Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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Jan
21

Six Impossible Things…

Leading up to the final climactic scene of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, an on-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, Alice is preparing to face the Jabberwocky, a fearsome creature unleashed by the evil red queen. The Mad Hatter and Alice are watching as the Jabberwocky approaches. Alice, seeing the monster, says, “This is impossible.” The Hatter’s reply: “Only if you believe it is.” Alice quips: “Sometimes, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” to which the Hatter replies, “That is an excellent practice.”

I tend to agree with the Hatter. That’s often one of the most important jobs a leader has to do – make the impossible real, and even believable. Whatever your chosen field, there are always challenges. Very often, those challenges masquerade as impossible obstacles. It’s then that we, as leaders, find ourselves in the role of making the insurmountable seem possible — not only for others, but for ourselves as well. How do we adjust our mental focus so that we can help ourselves and others see what’s possible rather than the impossibility of the obstacle that lies ahead. Difficult, yes. Sometimes even scary; but doable.

What Do You Believe is Possible?

What do we have to believe to make it happen? Let’s use Alice’s six “impossible things” to challenge our beliefs about what is possible.

1. “There’s a potion that can make you shrink…”

I can remember wondering what it would be like to shrink to a microscopic size. Imagine what you could learn about the inner workings of the world around us. It would be a leap to say that early inventors of the microscope were thinking of a “potion that could make you shrink” when developing a tool that gave us insight at the microscopic level.  But it’s the kind of curiosity stimulated by imagining such things that can lead to new discoveries. Just read up on recent advances in nanotechnology – it will stretch your mind.

2. “…and a cake that can make you grow.”

My youngest son Jamie has a way of stretching my imagination, often at bedtime as we lay staring at the bottom of the top bunk. On one such occasion, Jamie asked with a distant look in his eyes and dreamy smile playing at the edges of his mouth, “what if I was so big that I could hold the world in my hand?” I don’t remember my answer, but I ask you, what if you applied the same thinking to your business or your career? Do the answers excite you?

It’s popular to talk about growing your business in terms of what it would take to make it happen: grow market share, increase top-line revenue, profits, etc., but have you thought about it in terms of “what if?” Generally with a phase-change level of growth comes an entirely new set of challenges, demands, and expectations. Many times, we know the answers to the “how” questions, but our fear of the answers to the “what if” questions keeps us from moving forward.

3. “Animals can talk.”

OK, not really. Sometimes, however, there are assumptions that we make which may not be true. In our way of thinking, it looks as impossible as animals talking. Assumptions are natural, sensible, and often useful shortcuts that allow us to make sense of our world. We know, because it’s always been that way. Where are you or others in your organization limiting your view of what is possible based on past history? One simple question can help you look beyond this: What if (animals could talk)? What would then be possible? What would we be able to accomplish?

What is the equivalent of animals talking in your business? Who or what are you underestimating based on your history? Have you considered what would be possible if that were not an obstacle?

4. “Cats can disappear.”

The Cheshire cat, with his disappearing act and enigmatic grin, reminds me of a particular breed of person I’ll call the “savvy survivor.” They are keen observers and have learned (rightly or wrongly) when and how to avoid notice. They step in to help when the outcome is relatively certain, but when the going is dangerous, they stay out of the way.

The people in your organization usually know more than they are letting on, and often know more than you imagine. When your organization faces difficult challenges, there are almost certainly people in the organization who have a pretty good idea of what is limiting your business and how you might tackle these issues. This is a leader problem. Your challenge as a leader is to identify and draw out the sources of expertise and talent.  Are there hidden abilities that members of your team have that are not being expressed because of our limits as leaders?

5. “There’s a place called Wonderland.”

I have often wondered whether Lewis Carroll started with the story or the title. I could easily imagine it happening either way. I guess I like to think that he started with the title – fashioning a world on the proposition that it is filled with wonders that challenge the imagination. If there were a place filled with things that challenge your imagination and excite possibilities, what would be there?

6. “I can slay the Jabberwocky.”

There is almost certainly a Jabberwocky somewhere in your business. Is there a problem that seems too big to overcome, a competitor that seems unassailable, or a dream or hope that is suppressed by your belief in its impossibility? It is impossible because of your belief that it is so.  There are times that we don’t take the risk because we are sure that it’s impossible to realize our dream.

One thing that most of us learn early in life is that we can’t control our outcomes because there are so many influences beyond our control. That may be – but the real question is, who are you in the matter? Are you willing to pursue the purpose of fulfilling the worthwhile hope that is hidden in your heart, or are you going to give it up as lost, rather than dealing with the uncertainty inherent in pouring your life into something with an unknown outcome? What is your “Jabberwocky?”

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