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Challenges, big and small, professional and personal, confront us every day. Sometimes we face those challenges head on, and other times they feel impossible. We lose courage and motivation. Luckily, what feels impossible for me might not be impossible for you, and what feels impossible for you might not feel impossible for me. We all have superpowers that help us to do impossible things, and we can learn from each other. In my work, I’ve met some of the most inspiring people in the country. I sat down with four of them and asked them: How do we do the seemingly impossible?
Believe we can.
Mary Barra, the Chairman and CEO of General Motors, has a two-part recipe for doing the impossible. First, she told me, “I’m a big believer in the power of teams. When everyone is contributing, you can do amazing things.” Prioritizing the success of the team over the success of yourself—a we-are-in-it-together mentality—meant that more people were on board to face the impossible together. This led to the second part of her belief. If more people were on board, the more likely the success: “If you think you can, you will.”
Have a purpose beyond yourself.
When Andrea Lytle Peet was diagnosed with ALS four years ago, she told me that she thought the world was over. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease with a 2-5-year life expectancy. It causes Andrea to lose control of her muscles. But as she left the doctor’s office feeling distraught, she realized something: “I was walking. I could walk. I could talk. I could eat. I could breathe. I realized that today is really all we have, and I wanted to use my remaining time in the best way that I could.”
Andrea used that realization to propel her through 12 triathlons and marathons this year, 4 years after her diagnosis, completely shattering the expectations of her prognosis. She has since raised more than $300K for ALS research, saying, “I wanted to make a difference with this disease, so no other family will have to go through what I have.” Focusing on a future in which others suffer less because of her work gave Andrea the strength and purpose to do the impossible not just once, but 12 times.
Focus on your assets, not deficits.
When Michael Sorrell agreed to be president of Paul Quinn College, a HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in Dallas, Texas, it was on the verge of shutting down. With thin resources and crumbling infrastructure, Michael could see what his predecessors couldn’t: possibility. He believed that the school still had a lot to give, but nobody could see it because they were focused on the deficits. He said, “Don’t spend your time worrying about deficits. Focus on assets. You have gifts that, if you maximize them, will allow you to accomplish things that other people might think are impossible.” Today, the college is thriving with a national expansion, and Fortune Magazine named Michael one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world in 2017.
Envision the future and work backwards from there.
As the Principal Deputy Director of US National Intelligence, and the highest-ranking female leader in our intelligence community, Sue Gordon has faced more impossible challenges than most of us can imagine. Among her most remarkable achievements is the creation of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s Venture Capital Firm. Imagine pitching an idea (such as a public-private partnership) for which there was little to no precedence, nor existing frames of reference in the organization. What’s even more remarkable is that, from start to finish, the idea became a reality in just one year.
When I asked her how she continues to do what others perceive as impossible, she said, “We’ve done the impossible so many times throughout history, so all you have to do is remember that.” Sue has perspective. She looks at the impossible and says, “But what if we could do that? To me, it’s just thinking big enough, getting all the way to the future and then saying, ‘In order for that future to be true, what are the things we have to overcome?’” Looking to the future and reminding her team of analogous wins they and the organization were capable of achieving gives them the courage and know-how to make the impossible a reality.
These 4 incredible leaders are from vastly different backgrounds and sectors – private, social, and public sectors. The challenges and opportunities they have faced are on the surface, also vastly different.
Mary became CEO after GM, an iconic 100+ year old company underwent Chapter 11 in 2008, and in many ways became a startup. She is also the first female CEO of a global automobile maker. She is now transforming GM, an iconic 100+ year old company from a traditional manufacturing company to a technology company. It’s a new expression of the company’s core values, and one that’s needed given the current and future disruptions.
Michael accepted the presidency of Paul Quinn College during a period in its history when it’s closing seemed imminent. Paul Quinn had its origin story in serving as an educational institution for children of sharecroppers in the American South. As such, there were no major endowments in its founding. Resources were always scarce. And he had to reinject a sense of hope into his team.
Sue in conceptualizing In-Q-Tel, and other key initiatives was dealing with existing and rigid traditions and regulations. There was little to no precedent for what she was imagining and had to create and communicate new frames of reference and get buy-in among a wide set of stakeholders.
Andrea wrestled with personal limitations from a debilitating disease and in the face of that reality to do what few of us in good physical condition can only dream of doing.
They are different. Yet, they share similar mindsets and qualities. If you were to meet them in person, you would instantly feel hopeful. They possess an irrepressible energy that’s born out of a sense of self and positivity. Because they are comfortable with who they are, they focus on you. And what they help you focus on is the good, the possible.
They are also savvy problem solvers. They recognize and acknowledge the potential hopelessness that others around them may feel, but they don’t dwell on it. They give others a renewed sense of agency by refocusing them on the problem solving and finding new ways of addressing the challenge.
And finally, you feel their deep sense of responsibility. They deeply understand the purpose behind why they must achieve that seemingly impossible goal and the consequential ramifications to the organization and to society of not achieving it.
These incredibly individuals teach us that accomplishing the seemingly impossible is about recognizing the potential that was inside of us all along. By believing in ourselves, finding our purpose, knowing our strengths, and using past successes as precedent for future achievement, we can all harness our collective potential and go for the seemingly impossible.
So, what about you? What are your takeaways? How will you accomplish the seemingly impossible?
For more on these 4 leaders, here are:
- Mary Barra’s fireside chat with Bill Boulding, Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business at Fuqua’s Distinguished Speaker Series on collaboration an culture.
- Michael Sorrell’s podcast interview with Judith Kelley, Dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. They talk about making college an engine of social mobility and “leading with love.”
- Wired Magazine’s feature on Sue Gordon and her groundbreaking work on building US Intelligence partnerships with Silicon Valley and the Private Sector
- Andrea Lytle Peet’s chronicles of her journey at Team Drea blog.
January 30, 2019 at 11:47AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs