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It's a New Year … time to unlock your potential

By Jane H. Firth
Article appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal January 10, 2014.
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In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two primary functions of the human brain, which he calls system 1 and system 2. System 1 is very good at seeing and orienting, it is intuitive; system 2 carries out complex tasks such as the multiplication of numbers.
As he takes us on this journey of discovery he cites a well-known experiment conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons from their book, The Invisible Gorilla. This experiment asks participants to watch a short film of two teams passing a ball. One team is wearing white shirts, one team is wearing black shirts. The viewers are instructed to focus on and count the number of passes made by the team wearing white shirts while ignoring the team wearing black shirts.

Halfway through the video a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears for a total of 9 seconds, thumps her chest, and moves on. About half of the many thousands of people who viewed the video in the experiment did not report having seen anything unusual. The counting task and instruction to ignore one of the teams caused “the blindness.”

Participants in the experiment are surprised by their “blindness,” and can’t imagine how they could have missed seeing the gorilla! Kahneman says that no one who would watch the video without the task would miss the gorilla, that the task of focusing and counting can override system 1’s intuitive function of seeing and orienting. In using this example he wants us to know that we can be “blind to the obvious and blind to our own blindness.” I love this phrase, and in my work with executives I find it holds true in so many ways…

An executive said to me earlier in the year, having surprised herself by what she had been able to accomplish as a leader in her organization, “I am 52 years old and I forgot that I had potential.” Our potential is something else we can be “blind” to.

As we begin the New Year, you are probably thinking about some things you would like to achieve personally and professionally over the course of the coming year. Would your goals be different if you knew you had potential you had been blind to?

Without realizing it we can be blind to the fact that we have the ability to grow in important ways. If I were to say to you that no matter how accomplished and experienced you are, no matter what you have achieved in your life, you have considerable potential you are unaware of, would you choose to take the blinders off? What if that potential represented your ability to evolve, as a leader, and as a person? What if that potential represented your ability to become a better communicator, a better listener, someone more capable of bringing out the best in yourself and those you lead? If it is true that you have considerable potential you are unaware of having, or are “blind” to at the moment, what would be a goal that would hold meaning for you?

Where to begin… How to focus…
Make an appointment with yourself to reflect and answer some questions. Start by taking an honest read on the past year… As you reflect about the past year, think about what occurred as a result of your leadership: What did you accomplish? What are some of the things that happened that you feel good about? Where and how and with whom, could you have done a better job? What problems did you grapple with, what challenges did you take on? What risks did you take and what happened as a result? Then start to think about this coming year: How you would like to evolve as a leader? What you would really like to accomplish? What would you like to do differently, what would you like to improve, what strengths would you like to build on?

Finding, clarifying the one goal that matters to you most…
As you work on clarifying what you would really like to accomplish this year, choose one important goal that you are willing to hold yourself accountable for. Maybe you are impatient with people you lead but sincerely want to be a better listener. What would be possible if you were to “park your impatience” outside the door and start listening in a more empathetic and effective way? Maybe you hate meetings but your team values getting together on a regular basis. How could you transform what you now call “a meeting” into a regular opportunity to think things through transparently together and strategize in important ways? How could you transform mere meetings into opportunities for synergy and partnership?

Ask yourself to use that challenge as a way to cause a win for everyone you lead. How would you feel if you looked back at the end of 2014, and surprised even yourself as to how your discipline and determination made a difference in evolving your leadership? What if you saw you’d been blind to your own potential? What if you could grow this year in a way you really care about? Pick something difficult and meaningful and turn it into a developmental challenge for yourself. Like the executive who had forgotten her own potential, what is there to be gained comes into view and within our grasp once we commit to and engage ourselves in a worthwhile challenge. Engaging with the challenge leads us to find out what we have within us that we’d been blind to.

You didn’t know you had it in you!
Step forward into your potential this year. Be willing to surprise yourself with what you are capable of in the process. Make this year really count for yourself and those you lead.

Jane H. FirthJANE H. FIRTH is a Philadelphia-based expert in the field of executive coaching and leadership development. She is a trusted advisor, coach, consultant, and seminar leader, empowering individuals, C-Suite executives, and their teams to address dramatic improvements in performance, behavior, and leadership. She can be reached at