How Identifying Limiting Beliefs Fast-Tracks Executive Leadership Growth

01-Beliefs: Evolving with Changing Times

In comparison to middle managers and pseudo-executives, real executives must possess several essential elements, including self-transcendence, emotional and psychological maturity, strategic collaboration, change management, and systemic leadership, among others. In summary, they need to undergo a comprehensive evolution in managing themselves, tasks, and others.

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One of the most fundamental and controllable aspects should be self-management. Is there a way to simultaneously enhance self-transcendence and emotional/psychological maturity to achieve self-management transition? I believe there is.

In the realm of personal leadership development, there is a very famous formula: Performance = Potential – Interference. This means that there are two ways to improve personal performance: increase potential or reduce interference.

We often emphasize the improvement of “potential,” such as exploring effective adult learning methods, enhancing interpersonal sensitivity, deliberate practice, and more. However, we tend to overlook the negative reinforcement effect of “interference.” In other words, people who can effectively manage interference can achieve superior overall work and personal performance when potential is relatively equal or similar.

There are numerous examples of highly potential individuals being adversely affected by excessive interference. The most severe consequence could be health problems, or even endangering their lives. At times, we may say that “the heavens envy talent,” but we often fail to recognize that it’s the interference that sets back all our efforts, even into negative territory.

Certainly, the presence of interference reduces performance, which then affects our objective self-assessment. Some potential aspects may not be seen as potential due to this interference, which is unfortunate.

What are the various types of interference in our daily work and life?

From my observation, they can be categorized into several major classes:

  1. Various low-frequency emotions, such as anger, desire, anxiety, frustration, guilt, fear, etc.
  2. Judgments and sarcasm from people around us or self-criticism.
  3. Limiting beliefs, which can trigger subtle structural conflicts, habitual defense mechanisms, or uncontrolled attacks, including attacks on others and oneself.

Among these three categories of interference, I believe that limiting beliefs are the most challenging to detect because all beliefs are formed implicitly during our upbringing and deeply influence our behavior and interactions with others.

The implantation of beliefs generally occurs through two typical methods. One is the “follow the crowd” style, where beliefs are adopted because they are commonly accepted or repeated by others. For example, beliefs like “no pain, no gain,” “failure is the mother of success,” “extremes meet,” “too much of a good thing can be bad,” and so on. This approach can make us feel that many beliefs are “common sense.”

The other method is the “personally tested and proven” style, where beliefs are formed based on our own experiences. These are beliefs that have helped us overcome difficulties in the past or have produced favorable results in our personal history. This method can lead us to develop judgments like “it should be this way.”

Leaving aside the “follow the crowd” style of beliefs, let me give some examples from my own experience regarding the “personally tested and proven” beliefs:

  1. “Staying in one place is equivalent to falling behind” (≈ There’s always a need to break out of the comfort zone).
  2. “If you can do it yourself, don’t trouble others” (≈ Independence is a useful foundation).
  3. “Investing time will lead to mastery” (≈ Effort should always yield results).

These beliefs may appear positive and not necessarily limiting. Firstly, they often seem quite positive, and secondly, they have indeed protected and even contributed to our achievements in the past. We trust our own experiences; what else can we believe in?

However, we should also have the capacity to realize that time, circumstances, and ourselves are constantly changing. If our beliefs remain unchanged, then some of these beliefs may become “outdated beliefs” that no longer suit who we are today. If these once correct and positive beliefs continue to restrict us, they become limitations and constraints. It’s like wearing a pair of shoes from our youth, even though our feet have grown, and we need to climb a snowy mountain. These shoes have sentimental value and have been with us through thick and thin, but they no longer serve their purpose.

02-Exploring Limiting Beliefs in Leadership

In addition to continuous self-reflection and self-improvement in daily life, as leaders in business, it’s also essential to periodically examine whether we hold any “limiting management beliefs” that hinder productivity or the development of productive relationships.

Let’s explore some examples of common management beliefs in business and discuss whether they are limiting or generative. Do any of us have similar beliefs?

For instance, I used to have some of these beliefs myself. Take “We are all brothers and sisters” as an example. I vividly remember the feeling of being abandoned when a highly trusted and capable subordinate resigned. Initially, I felt angry towards the individual, disappointed in myself, and subsequently became cautious in relationships.

