Limiting your Leadership Potential

My father had worked at the same company for 40 years.  He was so dedicated, that he invested everything he had into the company.  When he later died of a heart condition, my family and I were penniless because the company my father loved so much had gone bankrupt, leaving my mother without his pension.  It was at that point that I developed the belief that I couldn’t trust authority.  I was not going to blindly follow someone else, but rather, take charge and be in control of my own life.

The functional piece of my belief was that I became a leader.  I naturally rose to leadership positions.  I started my own business.  I was self-sufficient.  In my mind, my belief made me better, and my success continued to support this.  However, there were times where I had to follow people — very good people and leaders, in fact — and I found myself struggling.  For so many years, my distrust of authority had made me successful, and here I stood, among peers and people I respected, unable to put aside my irrational belief and allow myself the opportunity to learn from them.  If only I realized sooner that my belief could only get me so far in life, perhaps I wouldn’t have missed out on the various learning opportunities I could have had.  My belief limited me.

Defining Limiting Beliefs

By definition, a limiting belief is a set of unconscious beliefs that we develop through adaptive situations in our lives.  At one point or another, our limiting belief served a purpose.  Like a loyal friend, it was there when we needed someone to turn to and advised us when we were lost or afraid.  However, as our situations change and our belief no longer fulfills a purpose, it becomes limiting.  For example, a common limiting belief many leaders have is “If you want something done, do it yourself.”  Leaders who believes this will consistently reinforce in their behavior and expectations that they are the only one who can do the job right.  Because of the critical and non-trusting work environment, employees and coworkers around them become frustrated and eventually give up trying – which then reinforces the belief that, as a leader, you can’t rely on others.

In other words, our limiting beliefs unconsciously set expectations, which we seek to fulfill, even if the expectations are limiting or negative.  From a leadership standpoint, that’s pretty limiting.

Still, some people may ask, “What’s wrong with me that I can’t change this?” or even say, “I don’t want to change this.”

To answer that first question: there is nothing wrong with you!  Everyone has limiting beliefs, but it’s more of a question of whether or not you want to make a change.  Limiting beliefs feel natural because most of us have developed and been doing it for most of our lives, but this does not mean we cannot change them.

This then leads to the second statement about not wanting to change.  For many leaders, including my younger self, this is because they have structured their lives around that limiting belief and are used to operating from that standpoint.  For example, leaders who doesn’t trust others to do their jobs and must do everything themselves may have unconsciously collected a group of people who will cooperate with this belief.  This reinforces the belief and thus shapes how they view the world.  To this point, I have to question if this is an environment you, as a leader, want to be in?   Do you like taking on everyone’s responsibilities?  If you’re going to do everything yourself, why are you working in a team or why do you hire people?  Is this really what you want, or are you simply accepting it because you believe it has to be this way?

Breaking through Limiting Beliefs

For many people, the simple answer to the above questions is “no.”  No, I am not happy.  No, I feel stuck and stressed.  No, I don’t like or want to take on other people’s responsibilities.  And the list goes on.  But “no” also applies to that last question, and that illuminates hope.  Because no, it does not have to be this way, and here are some things you can do:

Reflect.  As I mentioned in my own story, making what is unconscious conscious is essential to overcoming a limiting belief.  You have to begin looking at the limiting belief you have and examine how limiting it really is. Examine how that belief really fulfills an expectation that, unless you change, will limit your ability to effectively lead groups of people.

Make others aware.  In order for a change to occur effectively, the limiting belief has to be talked about with the people around you.  When you live out a limiting belief, others adapt and become accustomed to the behaviors that accompany that belief.  As you move away from your limiting belief, those around you need to understand that changes are happening, so that the limiting belief is no longer reinforced or expected.  This then ties into our next point of creating a new belief.

Move forward.  Create a positive, energizing new belief by identifying what you want to move towards.  What kind of leader do you want to be?  How do you want your team to function?  What kind of support do you need from your team?

For example, the person who only believes that they can do it themselves needs to have a group of people around them who challenge them and begin helping him accept the new belief that people can do a good job.  Not only does the leader need to trust that his team members are reliable, but team members must also show that they are capable.

Be consistent.  Like every goal, there will be obstacles in your way, and there will be people and moments who challenge you as you move towards this new belief.  Worst of all, it’s easy to revert back to old habits.  But when it comes to letting go of limiting beliefs, it is essential that you are intentional in being consistent about living out your new belief.  Only then will it be able to integrate into your life and leadership style.

Change doesn’t always happen overnight – especially when it comes to a habit that we have developed over the course of our lives.  But at the end of the day, it is still our lives and our decision on whether or not we want to change.  So, I ask you this — are you ready to unleash your leadership potential?