sometimes it is because we can’t see a way out; but, more often than not, it is because we are reluctant to feel the pain that comes with leaving our uncomfortable comfort zone. Nietzsche said that we have a choice between: “…either as little displeasure as possible…or as much displeasure as possible”. The road to success is paved with difficulties and obstacles. Perhaps that is why people prefer to stay where they are and be grumpy rather than risk the real pain that is required to reach the top of their personal mountain.
Bad habits and lazy thinking
“Alas” as Ovid said “I suffer wounds made by my own arrows.” I came across that quote in Montaigne’s essays and it struck me as a powerful reminder of how often we sabotage our own brilliance through bad habits and poor thinking. Montaigne added “In the past, when Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” These bad habits can be both behavioural and attitudinal. Sometimes we allocate our personal resources to things which perpetuate the current situation rather than help us get to where we want to go. Likewise, our attitudes can become fixed, repeating the norms of the past rather than moving with the present. For instance, if we wish to reinvent ourselves for future success then we may need to invest in new skills, new networks, and new attitudes.
One of the many reasons that I like Ibarra’s book so much is that she is counter-cultural in her thinking. So many of today’s management books talk about leadership and authenticity and yet she neatly, and not before time, turns it on its head. Leadership, she says, doesn’t come from authentic self-knowledge; rather, it comes from self-action. Too many inward journeys lead to nowhere in particular, whereas you become a leader through acting like one. As she says: “When we are looking to change our game, authenticity is an anchor that easily keeps us from sailing forth.” This is a marvellous kick up the behind for those of us who have been focusing too much on personal values at the expense of living them. Quite rightly, she reminds us that it is through doing that we become who are.
As regular readers will know, I often write about how, when it comes to leadership, so many people seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. Leadership, as promulgated by business schools, the media, and head-hunters, seems to consist mainly of colossuses who bestride the world acting as decision- makers in chief. This myth helps sustain large hierarchical bureaucracies but has little to do with the real world. It is important that we re-appraise what we mean by leadership if we are to live out Ibarra’s maxim and act like a leader. Leadership is not about making decisions: it is about creating the environment in which decisions are made. Leadership is not about being the most important person in the room: it is about making everyone else feel that they are the most important. Leadership is not about what you say: it is all about what you do. And, finally, you do not have to have people to be a leader. A 13-yr old girl who is the sole carer for her disabled mother shows more leadership skills than many CEOs. Leadership is about personal behaviour and attitude. Make those changes to your own life and people will gravitate towards you. Ibarra tells us to spend more time doing leadership. And rather than wait, she says: “Start now. Act now”.