Leading Toward the Impossible: What People Believe Makes a Difference


Have you ever heard other people complain about the size of the goals they have to achieve at work? There have been times in my past when I was certainly one of them. I figured if I was lucky enough to get someone to take pity on poor little me, my objective might be reduced, whether it was really too big or not. That might make it easier to exceed, which could result in a bigger bonus, or at least make it easier and less stressful to reach. Over the years, I have known or worked with many, who were able to turn this crafty complaining ritual into an art!

Today, the number of people lamenting about their goals seems to be on the upswing, but for a very different reason. Their moaning is not just a sly attempt to get off easier. It is because their goals are really tough. In fact, in their minds, the results expected of them are on the verge of impossible. How can anyone be expected to grow net income at 20% or more year after year, especially when customers are cutting back? How can a distribution process be streamlined when there is no IT support? How can top-notch players be attracted or kept, when they are treated and paid like basic commodities? Do any of these examples sound familiar to you?

More than ever, people are being asked to produce at a level that has never been done before, at least by them. As a leader, what do you do when attempting to lead a group toward something that seems unachievable? And does it make a difference if they are trying to accomplish something that has never been attempted or successfully done before by anyone, vs. trying to accomplish something that has, but not by them. Here is my point.

Think about the early test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier, not knowing if it was physically possible. The closer they got to Mach One, the more their aircraft shook, until it felt like it would literally break apart. One could only imagine what went through their minds as their jets wanted to self-destruct far short of the target. Would you have been standing in line to take a chance when sacrificing your life was a very real consequence?

Then one day the barrier was broken and another invalid belief was laid to rest. Now the issue for a pilot attempting this for the first time shifted from can it be done, to can it be done by me. In your mind is there any difference between the two? As a leader, do you need to address these two situations differently?

Logic tells us that people won’t devote much energy to something they consider to be impossible. It probably doesn’t matter whether people feel the goal itself is impossible or that they themselves are just unable to achieve it. If there is no hope for success (and no real benefit for the effort), why pursue it. If you do not believe in the “The Force,” chances are good you are not going to spend much time in Jedi training.

Yet history often defies that logic, showing us that people do attack and conquer the impossible all the time. What is the difference between those that take on the impossible and those that don’t? And what are the leadership implications?

Pursuing the Impossible

People who are willing to go after something that has never been done before will often find the energy to act based on a couple of different reasons. The first is, they are stubbornly unwilling to accept the fact that the task is impossible, for whatever reasons. The other is they have no choice but to act.

Think about those who refuse to believe that a given task or goal is impossible. They display a great deal of passion about disproving the worldview and demonstrating it can be done (whether it might be reaching the summit of Mt. Everest or getting people to use an ATM for the first time). They are truly committed to their challenge. Sometimes their relentless work may be for personal accomplishment-other times to improve the world. Whatever the reason, they find a way to stay with it.

To our knowledge, these people are not born with a couple of extra genes in persistence. Nor are they obsessive “whacko’s” with no sense of reality- although they might appear that way at times! There is, however, something very important about them, that does tend to fuel their dogged drive to persevere. These determined explorers tend to find some deep gratification or meaning in every small step they take, whether that step succeeds or fails.

Frankly, they do not need to be totally successful in the eyes of others. As long as they are continuing to significantly increase their own or the world’s knowledge about their passion, they will often stay with it. Think of the researcher whose life is guided by a clear mission of finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. That is not just what she does, it defines who she is. In her mind, every single success she achieves or brick wall she hits has purpose. Each of those efforts is a step closer to a highly desired goal, which provides great meaning in her life.

That complete devotion to discovery will sometimes lead to astounding successes and a dramatic change in beliefs. There are inventions or breakthroughs too numerous to count that have resulted from people who have been willing to commit themselves to conquering the impossible. As one example, consider Orville and Wilbur Wright. One hundred years ago, they erased the belief that it is impossible to fly, and that led to conquering the impossibility of breaking the sound barrier, which ultimately led to Neal Armstrong’s first steps on the moon (which some conspiracy theorists still believe has never truly been done). We should all be thankful that these kind of committed people exist.

Alexander Graham Bell is another example. Can you imagine trying to convince people that a person standing in New York could easily be heard by someone in another town or state? I would bet that Mr. Bell constantly heard criticism that sounded something like the following: “Excuse me, Sir, but people are incapable of shouting that loud. That is a physical impossibility for a human being.” So Mr. Bell, like all great inventors, just found a way to get around that impossibility. Think about that, the next time you are talking to someone across the country on your cell phone!

Tackling a goal that is currently considered impossible, is not an easy course to take. Everyday these people must accept the risk of looking like a failure. They must demonstrate courage and experiment frequently. They must look at their work from every angle possible. They must take natural laws of science or human behavior and apply them in different ways. They must learn from experience and be resilient. All of this is hard work. That is the reason a lot of passion and devotion is required. Without those, the energy to persevere quickly runs dry.

