Believing the future into being


Henry Ford is credited with the saying, “whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are probably right.” Science and practical experience alike suggest that we are what we think, because we do what think. (Or maybe, as suggested in this piece about the Higgs boson particle, or “god particle,” everything is what we think.)  Researchers in fields as far-flung as education to medicine have shown time and again the robustness of the “placebo effect,” wherein a treatment has an effect because we believe it will have an effect. In just one recent example, researchers showed that people who believed they were subliminally receiving information that would enhance their performance on a test, actually did outperform those in the control group. If what is possible is a function of what we believe is possible, what should we believe?

It is also said that change is the one constant. We perceive ourselves in particular to be consistent, stable entities, but even we are constantly changing. Due to the process of cell turnover, we effectively replace entire organs over the span of years. Cognitive neuroscience has illustrated that biological processes are busily changing our minds, as well. As you learn something new or make a new habit, more and stronger connections are made between neurons, and less-used connections tend to wither away.

All of this has enormous implications. If nothing is immune to change, and we have great power to direct that change merely by how and what we think, truly, anything is possible. As we saw exemplified in Amy Cuddy’s work on power, our behavior impacts our mind and bodies, which in turn impacts how we think and behave – which also changes how people perceive and respond to us, shaping future experiences. Recent research on leader effectiveness also bears out the idea that our experiences shape our brains, which impacts our decisions and future effectiveness. We have immense capacity for change and growth, especially if we believe we do.

People who appreciate these fundamental ideas – that change is inevitable and that we have great power to shape it – also possess the building blocks of visionary leadership. For what is visionary leadership but a vision for change projected outward from the self to include others. As we discussed in light of these remarkable examples, visionary leaders have an internal drive to realize a vision for the future for which they are passionate. Their courage and conviction to stand alone paradoxically attracts others to the vision. Passion for a future ideal is contagious. In other words – belief begets belief. And as a critical mass of people get behind an idea, the momentum of their directed behavior creates the very future to which they aspire. As we have discussed time and again, when people find meaning and challenge in their work, when they are fulfilling an evocative vision, they are more motivated, productive, effective, and happier, and their behavior is efficiently aligned with the goal.

Whether we want to direct our own personal evolution or ignite passion in others to realize a dream, we start with our thoughts. The most effective and successful people don’t just have beautiful ideas, however, they have an unshakeable confidence in their ability to bring it to fruition. The key lies in balancing vision and action, creativity and discipline. Belief in yourself and your ability to get where you want to go is the first step on a bridge of strategic choices that lay the stepping stones from “now” to the “then” seen only in the mind’s eye.

“The empires of the future are empires of the mind.” — Winston Churchill