Sometimes it feels like nothing is going your way. Does that sound like you, at least some of the time? Let's examine your “self-talk” and see if there is some application to how you lead. Talk about a guy who always seemed to have things going against him. George Washington would be that guy in my eye.
I just finished reading a really good historical account of George Washington’s life during the Revolutionary War. It is called “Washington’s Revolution: The Making Of America’s First Leader” by Robert Middlekauff. If you like historical accounts of leaders, this is a good one. Middlekauff does a nice job of moving through Washington’s early life and his Revolutionary War experience with enough detail to give a picture of what was happening without the overwhelming feeling that some historians can give with granular minutia of every fact.
Uphill Battle and the Chips were down
I had forgotten what an uphill battle Washington fought to overcome the Brittish ground and naval forces. In addition to fighting the British, Washington was constantly battling the politicians in the states and in Congress, his own soldiers and officers, as well as the natural elements in the northeast.
Many times, it would have been so easy for him to just quit. Give up. Forget it. Say it was not worth it. But he never did. There was a burning inside of this leader to see the war through to the very end.
Of course, the Brittish represented the main occupying enemy in the leadership story of George Washington. He constantly battled a superior army and an even more imposing force with the British Navy. While we don’t have a good indication of Washington’s self-talk, he could have sounded like many of us:
- The Brittish have a bigger Navy.
- The Brittish have better-trained soldiers.
- My first military campaign was a failure.
- Congress won’t allocate a pension for my officers.
- We just lost 3 battles in a row.
- My guys can’t hold a line to save themselves.
- Where are the French, anyway?
- We are fighting without bullets, food, horses, coats, or shoes.
A Word of Caution for Leaders
As leaders, we have to be very careful how we talk to ourselves. The intimate little conversations that you have with yourself are called your explanatory style. In his psychological classic, Martin Seligman says there are two basic ways of looking at the world: with an Optimistic or Pessimistic Explanatory Style. According to Seligman, pessimists believe:
- Bad events will last a long time
- Bad events undermine everything they do
- They are at fault for anything that goes wrong
A person with an Optimistic Explanatory Style, on the other hand:
- Sees defeat as a temporary setback
- Believes the reason for defeat is isolated in a single event
- Understands that the setback is not their fault
Seligman says that these optimistic people “are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder."
This is exactly what I was experiencing as I read Middlekauff’s account of George Washington. No matter what circumstance, bad luck, untimely event, or even the French, Washington seemed unfazed.
5 R’s to Ridding Yourself of Negative Thinking
It isn’t doing you any good to dwell on the negative as a leader. Here is a process I work through when I feel the chips are down:
Step 1. Report the facts. Just write down the facts as you know them. No emotion. Just the facts. Example: We had a meeting at 10am and Jack did not show up.
Step 2. Recount the emotion. Now put the emotions you felt. All of them. Example: We had a meeting at 10am and Jack did not show up. This caused me to feel disrespected.
Step 3. Result of the emotion. What impact did the emotion have on you? Here is a template you can use, just fill in the blank for yourself: “Because (of this event) I felt (describe emotion). This cause me to (negative outcome). Example: Because (Jack was late for the meeting) I felt (disrespected). This caused me to think that no one ever has respected my time.
Step 4. Ruckus. The idea is to argue with yourself that the negative self talk is not in your best interest. The solution is to create a little chaos for yourself. Template: “Because (of this event) I felt (describe emotion). This caused me to (negative outcome). Now argue with yourself. Example: Because (Jack was late for the meeting) I felt (disrespected). This caused me to think that none of my supervisors ever have respected my time. Why should Jack being late have anything to do with other people? Jack might be late because he has a lot of priorities. Jack’s being late does not mean that other people are always late for meetings with me.
Step 5. Refocus. Now you must get yourself out of this dread zone of negative thinking. It is time to have more optimistic self talk. Template: “Because (of this event) I felt (describe emotion). This caused me to (negative outcome). Argue with yourself. Now create a new and positive reality. Example: Because (Jack was late for the meeting) I felt (disrespected). This caused me to think that none of my supervisors have ever respected my time. Why should Jack being late have anything to do with other people? Jack might be late because he has a lot of priorities. Jack’s being late does not mean that other people are always late for meetings with me. Jack is late because he has many priorities. I should talk with Jack about the priorities he has and where I fit into them.
I get the sense that it would have been really easy for George Washington to let negative self-talk get in his way. Yet it seems as though it is this characterisc of a positive explanatory style, optimism, and the belief that the end goal was worth the fight, that shaped his judgment and decision-making.
How about you? When the chips are down, how do you talk to yourself?
Here is your assignment: Think about a time now or in the recent past where things are not going your way. Use the 5-Step process outlined above and see if you can turn your negative thinking into a positive explanatory style. If you have some success with this, I would love to hear about it. Please comment below and let us know how this worked out for you.
Why not click on this link and download my ebook, Optimistic Thinking? It is totally free and there are some other ideas that might resonate with you in addition to the 5 R’s. We promise not to spam you or sell your email….ever.
See you on Wednesday with our Leadership Tip of the Week,