The power of perception

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” ― Epictetus

Ah, the wise words of Epictetus.  How we perceive a situation and ergo respond to it, will make all the difference to the outcome.

Although this may seem blindingly obvious, when we are in the thick of what appears to be a ‘doozie of a pickle’, it can be a difficult pearl of wisdom to be aware of and even less so to follow. And yet, I think it is one of the most powerful lessons in leading successfully.

Let me show you an example.  On the weekend, I watched this thought provoking TED talk about stress.

For years the medical profession has encouraged people with conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease to eliminate stress.

Stress is blamed for a raft of ailments, and we are all too familiar with the outcomes of leading a high stress life. Stress and health are just not a happy marriage, so we have been told, and so the statistics increasingly tell us.

But, in this talk Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal presents new research which proves stress is actually not bad for our health.

In fact, stress can be a good thing.

The thing is, it’s only bad for us if we believe it is so.  If we perceive stress positively, it helps our bodies rise to the challenge. Instead of our blood vessels constricting, they remain open – similar to when we are experiencing feelings of joy or courage.

By contrast, if we view stress as having a negative impact on our health, when the heart rate rises, the blood vessels then become smaller, exacerbating pre-existing cardio vascular conditions and harming our bodies. It’s no surprise this is normally what happens, because most of us believe stress is bad for us.

I was so amazed by the results of this study, that I began to think about how this concept could extend into other areas of leadership.

I realised it’s not what happens that matters, it’s how we perceive it and correspondingly respond to it that is the key to success.

Take a bad profit or market share result, for example. There’s no arguing this is not ‘good’ in anyone’s book. But is it really?

What if, instead of catastrophising the result, we were instead to acknowledge it as ‘not what we intended’ and not a good thing if it continues, but also as an opportunity. A catalyst for change, a new pathway to forge, a space for realignment and readjustment, a chance to learn and move forward with insights and wisdom.

Challenges, setbacks and problems are an essential part of working life and life itself.

Accept they will arise, and embrace them as chances to develop different ‘muscles’. Hone your skills. Get better. And see each one as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and others.

So next time a setback occurs, although it may be uncomfortable to experience, view it as a positive.  Ask yourself and others,

What have we learnt from this?

What is this telling us?

What do we need to do differently?

What do we need to keep doing in terms of ‘staying the course’?

What are the ‘gifts’ this situation brings?”

As a leader, how you perceive and therefore approach, deal with, and talk about problems, setbacks and challenges will have a ripple effect within your team.

How do you respond and react when things go wrong?  


  1. […] See here for more on the power of perception. […]

  2. kxw1 on September 10, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Reblogged this on KXW Blog.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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