From elementary through high school, my grades were below average. I wasn’t challenged, didn’t connect with my teachers and just wanted to get by. My teachers were continuously perplexed as I had the ingredients for high grades — intelligence, self-direction and lots of energy. But my self-concept was that I was lazy. I expected little of myself academically, and followed through on that expectation. Our self-concept (expectations) drives us. Fortunately, our self-concept can and does change. Mine changed into one of ambition and achievement under the influence and expectations of my mentors, guides and leaders.
Your expectations are the story you narrate about yourself and about the world. You are what you think. This is true about your expectations of yourself as it is about your expectations of others.
In 1964, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard professor, conducted a seminal study on the power of expectations. He set out to determine if students’ results can be shaped by their teachers’ expectations. In an elementary school in South San Francisco he instructed the teachers that a new test of learning potential (actually a standardized IQ test dressed it up with a new title) could predict student success. He then tested all the students and randomly selected 20 percent of the student body (whose test scores were no better or worse than their peers). He proceeded to tell their teachers that these students’ test scores indicated that they were poised for a leap of intellectual growth and ripe for academic excellence.
Rosenthal followed the children’s performance for the next two years and discovered that teacher expectations demonstrably affected these kids: they expected greater gains in IQ from children in this group, and these kids subsequently gained more IQ. He found that as the teachers in the study thought about the high potential of their high achievers, they changed how they conceived, engaged, and worked with them. Because of their expectations, teachers treated the “special” group of students in different ways. They received more smiles, nods, and affirming touches. They were given more time to answer questions and more specific feedback on their answers.
Leaders influence their people in the same way. And it is the same principle that shapes our internal experience as we define ourselves with our thoughts and beliefs. We become what we focus on and what we expect of ourselves. The Dhammapada (Buddhist verses from the 3rd century BCE) explains that we are the result of all we have thought. We are founded on our thoughts; we are made up of our thoughts. You are what you think. If you think that you can only manage a small team, and expect and believe that you can’t lead a large organization, you’re probably right. If you think safety is the ultimate leadership goal, you are likely to influence your team to be cautious. Our repetitive thoughts about ourselves are our “self-image.” This view, this aggregate of thoughts, predicts our capabilities as well as our limitations; it is how you see yourself, both positively and negatively.
Your currently held self-expectations were formed without effort and with no will-power; they are based on memory, crafted from beliefs, and is formed from relationships with significant others, and how you interpreted childhood events. The objective of leaders on the hero’s journey is self-realization. Self-realization is a belief in your own uniqueness as a human being, a sense of deep and wide awareness of people and situations, and a feeling of constructive influencing of others through your own personality.
Consider the following tools if you find that your self-image is outdated and no longer serves your greatest aspirations.
1. Be Aware
Take some time to write down who you are right now. What are your qualities and values? What do you consider as negative about yourself? In which situations do your negative beliefs about yourself pop us?
2. Question Your Comfort Zone
Realize that while you may not like your limiting self-concept, it is a comfort zone. These thoughts and beliefs are running on auto-pilot; albeit an outdated one. Commit to stepping beyond your comfort zone and experiment with expressing yourself differently in select arenas. If, for example, your comments in a meeting are usually focused on tactics, then articulate big picture observations and see how that feels.
3. Craft a Deliberate Self-Image
With awareness comes choice. By becoming aware of your strengths, fears, expectations, and values you create options. By answering “Who am I?” you can rewrite your narrative, reduce the intensity of your negative self-beliefs, and draw to mind your positive self-concept. Write this story about yourself and read it daily for a month. You will begin to make choices from the mindset of this new self-concept.
4. Find Your Tribe
Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Be selective about those with whom you spend your time, they will reinforce you to yourself. Find the people who inspire you, and share with them your vision for yourself. Let your circle – your tribe – help propel you toward your emerging vision of yourself.
Surprisingly, our brain cannot distinguish real from imagined data. Think right now about biting into a slice of lemon, and you start salivating as your face cringes. Visualize yourself as being the person you’re describing. Picture, imagine, or feel yourself in situations you’d like to change, and visualize how you behave and the choices you make with peers, bosses, loved ones, and strangers. Mentally rehearse your new responses and actions and be pleasantly surprised to experience these behaviors in real-time.
Here’s a final note. Watch your language. Phrases like, “I just backed into this position,” or “I’ve always been weak at…” not only negate you to other people, but to yourself. When you hear your negative descriptions, pause, consider what you want, and change your value proposition to one of possibility. Something as simple as “I haven’t read that book,” can change to “I have yet to read that book.”
Eric Kaufmann is the founder and president of Sagatica, Inc. and the author of the forthcoming book, The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results (Sounds True, September 2016). Email Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.