“As a man thinks in his heart so is he.” Proverbs 23:7. Does the way a person think about life and events actually create their success or failure? Does a winning mindset impact performance? The question is critical for leaders in any field of endeavor. Popular thinking has often asserted that we attract what we secretly think about. The idea is more than a moralist warning against the idea one can assume a public persona that defies their innermost desires. It appears that people actually set themselves up for success or failure based on how they think about themselves and their environment. Empirical studies verify the connection between how one views him or her self and their situation to the outcomes they produce. Specifically depressed people tend to view life pessimistically and actually seem to attract negative events. Happy people view life with more hope and actually attract positive events. The impact of this insight for leaders is both personal and professional.
In his work on suffering and stress psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman found that some people actually learn to be helpless. They view themselves as victims of circumstance beyond their control. The result of this learned helplessness is that thinking determines behavior or outlook determines outcome. Said another way, an outlook anticipating success determines success in outcomes. An outlook anticipating failure actually determines failure, rejection, defeat, and etcetera in outcomes. The reality is that some leaders torpedo their success by the way they think. Seligman found that individuals who think about life pessimistically produced thought processes that help produce learned helplessness in three ways.
First, they personalized the explanation of their distress in other words they blamed themselves rather than external factors. For example: “I must be stupid because I can’t figure this out.” Or “I must be getting old because this problem is too overwhelming.” Notice that in each instance the person assumes responsibility for what is entirely outside their control thus adding to a sense of helplessness.
Second, pessimistic perspectives tend to extrapolate problems as pervasive rather than particular. If problems are pervasive they seem unconquerable – even normal or unavoidable. Statements like; “No one agrees with this decision” or “The Company always hoses the successful” indicate that learned helplessness is at work.
Third, pessimistic perspectives lead to the belief that problems are permanent instead of temporary. If a person believes that a difficult or uncomfortable situation will not change they tend to condemn themselves and others to a perpetual state of loss. Statements like; “they will not change” or “this will never work” indicate that such a belief is at work.
The reverse of pessimism or happiness actually leverage success in life by producing benefits like better health, frequent success, or more social engagement. The causal efficacy runs both ways which is to say that pessimism may lead to poorer health, less social engagement and infrequent success.
The unavoidable reality is that successful leaders set a course in life that anticipates and engenders success. Consider the characteristics of a happy person as defined in a study by Peterson & Seligman (2004).
Table 1: Virtues and their Corresponding Character Strengths
|Virtue||Strengths and Definition|
|Wisdom and knowledge||Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge characterized in:
|Courage||Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of internal or external opposition
|Humanity||Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others
|Justice||Civic strengths that protect against excess
|Temperance||Strengths that protect against excess
|Transcendence||Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
The successful are happy but here is the kicker, success did not generate happiness rather happiness generates (is causal to) success. Why? Happy people are people who pursue life with characteristically (a) positive emotion and pleasure; (b) engagement socially and emotionally and (c) a defined sense of meaning. The good news is that a pattern of learned helplessness is reversible.
How can a leader reverse the feeling of helplessness or help others in their charge reverse these feelings? Start with self awareness. Look at the characteristics in Table 1; do your inner thought patterns/beliefs differ from these characteristics? To the degree that one’s perception differs from these characteristics there is room to honestly assess why this is so and to see where mis-beliefs may actually be hindering success. So, how have researchers determined to apply these insights to help people move from a self-defeating pessimism to success building happiness? Employ one or more of the following exercises or coach your followers to employ them for at least a week and map what happens when you do.
- Use your signature strengths in a new way. Review Table 1 and determine which of the 24 character strengths best describe you. Now use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. Keep a log of how you used your strength. What were the results?
- Three good things. Write down three things that go well each day. Write down the causes, why did these things go well? Do this every evening at the end of the day for at least one week? At the end of the first week reflect on all the good things that happened the week before. What do you see or what can you learn?
- Exercise gratitude. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to you but who you have not properly thanked. Once the letter is written deliver it personally to the addressee. After you have completed this take a few moments to write out what happened. What insight did you gain or what can you learn from this experience?
Research verifies that interventions such as those outlined above provide a measurable change in how a person views life. Regardless of whether you are hoping for success or looking for ways to be more successful using these exercises can go a long way leading to a greater sense of positive emotion, social/emotional engagement in life and a growing sense of meaning that becomes contagious to you and to those you are around. You can learn to be successful…or more successful!
Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist (July-August 2005, Vol. 60, No. 5), 410-421.
Nansook Park and Martin E. P. Seligman. “Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-19.
Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 13-14.