1. Early Lessons in Leadership

Beware of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Early lessons in leadership – #8

If you’ve ever watched toddlers playing in a room full of toys, you may have noticed them trying to pick up a new bauble without putting down the toy they’re already holding. They are curious about the new object, but reluctant to let another child grab what they’ve got. Eventually they walk around holding toys they can’t play with, because their hands are too full.

I’ve seen similar behavior at various companies across my many years in the industry. There always seems to be that one person who is eager to grab a new position with new responsibilities but who refuses to let go of the old one. Even when they can’t possibly do their old job and the new one with any level of success.

Some of this can be attributed to a simple reluctance to give up the known for the unknown, which is perfectly natural. But the situation I have in mind is a situation where all that matters is “who’s got the bigger pile of stuff” at the end of the day.

I’m thinking back several years to the chance I had to promote a high-achieving executive. I was creating a new job that offered huge opportunity and I was taking a bit of risk betting on this guy. He had a reputation as a fixer and the results to back it up, and I felt he earned my confidence. I also knew I could find others to take on his current assignments, which were important but not especially challenging, to free him up for this chance to really define and own the new piece of the business.

I was excited to create this opportunity for him, so you can imagine my dismay when, after explaining the promotion, he took issue with my insistence that we redistribute his current work. He actually became obsessed about what I was “taking away from him” instead of focusing on everything I was laying at his feet. He implied that I didn’t trust him. In fact, the opposite was true — I trusted him so much, I was placing a big bet on his success. But I wasn’t so naive, or so heartless, to expect that he could add another full-time job to the one he already had. (Even though that’s what he wanted.) The new opportunity was huge, but I couldn’t afford to go backward on the existing business.

In hindsight, maybe he thought I was looking for a hero, someone who could carry even more weight without complaining. In fact, I was looking for a leader to come up with a vision for success and inspire the team to win big in a new arena. He thought he could do it all and do it better. I wanted to give him the bandwidth to do more than “better;” I wanted him to take our business to a whole new place.

Sadly, the result was one I’ve seen play out time and again. By acting betrayed, and walking around the office like a kicked puppy, other people picked up on his attitude and assumed he’d fallen out of favor. Because he acted like he’d been taken down a notch (even though he’d been promoted) it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our coworkers were happy to listen to his complaints and console him for his “loss” — but they no longer saw him as the top dog.

In today’s fast-change, high-growth environment, we must all expect that our job responsibilities will be continuously reshuffled and redefined. The best way to set ourselves up for success is to rise above our fears and design the next opportunity. To do this effectively, we must make sure the self-fulfilling prophecy in our head is one of professional success, regardless of what we attempt.

Think about this the next time your job is redefined. (Sooner or later, it will be.) Make the decision to jettison whatever narrative —whatever baggage — is holding you back. You may have to get out of your comfort zone, say farewell to favorite clients, go where there are fewer names beneath yours on the company flow chart, or even give up your illusions of playing the hero who can do everything at once.

Only when we let go of these things can we grab the next opportunity with both hands. Only then can we design a better future.