Warren Bennis, one of the most respected authorities on leadership in the world, said: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” On the surface, this sounds perfunctory. But when we examine this more deeply, several important implications arise. If leadership is the ability to translate vision into reality, what is the method to do this? One way, according to the latest research, is to use our brains to optimize our chances of success.
There is now incontrovertible evidence that imagining a movement will stimulate the movement areas in the brain. This technique has been used when helping people with stroke to begin moving and to help elite athletes optimize their pre-competition training. The recent example of the detailed visualization of Mikaela Shiffrin leading to a gold medal in the Olympic slalom is one such case in point. This evidence suggests that to reach your goals first write them down, and then determine different possible ways of achieving them. Then, close your eyes and imagine yourself following those paths. Imagination “warms up” the action brain and “jump starts” your brain. This technique can be especially helpful if you are procrastinating or stuck.
But, as easy as it sounds, simply closing your eyes and imagining yourself accomplishing a goal or leading a team to do so may feel challenging for a number of reasons. Many of my clients, for example, have asked: “What if I don’t feel confident enough to imagine? What if I have missed my targets for several quarters, and trying to imagine getting to my goal is anxiety-provoking?”
First, multiple forms of imagery have been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety, so imagining can actually help you feel less anxious.
Second, to improve your confidence, one especially helpful type of imagery that you can use is called motivational-general mastery (M-GM), which involves keeping an eye on your goal, while imagining coming from behind. M-GM stands in contrast to the static imagery of imagining having your goal in hand, as in holding up a trophy. Actually coming from behind to reach your goals appears to be a more powerful way to increase your confidence. To do this, clearly define your benchmarks, and then denote where you are and when and how you anticipate reaching and even exceeding them. Literally sketch this out on paper first so that you can use this script to create your mental image.
The next question people often ask is: How can I imagine exceeding my benchmarks when I have no idea of how I will actually do it? Remember that when you say you have “no idea”, you mean you have no conscious idea. However, a recent review of 75 papers revealed that imagery can help in several ways: In addition to helping to focus your attention by stimulating attentional networks in the brain, imagery can actually help your brain to map your path to your goal outside of conscious awareness. Imagining activates brain regions that can unconsciously map your path to success. Not knowing “how” doesn’t actually matter, since the brain will figure this out once you let it know where you want to go.
How can this be? When you program your car’s navigator with your destination, your car figures out how to take you to your destination. Similarly, your brain has the ability to map out your course to your goal once you clearly communicate to yourself what this goal is. In addition, imagining your journey also helps to keep your brain on track as it will constantly refer to this image and update your journey with greater ease than if you did not provide this information to it.
Many people and teams I have coached use this method to guide their paths to success. Rather than simply having a business plan, they make a mental movie of a business plan. When you have a vision for your life and business, it helps to make this quite literal.
As a start, define your goal. Make it real and graphic. Google and print out representations of this image, or spend actual time visualizing the image in high definition. Set aside time to do this every morning and think of it as feeding your brain graphic information so that it can help you chart your path to your goals. By repeatedly practicing this method, you can really conserve brain resources because practice generates automatic patterns in the brain, decreasing the need to recruit or invite brain regions involved in deliberate effort.
Brain science teaches us that a picture is worth a 1000 words because it serves as an attentional guide, motivator and map to the brain to help you navigate your way to come from behind to reach or exceed your goals. Now that you know how to translate vision into reality, what’s stopping you?
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