Debunking Leadership Myths #9 — I Can – and Should – Leave My Past Behind

The previous installment of the Debunking Leadership Myths Article Series unraveled the misguided perception that employees should be accountable on their own. This article delves deeper to a prevalent – and faulty – belief that causes leaders to suboptimize decision-making, prioritization, firing problem staff, getting accountability right, and more. 

“I can – and should – leave my past behind.”

Here’s an example of how this shows up behaviorally: It was midmorning on a Saturday when I heard the doorbell ring. I opened the front door and saw my neighbor Dennis. We had always been friendly, but that morning he looked angry and ready for a fight. He was red in the face and his jaw clenched tightly. 

“Hi, Dennis,” I said smiling, “How are you?”

“You know,” he blurted out, “Every day, your kids walk across my lawn to get to the school bus—back and forth, back and forth. They’re wearing a path across it,” he said, pointing energetically to his front yard.

I followed his finger with my eyes. Sure enough, he was right. I could see the path my boys had trod across the grass as they made their daily round-trip trek to the bus stop. 

“Wow—I see it,” I told him. “And I’m sorry. Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, Dennis.” I assured him that they’d walk down our driveway from then on, and that if it ever happened again, all he had to do was let me know and I’d handle it. 

Instantly, Dennis transformed right in front of my eyes. His anger dissipated; his jaw unclenched. At that moment, our conversation became friendly and a few minutes later, he was happily whistling in his yard. 

After he left, I couldn’t help but wonder why he arrived the way he did. He must have experienced a similar situation in the past—and apparently it didn’t go well. As Dennis approached my door that morning, he brought his past experience with him

Have you ever been urged to “leave your past behind” by a well-meaning friend, a colleague, or even a meme you encountered online? While it may seem like a liberating idea, perhaps allowing you to see the present moment with fresh eyes, in reality the way we conceptualize the past shapes our beliefs, our decisions, our choices, and – ultimately – our actions.

Take a brief moment right now to reflect on some of your own past experiences. You’ll probably find you can relate. 

Psychological research provides further evidence and suggests how to control the influence of past experiences on the present. Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo has conducted extensive research on the psychology of time to better understand the interaction between our experiences and our behavior. He found that each of us has a default setting—or time perspective—that determines how we view past, present, and future events. 

When it comes to the past, our perceptions either skew positive—meaning we usually reflect fondly on our previous experiences—or negative, making us more likely to hold onto bad memories. To gain insight into your friends’ and colleagues’ tendencies, simply observe. In debriefing a tough project at work, someone with a past-positive orientation might share how they bonded with colleagues, found innovative solutions, and wowed their clients in the end. Meanwhile, someone with a past-negaitve orientation would harp on the long hours, late nights, and other pain points that occurred during the process. 

Now, think about how you react when you face a challenge. Do you recall past events that bolster your confidence (a past-positive orientation), or does a potential hurdle bring up feelings of fear, dread, or avoidance as you remember a similar experience that didn’t end well (a past-negative orientation, just like my neighbor Dennis demonstrated in the opening story)? 

As you take a pulse on whether you tend to have a past-positive or past-negative orientation, it’s important to note that there are no “facts” in our memories. Put simply: we make stuff up. All of our recollections are literally stories that we tell ourselves about our experiences with past events. This is the reason why people in the same place at the same time often remember things differently!

Our perceptions about the past—or present, for that matter—are not based in reality, but on our perspective. Thus, it’s possible to control how we perceive (remember) past events by manipulating our perspective. We can and should use past experiences – even negative ones – to our advantage in the present. 

With that in mind, let’s turn to Activator #7: Leverage Your Past

My friend David Rendall learned how to better capitalize on his past at one of the lowest points in his career and in his life. As a child, he exhibited classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). David couldn’t sit still. It seemed as if he was always in trouble at school. As he now likes to say, he was every school administrator’s worst nightmare. Although he was extremely intelligent, he grew up believing that his ADD was a weakness and that it would prevent him from achieving any real success in life. Further, and sadly, his belief was reinforced by many of the teachers and school administrators he encountered. 

When David graduated from the classroom to an office setting, he found his high energy and restlessness to be a liability as well. Just as he was about to resign himself to being miserable and misunderstood, he had an epiphany. He realized that the same traits that made him unhappy sitting in a cubicle also made him exceptionally well suited for public speaking. 

That’s exactly what he set out to pursue as he concluded that his greatest weaknesses was also his greatest strength (as is true for all of us). It’s a thesis he documented in his book The Freak Factor and has shared on stages around the world as a highly regarded public speaker. 

Like David, you can transform the way you think about your own past. To reframe the stories you’ve made up about your past, consider the following questions: 

  • What if you’re wrong about a particular belief you have about yourself? 
  • What was the good that came from a bad prior experience? 
  • Are there alternative explanations for events, or different ways to look at what happened in your past? 

These questions shift your perspective on the past, which is often key to both present and future effectiveness and accomplishment. 

To supersize your ability to reframe past events, try this free Reframe Your Past Tool from my first book Activators. Through a more specific, deeper series of questions, the tool provides actionable insight to recalibrate and even completely let go of painful prior experiences to enable a more positive, productive future. 

As you experience the Reframe Your Past Tool, you might also find insight into the next myth we’ll debunk in this Leadership Myths Series: behavior change is hard. 

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Thinking For Oneself

“When I was young, I thought other people could give me wisdom. Now that I’m older, I know this isn’t true.

Wisdom is earned, not given. When other people give us the answer, it belongs to them and not us. While we might achieve the outcome we desire, it comes from dependence, not insight. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we’re dependent on the insight of others.

There is nothing wrong with buying insight, this is one way we leverage ourselves. The problem is when we assume the insight of others is our own…”

The Three Things Employees Really Want: Career, Community, Cause

“These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

In the past, organizations built entire cultures around just one aspect of the psychological contract. You could recruit, motivate, and retain people by promising a great career or a close-knit community or a meaningful cause. But we’ve found that many people want more…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…