Where Is a Genie When You Need One?

By Jim Selman | Bio

There is a widely understood belief in Argentina’s culture that “the way we are is a big part of the problem … and one of our characteristics is that we’re always waiting for a leader to come along and save us.” The first time I heard this I was giving a talk to a large event in Buenos Aires. A man stood up and challenged my ‘American optimism’, suggesting that I just didn’t understand the way things really were in ‘their’ country. My response was to acknowledge that this may be true and to suggest that, since they were all waiting for the leader to appear, perhaps he could take the job until the leader came along. That got a chuckle or two and drove home my point. We live as if the causes and the solutions to our problems are somehow outside of ourselves and that they are beyond our ability to resolve. This view of the world inevitably leads to resignation—giving up—and has us drift into a kind of spectator relationship to life and the future.

I make the same point in a different way in my Leadership in Action workshops. I usually begin by asking participants what they would to say to a ‘Genie’ if that magical being promised to grant them one wish to change something in their organization. I am always a little surprised to hear people’s innocuous and tiny wishes (such as better communication, more cooperation between departments, more straight talk, more trust and so on). Not that these aren’t desirable objectives. But if you had just one wish, would you waste it on something so intangible and generic? I think these responses reveal how resigned we are in general to thinking that big, outrageous breakthroughs can’t happen and that if they did, they would be miracles.

We’re more committed to what’s reasonable than we are committed to what’s possible.

I don’t think we’re likely to find a Genie anytime soon, just as I don’t think Argentina is going to be saved by some mythical leader. But if we are going to have unprecedented results, if we are going to have an unpredictable future, if we are going to have breakthroughs, then we need to be the GENIE—at least until the big blue one comes along.

One definition of a miracle is that it is something extraordinary, unpredictable, amazing and wonderful that we can’t explain. Whatever we think the source of a miracle may be, they usually seem to happen when human beings are committed to a possibility before there is any evidence that it is possible. One could define this as ‘faith’, but it is not ‘blind’ faith. It is the kind of faith that is born out of adversity, when no possibility exists and when one must be created as the only alternative to despair. It is the kind of faith that comes from a powerful vision—when an individual or group imagines and commits to an alternative reality, an unpredictable future.

After the fact, miracles and breakthroughs just look like big changes. But before the fact, they are considered by almost everyone as impossible. For example, discovering the ‘New World’, running a four-minute mile, going to the moon, curing small pox or creating the Internet were considered by most as impossibilities before they happened.

In my experience, we tend to pray for miracles or commit ourselves to having breakthroughs when we face insurmountable challenges (or hit bottom) or when we reach the top of our game (in which case, we have no place to go unless we create a bigger game). No matter what the situation may be, the ‘miraculous, impossible’ outcome will look like an unreasonable or unrealistic goal—a naïve ‘wish’ meant to be shared with an imaginary Genie. A more rigorous way of looking at it is to see the ‘miracle’ as an opportunity for us to make an unreasonable commitment to an unpredictable result. All we have to do is, instead of resisting and reacting to conventional wisdom and our historical point of view about what is possible, simply distinguish what is missing and then create it.

Everywhere we look we are confronting unprecedented breakdowns and problems. Resolving them will require unprecedented actions.

Unprecedented actions require unprecedented and unreasonable commitments.

Unreasonable commitments require creating an unprecedented possibility.

A possibility is by definition not a reality (if it were, it would be an example). Every possibility must, therefore, be created.

A Genie is someone who creates a possibility where none exists. Leaders and entrepreneurs do the same thing.

Maybe it is time for you to be a Genie. God knows we need all the Genies we can get.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.