Winning the inner game!

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Imagine being the best you could possibly be!
By Doug Parkin

A piece about you and your potential – based on a short masterclass delivered at the AMOSSHE Annual Conference, Imagine, Liverpool 2013.

How often have you seen the line “creating an environment where students and staff can achieve their full potential”? It’s a great aspiration, that’s for sure, but what does it really mean and can it ever be possible? Well, we are all born with an innate capacity to learn, a sort of learning instinct, a playful spirit of enquiry and curiosity about who we are and how the world works, and this should never be underestimated, but as we progress through life blocks and barriers arise which limit and obscure the potential that lies within us. We are bruised by often brutal experiences in both work and education and we start to limit ourselves and the service we offer others in ways that are both conscious and unconscious.

So, how can we start to win this inner game? Back in 1975 Timothy Gallwey in his wonderful book The Inner Game of Tennis put forward in the form of an equation the simple but fascinating proposition that


This proposition challenges us to change our focus and our thinking. Rather than trying to push performance or naval-gaze at potential, it invites us instead to focus on the interference that inhibits the former and blocks the latter. Remove the interference and the other two can flow together. This can be a personal quest, a valuable piece of self-discovery, but it can also be the basis for an approach to leadership: liberating leadership which aims to set potential free by focussing on interference and which uses empathy, compassion and passion to move towards a more fully engaged workplace and learning environment. 

There are four fundamental types of interference that block personal performance:

  1. Low inspiration,
  2. Self-limiting beliefs,
  3. Deficit relationships,
  4. Pain language.

Let us look briefly at each of these and share some ideas about how to win the inner game and the role of the liberating leader.

1. Low inspiration:  How often are we actively inspired? Inspired in a way that gives us life, fresh energy, enthusiasm, vigour and positivity? Inspired in a way that enables us to inspire others, perhaps? It can be a rare thing and certainly a quality of being that is hard to summon at will. Well, maybe Andy Murray’s historic success at SW19 in June was an example of collective inspiration. The FTSE 100 share index went up 1.1% the very next day after his Wimbledon Championship victory – as it always does after a great sporting success ( the ‘bulls’ have their day…). So, here are some steps you can take to combat low inspiration:

  • Find things that actively inspire you,
  • Visit them frequently,
  • Carry them with you all day long.

Developing a scrapbook of inspiration has never been easier with pictures, video clips, music and articles available to everyone on the internet. Start building your inspiration scrapbook today!

A liberating leader will look to tune-in to the things which inspire individuals, teams and even organisations. They will also openly share the things which inspire them.  In their approach to business planning and achieving change they will focus heavily on the inspiration that lies behind the initiative. They know that we are inspired by a dream not a plan and will look to make the ‘dream’ or vision a clear part of their dialogue around goals and performance.

2. Self-limiting beliefs: The beliefs we are looking at here are the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, our inner dialogue about what we can and cannot do and crucially what we are good at and what we are bad at. We all have a combination of supporting beliefs, based on our core values and successes, and limiting beliefs stemming from the outcomes and consequences we have experienced and also importantly the messages, often much repeated, given to us by significant players in our lives (parents, teachers, bosses, friends, partners, the media, community leaders, and so on).

Winning the inner game involves raising self-awareness regarding these limiting beliefs and challenging their origins, basis and validity. It involves challenging the troll under the bridge that says to our potential ‘you cannot cross’. This is not “you’ll believe a man can fly”-type stuff. For example, no matter how strong my beliefs it would clearly be a delusion to think that in my middle-years I could ever become an astronaut. These are beliefs about things within the sphere of the individual’s reality.

Stemming from a steadfast faith in human potential a liberating leader will work with individuals to raise awareness of self-limiting beliefs and release potential through coaching, great feedback, developing relationships and demonstrating personal commitment.

3. Deficit relationships:  Avoiding or transforming deficit relationships is a key way of keeping the flow of potential going. They seem friendly enough, these corridor conversations or chats over coffee, but they actually latch onto your negativity, double the feeling and take you lower. The catharsis is false, as the emotions are intensified rather than purged. These relationships are often cynical, deflating and uncaring. There is no winner, just a sharing of interference that makes doing challenging work/study more onerous than ever.

A liberating leader will look to set the tone in terms of creating relationships based on empathy, compassion and passion. These relationships are energising, inspiring and fulfilling and go beyond the difficulties of today. They are based on trust, respect, warmth and a desire to understand the emotional needs of others.

4. Pain language: The language we use, the language we choose to use, has a powerful impact on how we feel about ourselves and our performance. Our outer dialogue has a very strong influence over our inner dialogue and can become a source of interference. Pain language like I can’t… I have to… and it’s never going to happen… feeds through into our thoughts, beliefs and even values. They can create or reinforce self-limiting beliefs. Monitoring this dialogue, this choice of explanatory style, and moving from pain to power language will have a transformative effect. Moving from “I can’t” to “I choose not to” or from “I have to” to “I want to” is both empowering and enriching. It links demonstrably with the other three points covered so far.

A liberating leader will aim to lead with a narrative and a way of interacting that is all about power language. She or he will set out to model power language for colleagues in all directions, not just the immediate team, and will develop relationships on this basis.

So, just imagine…  Imagine these four transformations:

  • From low inspiration to carrying inspiration with you,
  • From self-limiting beliefs to empowering beliefs,
  • From deficit relationships to liberating relationships,
  • From pain to power language.

Imagine the interference this would reduce and imagine the potential it would release, and imagine working with a liberating leader committed to these principles.

Releasing potential through liberating leadership applies equally to leading the student experience. It can impact on student motivation, strengthen learning relationships, transform the environment and give students the confidence to access and use the resources they need. If we want students to be (or become) the best they can possibly be, on their own terms, then leadership that empowers is the key to engagement.

Whether working with staff, students or both, a liberating leader knows –

  • That we are inspired by a dream not a plan,
  • The importance of removing interference so that people can thrive, and
  • The value of creating organisations that people enjoy.

Doug Parkin
Leadership Foundation Programme Director

As part of his remit Doug leads two key professional development programmes: Future Leaders Programme and Leading Across Professional Boundaries

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