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November 17, 2015

Opposites Attract (Success)

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When I first met Tom, he was the new executive director of a local non-profit. He absolutely hated his board of director meetings. For Tom, getting through the board meetings was like navigating a mine field, with board members picking fights, finding fault, and pouncing on his smallest mistakes.

Things got so bad that Tom started getting sick the day before his board meetings. “If I could just call in sick every Monday there was a board meeting, I’d be happy,” he proclaimed wistfully.

At that point, people generally want a reassuring pat on the arm and an expression of solidarity in the war against the bastards keeping them down. Instead, I asked “What if the opposite is true and the board actually loves you? What if those board meetings could become the highlight of your month?”

Tom dismissed that proposition with a derisive snort.

No Laughing Matter

Now it just so happens that in his spare time, Tom is a stand-up comedian. So I asked him what he did when he got negative feedback from the crowd — how did he turn things around and get back in the groove? That’s when the lightbulb switched on. “Well, I notice what jokes aren’t working, take a few breaths and tell myself I’m doing fine, and then I take another tack and keep going. I just change my story.”

And with that, Tom realized that his board was a lot like his standup audience: they weren’t necessarily out to get him, and in fact it didn’t even matter if they were. He was making up the story that the board was out to get him and then acting accordingly. He could just as easily tell himself the story that the directors were there to cheer him on — just like his nightclub audiences.

Choose Your Favorite Story

Tom’s breakthrough came once he started exploring the opposite of his story. Tom realized that his beliefs about the world influence his behavior and that he can change those beliefs any time he wants.

The trouble starts when we believe our stories about the world are true. So conscious leaders make a habit of testing their stories about the world by asking what would happen if the opposite were true. Usually, they can find hard evidence that this alternative story is at least as true as the one they have been believing.

Once they see that both stories are plausible, conscious leaders have a choice of which story they want to believe. The smart ones pick the story that allows them to most easily get what they want.

Belief Comes Before Breakthrough

In Tom’s case, he chose the story that his board of directors is actually there to support and respect him. Once he did that, Tom began having a lot more fun; the board suddenly seems to be on his side; and he started having more success.

“When you first said it was possible for the board meetings to be the highlight of my month, I thought you were crazy,” Tom told me recently. “Now I’m beginning to think it just might happen.”

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