While I’m not exactly sure of its origin, you’re probably familiar with the idea, “The hardest sell you’ll ever make is the sell to yourself.” Unfortunately, this statement holds more truth than most of us would like, and the reason for it is that we are terrible salesmen. When you bought your last used car, did the sales rep spend the first thirty minutes telling you about all the recalls that vehicle has had, the accidents it had been in, or the extensive body work it underwent? More than likely, that wasn’t your experience because if it had it been, that wouldn’t have been the last time you bought a used car. However, when we start trying to make a “sell” to ourselves, this is oftentimes exactly what we do.
When we work with leaders, it’s quite common for an individual to feel unmotivated, helpless, or simply at a loss of what to do because of their past failures or bad decisions. They’re at a place in their life where they need to make a decision or they don’t even know what decisions they need to begin making: “Should I take the job or not?” “How do I even begin saving my marriage?” “A high-performance team would be great, but I would settle for a functioning team.” It isn’t surprising that people default to a summation of their past to understand their current reality but, simply put, it is inaccurate rendering of what is true. Past experiences and decisions (good and bad) have contributed to getting you where you are, but using this “simple addition” method to interpret your state in life is wrong.
Most of us would agree there is a difference between an addict and an addict who has been sober for ten plus years. Similarly, many of us know successful entrepreneurs who were “failures” in many measures before their last business took off. It’s easy to doubt someone with a checkered past, but who isn’t in that line? Because of this, when we begin an engagement with a leader, one of our first conversations is to explain that a person’s future is significantly more defining of their current reality than the sum total of their past: you may have been a bad mother and an even worse wife, but is changing that going to be essential for the future you’re creating? We spend a lot of time listening to a person’s past, but more times than not, that’s because we need to understand who a leader believes themselves to be.
If this idea is true, that your future is more defining of your present reality than your past, what does that mean for you? If you’ve been a successful CEO but you know your future is calling you to deal with homelessness in your community, suddenly you’re not as well equipped for success as you and most people in your life thought. Similarly, if you’ve been playing it safe since you started your career but you know you are called to lead, you have some new competencies to familiarize yourself with. It’s unlikely you’re called to be the CFO of a Fortune 100 Company if you haven’t even stuck to a family budget, but if you spend some time thinking about your life’s imperatives—what you can’t not do—you just might be able to understand where you really are today.