Each of us has a vision of an ideal version of ourselves. Your ideal self may be an accomplished, respected leader -or- a difference maker for people in need -or- a CEO building a revolutionary company brick by brick. Yet there are days when you can’t fix a simple problem, or you feel more like an amateur than a fearless leader.
We all have moments that highlight the duality of how we envision ourselves versus where we feel we are in the present.
For example, there are probably days when:
What’s the biggest roadblock preventing you from closing your duality gap? Most commonly, it’s how you think.
We humans are fantastic at getting in our own way. We obsess over hypotheticals, conjure events and meaning that don’t exist, and worry about outcomes we can’t control. We allow our emotional state to rule (and overrule!) our rational selves. We ascribe meaning to others’ words and actions without regard for data, facts, or intent. The effects of this thinking can slow growth, damage careers, and cause capable team members to flee.
It’s not totally your fault. A recent Forbes article reports that self-sabotage often occurs in small, almost undetectable moments. And no one is immune. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer once confessedhe constantly suffered from creative paralysis due to his success. “It wasn’t just me sitting down to write,” Mailer said. “It was Norman Mailer sitting down to write. I had to live up to him.”
Wouldn’t it be great if there was one straightforward technique—a superpower of sorts—you could use to short-circuit your tendency to get in your own way? And wouldn’t it be even better if you could also use it to help your team do the same?
There is, and it’s called reframing.
Reframing is a mindset and influence technique that you can use to help yourself and others. The real prize of reframing is what psychologists call behavioral flexibility—increasing the breadth of your thinking and of your potential actions at any moment in time. This is the key to being able to “unstick” yourself and others when you (often unconsciously) fall prey to your thought-narrowing, option-limiting human defaults.
After I learned how to do this for myself, I began helping my coaching clients employ it, enabling them to move past what often seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Reframing has become the most powerful tool in my leadership toolbox—and it’s one you need in yours, too.
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” — Abraham Lincoln
Reframing changes the meaning of a person, place, thing, behavior, or event. Since all meaning is context-dependent, when you deliberately shift context, you can change the meaning of any statement or event. Reframing can also assign new meaning to old experiences. It’s a powerful mechanism to increase behavioral flexibility.
There are two types of reframing:
Reframing can be used to change your own perspective relative to thoughts, experiences, or events that hinder your effectiveness as a leader (or as a partner, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a coach, etc.). You can also use it to influence others by helping them see things in a new way and perhaps change their opinion or stance on an issue. It’s also a handy coaching tool as you coach your team for growth.
How to Reframe Past Negative Events
“Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” — Viktor Frankl
The way we conceptualize the past, present, and future informs our beliefs—in turn influencing our decisions, choices, and actions. Psychologist and Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo conducted extensive research on the psychology of time and found that each of us has a unique “time perspective” that determines how we view events. Some of us obsess over the past, others live for the moment, many worry about the future—and each of us process our thoughts and emotions differently.
For example, let’s consider two people who recently vacationed together at a beach resort. It would be reasonable to think that they experienced the same events as they traveled. But when you speak to each of them individually after the trip, they tell very different stories: one gushes about the beautiful beaches and elegant restaurants, and the other complains about the high winds and pricy drinks. We’ve all experienced some version of this—remembering something quite differently than another person who was right there with us at the time.
But how can this be?
To effectively reframe past negative events, it’s important to acknowledge that emotionally-charged memories contain no facts. Rather, our recollections are literally stories we tell ourselves. This is why two people who were vacationing together can have totally different recollections of what happened! As soon as you recognize this, you gain the power to begin reframing the way you tell these recalled stories to yourself and to others, and transform your perspective on the past into an asset leading to your future.
As a leader, how do you frame past events? Do you tend to think about them positively or in a more negative light? Leveraging your past experiences—even highly negative ones—to create your future provides an incredible advantage. In fact, bestselling humorist David Sedaris has based his entire career around positively reframing past negative events. “If somebody treats me poorly, I write about it, and I’m so glad I was there in that moment,” Sedaris told The New York Times. “It’s like they’re handing me money.”
My friend David Rendall realized the value of reframing when he began his career. As a child, David exhibited classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He couldn’t sit still in class and was in trouble constantly. As he likes to say, he was every school principal’s worst nightmare! Though very smart, David grew up believing that his ADD was a weakness that would prevent him from achieving any real success in life—sadly, a notion that was continually reinforced by most of his teachers and administrators. When he eventually entered the business world, he found his troublesome traits from childhood were a liability there as well.
One day, David realized that though his ADD made him unhappy in an office setting, it made him well-suited for public speaking where he would be able to talk freely as the center of others’ attention. That’s exactly what he decided to pursue. He began researching how others overcame their ADD and discovered that our greatest weaknesses can also be our greatest strengths. The result? His book, The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness. David’s become highly regarded speaker with engagements around the world—all because he reframed his past and leveraged it to build the future he wanted.
To transform your thinking about the past, ask yourself these reframing questions:
Just like David, exploring the answers to these questions can be the key to your future success!
“It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” — Louise Hay
My client, Daniel, was stuck. Although he was recently promoted to be the CEO of a successful $100m firm, he struggled to make decisions that were required to scale the business. His indecision was so profound, he felt guilty even considering an executive assistant to support him and two other senior leaders! As we spoke about his situation, Daniel labeled himself a “doer,” referencing his work ethic as the factor that he believed made him successful at building the business. He then said something that ultimately helped unlock more behavioral flexibility: “Mark, everyone I know who’s successful is a doer. And now I’m supposed to be a leader and not a doer. I don’t understand how that can work!”
Daniel had opened the door for me to contextually reframe his perspective. “Who exactly are you comparing yourself to?” I asked. “I bet none of the successful doers you know are the CEOs of Fortune 1,000 firms.” I went on to suggest that he was using the wrong comparison set of people to benchmark his behavior as the leader of a $100m firm.
Daniel thought for a moment, then said: “You know what, Mark? You’re absolutely right! The doers I know are successful project and program managers, not CEOs” And, just like that, Daniel reframed the context of his comparison set and increased his behavioral flexibility.
You can help your team increase their behavioral flexibility this way, too. As you coach your team members for growth, try to identify patterns of thinking and behavior that hold them back—the same way I identified Daniel’s unproductive pattern of comparing his performance as a CEO to other individuals in vastly different roles.
To help someone else reframe their perspective, ask yourself these questions:
Before long, your newfound leadership superpower will help your team move past their current patterns, get “un-stuck” more readily, and accelerate their growth.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.” — William James
Reframing increases behavioral flexibility.
Whether you’re a CEO at the top of your game, an entrepreneur just getting started or anywhere in-between, your behavioral flexibility as a leader correlates to your ability to get out of your own way and to help others do the same.
Begin your journey to mastery by acting on yourself. Become more aware of situations where reframing the content or context of an event can help you discover a new perspective.
Use my Reframe Your Past Tool to accelerate your progress. This free, easy-to-use tool walks you through the reframing process for a past event in your life that you remember more negatively than positively. Leverage Your Past is one of eight Activators from my book, Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done. Check it out for a deeper dive.
As you become adept at reframing, your duality gap will decrease. This is because, more and more often, your feelings and actions will be in better alignment with your vision of your ideal self. With mastery, it truly feels like a superpower!
From there, use the same techniques to help your team accelerate their growth.
Your experiences of success, failure, triumph, and trauma don’t define you. Rather—and reframed—it’s what you do with those experiences that makes the difference.
Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:
Upcoming Class: June 27, 2022. Learn more and sign up!
Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:
Upcoming Class: June 29, 2022. Learn more and register!