Break With the Past to Create an Impossible Future

I recently found myself pulsing friends and colleagues on critical leadership moments that impacted them most.

One friend stated that although most of his critical leadership lessons came directly from his father, he also learned invaluable lessons from those who taught him how “not” to lead.

Effective leaders are often found among those who survived dysfunctional families and unstable homes, or who’ve developed resilience by overcoming other significant obstacles. Good and bad examples of leadership make an indelible imprint.

Senior leaders required to create and operationalize the vision and strategy for their organizations are navigating what Wharton Professor and author, Greg Shea describes as “permanent white water.”

They’ll be asked to see into the future and make bold declarations often impacting thousands of lives. They’ll be required to place strategic bets, predicting healthy returns, despite volatility and uncertainty. They’ll be asked to face challenges squarely, and make fast decisions that carry real consequences. In doing so, they’ll be asked to balance the needs of a wide range of stakeholder groups, some with competing interests.

In short, they’ll be required to do “the impossible.” They’ll be challenged to imagine, and then create an impossible future.

In Tracey Goss’s The Last Word on Power (Doubleday, ©1996), she explores some of the conditions necessary for creating an impossible future. These principles are still compelling and relevant for today’s leaders.

Goss eschews the notion of continual improvement at the leadership level, in favor of boldly breaking with the past. The ‘winning strategy’ that leaders believe has brought them success also contain self-limiting beliefs… guardrails that prevent leaders from doing the impossible. Therefore, offers Goss, those winning strategies must be identified and abandoned “to make room for new possibilities.”

Doing the impossible work of transformational leadership also requires recognizing that what’s happening is filtered through our interpretations. “We automatically and immediately interpret everything that happens. Past occurrences are a series of interpretations, all of which are valid and none of which are ‘the’ truth.” It takes a kind of disciplined awareness to separate what we think to be true from the actual facts and to choose a different course of action.

Doing the impossible requires leaders to be aware of these interpretations, and to dig deeper to access the clearest truth possible.

In one of her more challenging statements, Goss states “…life is meaningless, and is all an interpretation that you made up.” Sounds nihilistic, but its not. In fact, embracing that notion could provide a much needed sense of freedom and possibility. She urges leaders to replace “predicting the future” with “declaring the future, and making bold promises to fulfill it.”

The overarching message in The Last word on Power is that leadership requires shifting our context, the beliefs and attitudes that create our worldview, and shape our lives. We must learn to be able to break with the past, and act from the future. To shift our focus from “what we are doing” to “the way we are being.”

To quote Rayona Sharpnack, Founder and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, “When I work with leaders, one of the key concepts we strive to understand is how context affects us on a personal level and within our organizations. Real change, for a leader, needs to begin with understanding what you believe, not what you do. Out of that awareness comes the ability to inform how you act in the world. The framework for what you believe on a personal level sets the stage for everything else. ”

Leaping off into the unknown requires firm footing… understanding your current beliefs, your context, and then abandoning it… will free you from their constraints, and allow you to grow.