Should we then be surprised that people in the workplace might be a bit hesitant to go after goals that seem impossible? After all, the risks can be huge, the work is very difficult, and often, the goals do not have enough meaning to bring forth the level of commitment necessary for success. Do you believe commitment can waver if the goal is producing yet another year of almost unimaginable financial results, so that Wall Street’s endless, insatiable appetite might once again be temporarily satisfied?

Lack of Choices

The other reason people become emotionally committed to pursuing the impossible involves a different set of circumstances. It is because they have no choice. Failing to act will lead to devastating consequences. You might be familiar with one case in point. In 1989, on a seemingly doomed United Airlines flight, the crew found itself in the following predicament. They had lost their hydraulics, and if they did not figure out another way to control the airplane, they were going to crash. As you might recall, the plane’s hydraulic systems had been damaged, and without them, it was impossible to fly, and more importantly, land the plane. It had never been done – until that day over Sioux City, Iowa – when a small group of very committed people somehow figured out how to get the plane back on the ground, saving a large number of the passengers.

You are also, no doubt, familiar with the unbelievable story of Apollo 13. One impossible situation after another was somehow met with triumph. There are examples like this everyday, during combat in war, in the aftermath of natural disasters, even in the competitive battlefields of corporate survival. In these cases, failing to take some kind of action is simply not an option.

Whether it is because of an individual’s personal wiring, or a no choice situation, it does not require a lot of leadership to inspire people to take on seemingly impossible dilemmas when they are very deeply connected to the challenge. The leadership challenge comes when that emotional connection does not exist, and you must figure out a way to get people to find it.

Questioning One’s Own Ability to Succeed

Up until this time, we have focused on examples of first time breakthroughs. But what about those situations when you need people to step up to a challenge that has previously been accomplished, although not by you or them. That is, the task for them still appears to be impossible. In that case, does it really matter that Everest is being conquered every year, or that every month, some sales team somewhere in your industry is somehow able to produce numbers that seem unreachable?

Perhaps you have found that not everyone approaches these seemingly impossible situations with unrelenting zeal and devotion. If a prevailing belief of a team is, “it doesn’t matter if others have accomplished this, we can’t do it,” they will stop giving their all to a goal relatively quickly. The rationale is, “The only outcome is failure, so why kill ourselves trying,” or something similar. They will go through the motions and might even appear engaged, but their passion and commitment will lie elsewhere. No doubt you have experienced this situation firsthand.

Yet leaders find themselves in circumstances like these all the time. They have to accomplish tough goals against some extraordinary odds, with people who are pretty well convinced that they can never reach the target. So what can a leader do to get people to wholeheartedly get after something which they tend to believe is an impossible undertaking? The simple answer (which is really not so simple) is to help them find ways to believe that they, too, can be successful. And that is one of the key tasks of a leader. If you are unable to reshape the limiting beliefs that today hold your people back, your efforts to achieve the really challenging goals will most likely prove only frustrating and fruitless.

Reshaping Beliefs

So, how do you go about trying to influence what people believe about either their own ability, or the value of pursuing a seemingly insurmountable challenge?

First, you have to be clear on what they believe right now. If your team is not producing at the level you hope, is it because they do not believe in (or buy into) the goal, or that they do not believe they can achieve it, (regardless of whether other teams can or cannot). It is crucial that you know what beliefs you are trying to reshape.

If people do not believe in the goal itself, it probably doesn’t matter what they believe about their own abilities. Continuing to tell them that you know they can do it, and providing them all kinds of tools and resources, is still not likely to improve results. What if your team believes that the only way to close enough business to achieve the quarterly goal is to go on the road and live in different hotel rooms every night for the next three months? You can upgrade the rooms, provide slick laptops, and keep reminding your people what great salespeople they are. But if they are at the end of their ropes from traveling and don’t really care if they make the numbers or not, those enticements are not going to do much good. Somehow, you are going to have to get them to believe that the sacrifice is worth it, or find another way to generate the business.

On the other hand, imagine you have a team who deeply believes in the value of the goal and desperately wants to achieve it. But they just do not believe they can ever do it. Continuing to re-emphasize the importance of the goal could motivate them to think and act in different ways. But it might also create some unintended harm. It might make them feel more and more worthless or inadequate, because what they now cannot do has even bigger consequences. Think about which is worse – you feel unable to put out a fire and save your house, or you feel unable to put out a fire and save your family?

Let me repeat: you must be clear on the beliefs your people hold and which ones might be holding them back.

