All leaders know the importance of remembering names. Being able to call someone by name, especially after it has been a while since we have seen them, is a form of acknowledgement and affirmation that says: “You are important to me.” People feel great when we give them that sense. But did you know that being able to remember the past derives, in part, from our ability to anticipate the future? Both functions utilize the same processing centers in the brain, and the stories we tell about the past are as much about sense-making as they are about reporting. In our minds, all human beings are time travelers. If you want learn how to leverage that ability for leadership, then I encourage you to read on.
Today’s Provision stands in contrast to my last two Provisions on Mindfulness and Moods. Both mindfulness and moods have to do with the present moment, specifically, our awareness and attitudes in the present moment. It’s not possible to lead well in the present moment if we are not aware of what’s happening and if our attitudes are filled with negativity. In this moment, great leaders pay attention, suspend judgment, keep a positive attitude, and stay open to possibility.
In order to do that, however, great leaders master the art of mental time traveling. The human ability to remember the past and anticipate the future is truly remarkable. Although other animals demonstrate some of this ability, no other animal demonstrates such profound capabilities. Indeed, our detailed reconstructions of what has happened in the past and our equally vivid constructions of what may happen in the future represent the fertile ground out of which civilizations are born. Apart from this ability, human beings would never have advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
It is important, then, that leaders set our mindfulness and moods in a context that only memory can offer. The idea that the present moment exists in isolation from other moments is patently untrue and not the point of mindfulness. The present moment is, by definition, the moment that exists between the past and the future. Our thoughts about those other times determines much as to who we are and how we function in the moment.
And thoughts are all we ever really have to work with. Even when we have tangible artifacts from the past and explicit designs for the future, they mean nothing apart from our thoughts about them. Take something like dinosaur bones. Scientists have worked hard to create a plausible story explaining the existence of dinosaurs, starting about 230 million years ago and ending about 65 million years ago in the wake of a cosmic cataclysm caused by an asteroid impact.
Some people, however, are not persuaded. They argue that the dinosaurs were created by God at the same time as all the other animals and that they were wiped out by the biblical flood, from which human beings and other animals were spared only by the fast and faithful actions of Noah and his family. That’s another line of thinking about the past, trying to make sense of the same evidence.
Fast forward to the current debate over the US debt limit and we see the same dynamic at work. In this case, however, instead of dinosaur bones we have legislation. That legislation costs money to implement and the US does not currently collect enough money to cover all the costs. Some politicians have worked hard to separate the budget conversation from the debt conversation. They view past legislation as an obligation until it is changed or eliminated in the future.
Some people, however, are not persuaded. They argue that legislation is not an obligation if the US does not collect the money to pay for it. They view such deficit spending as “kicking the can down the road” to future generations in ways that are onerous and unacceptable. That’s another line of thinking about the past and future, trying to make sense of the same information.
Regardless of what you think about dinosaurs and debt, it’s clear that you are the one doing the thinking. Different people come to different conclusions about the past, present, and future depending upon how they think. And those conclusions have consequences. In Louisiana, public schools teach students about both evolution and creationism. In the US Congress, they have been at loggerheads ever since the new House of Representatives was elected, trying to deal with both the budget and the debt. We’ll see how that goes as deadlines fast approach.
The bottom line can be summarized in the pithy slogan, “Words create worlds.” The words we say to ourselves and to others frame our experiences of the past, present, and future. Understanding this power, great leaders choose our words carefully. We think things through because thinking is being and doing.
How then do great leaders think? In a word, optimistically. Fortunately, that’s not too difficult since the human brain is hardwired to think optimistically about both the past and the future. Both memories and dreams, both reflection and prospection, get consistently shaded with positive hues.
That’s the conclusion of researcher Tali Sharot, author of the The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Sharot writes:
“The only way conscious mental time travel could have been selected for over the course of evolution is if it had emerged at the same time as false beliefs. In other words, an ability to imagine the future has to develop side by side with positive biases. The knowledge of death has to emerge at the same time as its irrational denial. A brain that could consciously voyage through time would be an evolutionary barrier unless it had an optimism bias.”
“It is this coupling•conscious prospection and optimism’that underlies the extraordinary achievements of the human species, from culture and art to medicine and technology. One could not have persisted without the other. Optimism does not exist without at least an elementary ability to consider the future, as optimism is by definition a positive belief about what is yet to come, and without optimism, prospection would be devastating.”
What great leaders understand is how to integrate optimistic memories and anticipation in ways that become life-enhancing, self-fulfilling prophecies rather than dangerous, irrational risks. Well-placed optimism creates self-efficacy which stimulates such core ingredients of success as initiative and resilience. Unfounded or prejudicial optimism, on the other hand, gets everyone in trouble.
This defines one of the key works of leaders: knowing how and when to say “Yes!” You are perhaps familiar with the Pygmalion effect. In multiple experiments (that are now banned because of the harm they can do), teachers are told at the start of a school year that one group of students is gifted and talented while another group of students is low-performing. Sure enough, that’s just how things turn out by the end of the school year.
The only problem: the two groups of students were randomly selected and there was no actual difference between them as to their abilities. Giving the teacher an optimism bias for one group of kids became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Great leaders say “Yes!” so that everyone can win. We don’t use the past to divide people and sequester the future; we use it to unite people and expand the future. Memory and anticipation are linked not only by virtue of how our brains function, but also by how great leaders lead. Our thinking is possibility thinking not just because of our “irrationally positive brains,” but also because of our understanding of how words work.
Words create worlds. If we think we have a lot of problems and limitations, then that is the world we live in. If we think we have a lot of strengths and opportunities, then that is the world we live in.
Great leaders see those strengths and opportunities. We see them in the past and in the future. We call them out and name them because we know they are there. Holding on to and calling out that belief makes all the difference in the world.
Coaching Inquiries: What is the nature of your relationship to the past, present, and future? Are you aware of how your own optimism bias plays out in life and work? To what degree would you describe that bias as irrational and to what degree would describe it as predictive? How can you become better able to bolster the self-confidence of others?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
Thanks for reminding me about the importance of moods. I don’t pay attention to that enough. It’s easy for me to slip into a bad mood and not even notice, until someone points it out. The idea that we can cultivate a good mood through our daily practices is a rather new one to me. I will have to think about that.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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