leadership psychology

Leadership Psychology 101

Adjusting the lens we use to interpret our experiences in leadership and life

A young leader was recalling a memory from her college psychology course where her professor would present various photographs and ask the students to interpret what they thought was occurring in each image.

He showed the class a photo of a man in bed and a woman outside the bedroom door crying. “What do you think is happening in this photo?” he asked. One classmate said, “She’s crying because her husband is really sick, and she’s afraid he’s going to die.” Another guessed, “They’ve had a bad argument, and the woman is crying because she’s upset.” The young leader replied, “She’s crying because her husband is an alcoholic, and he’s unable to get out of bed to go to work.”  

Next, the professor showed a picture of a small group of people talking to an angry individual. “What’s happening in this photo?” he inquired. One student said, “He’s mad because other people aren’t listening to him.” Another stated, “He’s mad because his friends offended him.” The young leader replied, “He’s angry because he did something bad when he was drinking, and his family is upset.”  

She laughed awkwardly as she recalled her comments.  

“It’s funny — I couldn’t see at the time that I was interpreting all those scenarios through the lens of alcoholism because I had an alcoholic parent. I was blind to the fact that my personal struggles growing up were impacting how I perceived every situation in my life,” she said. 

The irony is that each of us does this, as if on autopilot. Without realizing it, we interpret every situation in our workplace with our colleagues, team members or customers through our personal experience and limited perception.

Most of us are unaware we are doing all this through a skewed filter. We simply see it as reality or “just the way it is.” Like the young leader, who was unable to see at the time that she was interpreting everything through the lens of alcoholism — it’s only in hindsight that we gain clarity, if at all.  

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So, what’s a better way, and what can we do?

There is an active principle I refer to as “personal power.” This principle proposes an intentional reinterpretation of what is at the source of how we perceive our experiences. It’s a way to reclaim our power from circumstances, people or situations we may have unconsciously given it away to.

People experience challenging situations as “happening to” them. In truth, we all have the power to create meaning from the events that happen to us — from the inside out. We can make conscious choices about the meaning that we give to the challenging situations and people that we encounter.

The process starts with our willingness to take on a new view of ourselves as leaders. Even though we may not realize it immediately, we are the source of everything we experience — creating our reality through our interpretations, judgments and assessments.

The personal power principle also proposes that conscious creation happens only in the present moment. We create our version of the past in the present — just like my friend’s interpretations in her college psychology course — or our vision for the future. 

Every moment provides us with the choice to become personally responsible for creating new, empowered perspectives, with new possibilities stemming from our vision of who we are committed to being as leaders. This vision inspires and pulls us forward toward bigger and greater things. Or, conversely, we stay stuck in perspectives of fault, blame, victimhood and powerlessness — recycling our feelings of anger, self-pity, righteousness and resentment.  

The personal power principle is always active in the present. Thus, as leaders, our creative point of power is in consciously choosing to reinterpret our circumstances and experiences to create a future of breakthroughs.