A second thing you must do in influencing beliefs is to keep reality in the picture. Sometimes a constraining belief is very valid. Speaking from experience, you could pour money into me for around the clock voice lessons and the very best coaching – and I will still never sing the lead in a professional Broadway musical. I know for a fact that many others will – and I am just as convinced that I will never be one of them. You might say my belief is limiting my opportunities. I would say it is not an issue of beliefs, but talent.

Part of the art of leadership is getting better at determining what someone truly can or cannot do. This is a real challenge, because it is so easy to underestimate another person’s true capabilities. But limiting beliefs are not the only things that can hold people back. Identifying when beliefs are the cause, and when they are not, requires a great deal of effort and attention.

A third and very important thing you must remember and act on, when attempting to reshape what a person believes is this-beliefs are forged, and therefore altered through experiences. You cannot merely command people to change what they believe and expect them to do it – even if you keep harping at them to do so. They must have some kind of encounter that allows them to question their current beliefs and opens the door for them to begin to accept new ways of dealing with the world.

Be mindful that people can and do change their beliefs. When computers first made their way into the workplace, many people resisted them out of fear. “It’s too complicated – I’ll never be able to do it.” Funny thing, you will hear these exact same words uttered today, by teenagers frustrated with first learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. Yet somehow in both cases, they have been able to hear the voices in their heads change from “I can’t do this” to “I think I might be getting the hang of it.” These different words are an indicator that the person’s beliefs just might be shifting.

Once you have a better picture of the beliefs you are attempting to reshape and the reality of the task at hand, you can then determine the kind of experiences you need to create to instill or reinforce the beliefs that you want others to hold. You must figure out what you can do to enable others to see things differently, through a new, more believing pair of eyes.

If your people are questioning their collective ability to succeed at something brand new or to achieve a breakthrough, you must give them opportunities to learn to do it. You have to actually sit them in front of the keyboard or in the driver’s seat! You have to give them freedom to try things, reinforce what they are doing right, immediately point out what they are continuing to do wrong, encourage them to keep trying, reward them for progress and so forth. It is through these experiences with you that they will be able to move ahead and, most importantly, see it themselves.

If they don’t believe in the value of the goal (be it the need to implement a new accounting system, or to work collaboratively with people who never give back), you must help them find meaningful intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in staying the course. You must continue to reinforce the value of their effort and get them to see more clearly, everyday, why the daunting task is so important to pursue. You have to help them see how their progress and setbacks are making a meaningful difference for themselves or others they care about.

Some Final Lessons

As a leader, you always need to be working at inspiring your people to reach greater heights, equipping them to be successful, and providing constant recognition and reinforcement in all aspects of their work, whether their goals seem achievable or appear beyond hope. When the challenges are extraordinary and the stakes are high, you must be even better at this work.

You must recognize that what a person believes directly shapes his or her perceptions of reality, and that directly impacts the actions he or she will take and the results that can be produced. When those beliefs hold people back, you must figure out a way for them to question and willingly let go of those constraints. If the beliefs are enabling, you must help your people continue to see positive and desired outcomes from them.

People discard old, accept new, and strengthen current beliefs through experiences. According to published reports, there were people at NASA who were completely convinced that a falling piece of foam could in no way cause the catastrophe of the shuttle Columbia. Today, they know that it did. Not too long ago, employees at companies like Enron and WorldCom believed in the integrity of their executive officers. Today, people everywhere have lost a lot of faith in corporate officers and big business in general.

However, it is vital to remember that to affect a belief, the experience must have some punch. We all know people who never miss purchasing their weekly lottery tickets. Yet, one would think after hundreds, maybe even thousands of consecutive losing experiences, they might give it up. But the dollar or two loss every week has little real impact. Therefore, they still believe that one day, their ships just might come in!

Finally, you cannot make assumptions about peoples’ beliefs. You may think that a task is quite doable and assume that your people believe the same. They may not. When the results are not there, you could easily draw the conclusion it is because of a lack of focus, or that they just don’t care. You might be totally wrong. If they view the challenge as unachievable, they may feel frightened, overwhelmed, or even hopeless. Those are much different factors than a lack of focus or not caring. And, they must be dealt with differently.

Getting people inspired about tackling the impossible is a true test of leadership. Unfortunately, it is not an easy one. So please remember the following three points.

Your people will be able to deliver better results for you, the more you can help them:

  • believe in the goal, by discovering meaning in the challenge itself
  • believe in themselves, by helping them see how their efforts are making a valuable difference, and
  • believe in your leadership, by being there to support, recognize and encourage them when they most need you.

Simply telling people that, “impossible or not, it’s your job to accomplish the goal and that’s just the way it is,” is not likely to achieve the results you are looking for. It may be the truth, but it is not very helpful. And if your role as a leader is not to help your team conquer enormous, even impossible challenges, then just why are you in your position anyway?

Copyright © 2005 International Leadership Associates.