Two foundational Beliefs

In my last post, I made the case for how our beliefs shape our emotions, and then how our emotions influence our actions. Given this relationship, a leaders beliefs are foundational to his or her ability to act as a leader acts. In my practice as an entrepreneur, public servant, and leadership coach, two foundational beliefs have stood as being critical to unlocking peoples ability to lead:

  1. What do you believe to be true about your team
  2. What do you believe to be true about your self

The Beliefs of a Manager

At the heart of the difference between leading and managing is the beliefs we hold about the people being led/managed.  I have found that many managers’ core belief about their team are primarily shaped by a focus on their team members’ limitations, shortcomings, and problems. The basic thought prompting a manager is: “If my people are left to their own accord, they will fail / let me down / do bad things…” This belief naturally translates into feelings of distrust, frustration, or anger; and these feelings naturally prompt behavior that attempts to control.  With such beliefs and feeling, it makes perfect sense for a manager to respond by taking actions to mitigate his teams’ shortcoming to prevent failures.  Often, these actions come in the form of the carrot or the stick (aka incentives, performance improvement plans, quotas, etc.). While it is true that these actions often change behavior, there is almost always a cost associated with them.

The Beliefs of a Leader 

On the other hand, many leaders’ core beliefs about their teams are shaped by a focus on the team members’ potential, gifts, and talents. The basic though prompting a leader is: “If the obstacles are cleared from their path, my team will succeed / amaze me / accomplish great things…” This belief often fills a leader with a sense of wonder, excitement, or gratitude.  Accordingly, this set of beliefs and feelings quite naturally translate into the types of behavior that empower, motivate, and inspire.  Perhaps this takes the shape of the leader who serves their team by removing obstacles and providing resources in a way that is responsible and empowering.

Beliefs Make Behavior Rational

How many times have you looked at another person’s behavior and said, “That is crazy!!!” As surprising as it sometimes seems, I would argue that those behaviors almost always make perfect sense from the other person’s point of view. In fact, if we had access to that person’s experiences, beliefs, and emotions we would probably be able to understand their choices quite well. If we shared their experiences, beliefs, and emotions, we would likely find ourselves making many of the same choices.

When a manager’s beliefs about their team are focused on limitation, it makes the choice to hold onto organizational power and control very rational even when it may be somewhat misdirected…. We hold onto power because we do not trust. Then we follow up by using the behaviors which help us to leverage the control and power available to us despite the unintended consequences of doing so.

In sharp contrast, leadership comes from a set of beliefs that makes the choice to give away organizational power and control the most rational. The key takeaway, is that both sets of behavior flow very rationally from a core set of beliefs about one’s team. It is also important to say, that both beliefs exist for good reasons.  They often come from experiences (both good and bad) that lead us very naturally to the beliefs we hold.

Belief Check-In

In my next post, we will explore how our beliefs about ourselves influence our interactions with our teams, but in the meantime let me offer a challenge. If you are willing, take stock this week of the belief you hold about your team members. Take the opportunity to write down some core thoughts you have about each team member, and then reflect on the feelings you experience when you think of collaborating with them. Consider how these feelings shape your behavioral interactions, and examine whether your beliefs are serving you well as a leader. If these beliefs are not serving you well as a leader, how might you begin to create a different set of beliefs?

Phillip Stoller