Who Do You Want to Be?

As we raise young people into adulthood, we put a great deal of effort into setting boundaries. In fact, most of what young people hear as they grow is a list of “don’ts.”  When we’re very young, we hear “Don’t throw food on the floor,” “Don’t speak disrespectfully to your elders,” and “Don’t take toys away from your friends.” As we grow, the “don’ts” begin to pile up: don’t play in the street, don’t forget your manners, and don’t use bad language. Even in adulthood, we are inundated with “don’ts” regarding our behavior: don’t say those words, don’t wear those clothes, don’t eat this, and don’t touch that.

All these “don’ts” form the boundaries of acceptable behavior. When reasonably imposed, boundaries are a necessary part of establishing what’s appropriate and acceptable. Manners, after all, are intended to make everyone comfortable, so that each person’s dignity and feelings are safeguarded. All human groupings develop norms for behavior that each group member is expected to adhere to. They vary in complexity and formality, but norms, boundaries, or “don’ts” are common. Of course, we can overdo boundary setting. When there are too many boundaries, then it becomes tyranny. In general, however, boundaries and standards of behavior (“manners”) are necessary to the function of any human society.

What’s generally left unsaid when establishing our group norms is a target to focus on. It’s not sufficient to merely describe the outside boundaries of the target; you also must show people what the bulls-eye looks like. That’s what the Five Be’s book is all about.

Humans Need a Vision of Who They Want to Be

People can function in a world of “do’s” and “don’ts,” but knowing what to do and what not to do only describes external behavior. What people, particularly young people, really need is a vision of who they should want to be. With that vision, people are then empowered to reach for something rather than merely avoiding something.

The Pitch Black Room Analogy

To illustrate that point, imagine the following situation:

You’re in a pitch-black room with the task of finding a door somewhere in the room. What would you do? Most people would find the walls first, feeling their way slowly around the walls until they found the door, then opening the door to exit. But what if the exit was really a trap door set in the floor? Or a staircase in the center of the room? What if the walls gave way with the slightest pressure leaving you groping in the dark? Simply being told there is a door in the room isn’t enough information to find the door. There’s even less of a chance if the walls are unstable.

Giving a person a vision of who we want them to be is like turning on an exit light in that imaginary room. The light will dimly illuminate the way, and give them a direction to walk toward. It could even be bright enough to illuminate the entire room.

What this thought experiment illustrates, is the need for both boundaries and a target: standards of behavior and a positive vision of who we should want to be.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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