Upon reflection, I realized that I had taken for granted that treating my subordinates as siblings was the right and necessary way to lead. I believed that it meant mutual support and shared responsibilities, similar to the “sworn brothers” in the story of the Peach Garden Oath from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. My emotional response was driven by the sense of betrayal, thinking, “How could they betray someone who treated them like family?”

It took me some time to move past this feeling of betrayal. When I calmed down, I stopped blaming the individual and myself. I realized that everything stemmed from beliefs I considered unquestionably correct and necessary. Therefore, I began to reevaluate these beliefs, discovering that they were not as foolproof as I had once thought.

Belief 1: “We are all brothers and sisters.”

Reflection 1: Do colleagues have to become siblings? Have you communicated and mutually agreed on such expectations with your partners? Are you imposing your expectations on others? Who is suffering from this unilateral decision, you or your colleague?

Belief 2: “To avoid mistakes, everything needs to be under my control.”

Reflection 2: Do you want to control situations or people? Do you have the ability to control everything? Is control the only way to avoid mistakes? Are the consequences of losing control truly catastrophic?

Belief 3: “We should take bold risks, iterate quickly.”

Reflection 3: What is the cost of taking bold risks? Why can’t we carefully consider and experiment after systematic thinking?

Belief 4: “Performance is what matters.”

Reflection 4: What is the relationship between business and the organization? What is the relationship between results and processes? How do short-term and long-term performance correlate?

Recognizing the benefits of addressing belief-level interference is that when we genuinely accept that some of our limiting beliefs are affecting us, the self-criticism and self-deprecating voices in our minds weaken. Our emotions gradually stabilize and transform as old beliefs dissolve and new beliefs take root.

03-Exploring and Transforming Limiting Beliefs in Leadership

In the realm of limiting beliefs, there are hierarchical distinctions. I believe that general management beliefs tend to be surface-level, while deeper beliefs often revolve around self-perception.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a senior executive friend who shared her recent setback. It all started when her subordinates and colleagues felt that she was overly controlling and aggressive. Her grievance was, “Is it wrong for me to be wholeheartedly dedicated to the company’s interests?”

We explored her work pattern together and discovered that she had a belief in “all truths are found on the frontlines.” Consequently, she attended every meeting and provided guidance whenever possible. This led to an extremely packed schedule.

I asked her why she did this, and her response was that she wanted to ensure everything was on track and error-free, so she clung tighter to control. We then delved into whether “control to prevent mistakes” was an absolute truth. The answer was not necessarily, as there are always things beyond one’s control. We further discussed why she couldn’t resist the urge to control even though it might not always be right. The answer was security. At this point, we could express her deeper belief about herself in a complete sentence, one of which was: “I am only safe when I am in control.”

We don’t need to delve into the psychological origins of such beliefs or their broader impact outside of work. Simply placing these beliefs in plain sight allows many people to judge whether these beliefs are “limiting” or “generative.”

In simple terms, any conditional, presupposing, or oppressive beliefs about oneself may be limiting beliefs, and they are all worthy of examination to determine their authenticity and integrity. As the saying goes, “Defining a problem clearly is already solving 80% of the problem.”

After airing these beliefs, the next step is to transform “limiting beliefs” into “generative beliefs.”

In my opinion, the criterion for judgment is when tension turns into ease and pressure transforms into motivation, that belief becomes generative.

Everyone’s language of transformation may not be the same. For example, my friend’s self-transformation language was, “I have always been safe, and what I need to pursue is meaning.” According to feedback, her approach to meetings changed, and her questions shifted from challenging to inquiring. Colleague relationships improved as a result.

At the same time, she no longer felt the need to personally oversee everything, allowing her to focus more on strategic thinking and reflective patterns.

“Human suffering can only be waged against enemies, not friends; or only against friends, not oneself. Only those with great wisdom, courage, and clarity of mind can wage war against themselves, confronting today’s self with yesterday’s self.”

The discovery, reflection, and iteration of limiting beliefs is waging a battle against one’s past self. Starting with self-management and gradually expanding into changes in managing tasks and others, this is one of the quickest ways to achieve effective self-management and leap into senior leadership.

Of course, I may have exaggerated the role of “discovering limiting beliefs” in self-management and senior leadership transition here. This may be one of my limiting beliefs, and I’m reflecting on it…

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