“I worry that our lives are like soap operas. We can go for months and not tune in to them, then six months later we look in and the same stuff is still going on.” – Jane Wagner
A few weeks ago in this space the conversation was about the reality that so many organizations and leaders keep living the same years over and over again because they don’t look to do anything differently (click here for a refresher). Since then I’ve been bombarded with examples of that exact scenario. It’s almost an epidemic.
Why are we like that? Why do we just keep doing the same thing over and over again? Why do we see things that we don’t like, or don’t think are good enough, yet not deal with them? We do it in our businesses and in our personal lives. We complain about things, or we feel like things just aren’t the way we want them, and yet we just keep plodding along on the same path.
I’m sure a psychologist could list dozens of reasons why we live that way, but in the past few days one of the most common reasons showed up repeatedly. It’s the idea of learned helplessness. I don’t know the official definition, but the practical one is something like this: There are all these things that happen to me, and I really can’t do anything about them, so I won’t bother to try because why bother? I have no control whatsoever over my life or what happens in it.
Of course that’s completely false, but a huge percentage of the population believes it. There are plenty of reasons why – fear, complacency, laziness – but regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same. People don’t act, so things don’t change.
Rarely does anyone admit to being a disciple of learned helplessness, which is probably part of the problem. We don’t like the idea that we could improve our lives but that we ourselves are getting in the way. It’s much more comforting to blame someone or something else.
Think about yourself as a leader. When some opportunity appears in front of you, what is your reaction? Too many leaders immediately default to “That sounds great, but we could never make it work, so just forget it.” When you’re faced with a new barrier, how do you respond? Again, too many leaders say something to the effect of “There’s probably nothing we can do about that, so I guess we’ll just give up.”
You cannot be an effective leader if you don’t believe you have the ability to act on and influence your situation and your organization. Be honest with yourself. Do you really believe you can have an impact? Or do you think things just happen to you and there’s nothing you can do about it? If it’s the second, then you’re not leading. You’re failing.