I was three months into my new role as Managing Director, overseeing a nationally dispersed team of managers and directors. I opened my computer around 7:00am and could not believe the flurry of emails and slacks that were already waiting for me. A direct report was struggling. An event last night my team put on didn’t go so great. Another direct report who had been feeling frustrated was thinking of leaving.
A few hours later as I was preparing for our team meeting, already feeling pretty down about the week, I felt a pit in my stomach looking at our latest progress to goal report.
The data was clear: we were behind, far behind, in relation to our goals for a major deadline that was approaching in a couple of weeks.
I shut my computer and felt the tears welling up in my eyes. It didn’t matter to me in the moment that I was relatively new to my role, that many things were, objectively, going okay, and that we hadn’t actually missed on anything yet. The only voice in my head that I could hear was saying “throw in the towel - this isn’t your game to play”.
I went through the motions in that meeting, talking about the bright spots I could find and what we needed to do to close our gaps before our deadline. The whole time I was thinking “Man, I really hope they don’t know I’m panicking.” My team left the meeting knowing what I expected them to do and I left feeling like I had survived to live another day, my thoughts trapped in a hamster wheel and my team, as far as I could tell, unfazed.
What I realize now was that my brain was completely hijacked by fear. Fear that I couldn’t fix a problem; fear that I wasn’t right for this big new job and fear that I was going to fail. Underneath this fear were three prevailing mindsets:
I am solely responsible for solving this problem
I’m not good enough
Failing means I’m a failure
Boom. There they are. Feel familiar to anyone? My guess is that if you’re reading this, you’ve experienced one, two or all three of these mindsets at one point or another.
Take a moment to think about these. If you’ve experienced them, when did they, or do they, show up? How do you know that you’re in one of them, and what do they trick you into doing? If you haven’t experienced these before, what do you perhaps believe instead during times of challenge?
While there is a whole pile of stuff that is outside of your control, as a leader as human, one of the things that you do have control over is your mindset. What you believe and tell yourself about what you are experiencing in any given moment and how that impacts the actions you choose to take or not take as a result.
What becomes possible when you’re able to recognize mindsets like the ones I was experiencing and rewrite them? Our thoughts directly influence our words and our actions, and when we are conscious about our thoughts, it changes the way that we react in any given situation. Our reactions set the stage for what we, and our teams, are able to achieve.
For me, it took a few more months of walking on eggshells to realize that my beliefs about my own leadership were the bottleneck in my team’s progress. In reflection, it’s clear that I had multiple available exits from my internal hamster wheel if I had allowed myself the space to see beyond what was right in front of me.
This - space and perspective - is something that leaders, especially leaders who have recently taken on greater responsibility and are accustomed to being successful, rarely give themselves. While shifting your mindset is not a substitute for strategic thinking, making decisions with imperfect information and all of the other hard things that come along with leadership, it is a powerful, fully available tool that when used can be game changing.
So how do you do it?
Step 1: Recognize
This is pretty important. It’s basically impossible to shift a mindset if you don’t know you’re experiencing one (this was my problem!) and it can be challenging to get a balcony level view of yourself when you’re feeling deflated. To get started, here are a few things to try:
Pay attention to what you’re feeling and put a name on it. Dr. Susan David, a toxic positivity researcher, recommends eliminating “stressed” and “anxious” from your vocabulary and trying to identify more precise words. Fear? Anger? Doubt? Getting clearer on the emotion you are experiencing will help to identify what you’re thinking. More on her fantastic work here and here.
What do you believe is true about what you’re facing? Once listed out, which of those beliefs are limiting in some way?
What is the voice inside your head saying?
What “should’s” are you currently telling yourself?
Step 2: Rewrite
Once you have a grasp on what the underlying belief(s) is/are that could be holding you back, begin to rewrite that mindset. This doesn’t mean always shifting to a more optimistic or positive thought. It means shifting from a belief that is limiting in some way to one that is empowering; one that brings you down to one that lifts you up. I’ve offered some alternative mindsets to the ones that I was experiencing. This can be personal - try a few on and iterate.
Step 3: React
It can often be helpful in this stage to think about things in the third person. If someone were to move forward with this empowering mindset, what would they do? Who are they being? Here is an example:
To me, these are attributes that I aspire to in my leadership. I look at this list and think hey… this sounds pretty good! If I were to have applied this lens to my original dilemma, I wouldn’t have been alone. I would have been able to come up with much better solutions, ones that I wasn’t thinking about or weren’t best positioned to try. I would have gotten more buy-in from my team and created opportunities for them to take on stretch opportunities. And, I probably would have been more successful and happier.
This process is a bit like weightlifting: the more you practice, the better you get at it. And while choosing a more empowering mindset isn’t an on-off switch, it is exactly that: a choice. So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you start to notice that a limiting mindset might be knocking at the door, choose to recognize, rewrite, and react.
What’s the worst that could happen?
What’s the best?