Do you want to know the two underlying secrets of great leaders? I learned them from a 2000-year-old Roman poet named Ovid. You may be familiar with his character, Pygmalion, from the play Metamorphoses.

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The First Secret of Great Leaders

In his play, Pygmalion was a sculptor who was able to simply look at a piece of marble and see the sculpture inside of it. He could see the beauty inside of a piece of stone.

That’s the first secret of great leaders. Like Pygmalion, they can see the hidden potential inside of others that no one else can. They see the best in others, like Nelson Mandela.

One day, Pygmalion began to craft his masterpiece. It was a statue of his ideal woman, Galatea. The finished product was everything he ever imagined and more. It was beauty personified, if only in stone.

It was so beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love. He was enamored with the idea of his ideal woman coming to life, so he asked Venus, the goddess of love, to make Galatea real. She did, and Pygmalion had what he believed for.

The Pygmalion Effect

Now I realize Ovid’s story is just a myth. But it proves a reality that is true even today. It’s known as The Pygmalion Effect, the result of our belief in someone else bringing to life his or her true potential.

The second secret of great leaders

It’s the second secret of great leaders. First, they see the potential. Then, they believe for it to come to life.

More than a myth – the science behind the Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect was around for thousands of years before Ovid lived. It’s documented in the Bible in the story of Jacob. You can read more on that here: You Can Make Others Believe

And it’s being proven in research even today. The 1968 book Pygmalion in the Classroom documents a now well-known study by Robert Rosenthal. He and his researchers gave the students at a California elementary school an IQ test at the beginning of the study. The researchers did not share the results of the tests with the teachers. Instead, the teachers were told that about 20% of the students (chosen at random) were expected to perform much better than their classmates. They labeled these students as “academic achievers.”

They told the teachers to be sure not to spend any extra time with those students and they monitored them to be sure that was not the case. At the end of the study, they gave the students another IQ test and those who had been labeled “academic achievers” scored off the charts.

But there was a twist. The 20% who were deemed “academic achievers” at the beginning of the study were, in fact, very ordinary. In effect, the researchers misled the teachers.

Belief is important…but not enough

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So what accounted for these students’ remarkable academic turnaround? Well, that’s where the Pygmalion Effect comes into play.

What first made the difference was simple: Belief.

The simple belief that the teachers had for their students. No, the teachers didn’t have some magical or mystical power. But the belief they held deep inside naturally came out when they were communicating with the students. And that belief was passed on to the students.

The belief, which had to come first, led to action.

If you read the story of Jacob that I mentioned earlier, he didn’t just believe in his mind and hope that his belief was enough. He acted on his belief. The teachers unknowingly did the same thing.

In effect, perhaps without knowing it, they communicated to their students the most important message a leader can communicate to his team or that a parent can communicate to his children or that any world changer can communicate to others:

“I believe in you.”

Those four words are the magic leadership words. Those words separate great leaders from average leaders. “I believe in you.” If you want to be a great leader, you must communicate those four words often.

Belief is a choice

Most of us will never be a part of a groundbreaking study in which we are falsely told that our team or children or friends or spouse actually possess superhuman abilities.

So belief is a choice.

You must consciously choose to believe in others.

Action item: Pick one person today and choose to believe in his or her abilities. Does that person have a dream or goal? Believe in it. Then communicate your belief to that person. Remember those magic words: “I believe in you.”

Only when you choose to believe in others’ power and abilities will you be able to lead them. Only then will you be able to influence them. Only when you believe in others can you change the world.

Your belief has the power to lift others from despair. From poverty. From the lies of others. From abuse. Even from their own unbelief.

Yes, your belief has the power to overcome others’ disbelief. Your belief in others has the power to change the world.

Will you choose to believe today?

7 thoughts on “The 2 Secrets of Great Leaders | The Pygmalion Effect

  1. Awesome wisdom Matt. Really enjoyed the relation to Jacob as well. Often times we give others hope by our belief in them. I was reading this morning from Colossians and recognized Paul’s belief in himself – rather God’s Spirit in him – and he projected that belief to the Colossians. What a great testimony of leadership.

  2. Dan Erickson says:

    Interesting post, Matt. I’ve heard about these kinds of studies with students. It’s amazing. I’ve seen the same thing in my classroom. When I believe that someone with extreme speech anxiety can make it through my class and I work with them and they not only make it through, but they improve greatly.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      It’s amazing how much our belief or unbelief comes through even when we try to mask it.

  3. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    Great post. The other risk I see is when a new leader takes over, and the “old” leader tells them all about each person on the team so the new leader comes in with all the old impressions, rather than starting with a clean slate and an open mind.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      So true. I think some advice is good and I want to know as much about people as possible, but there is a fine line between information and filling my head with prejudices or negative opinions.

  4. Jon Stolpe says:

    Great challenge to start my day. Thanks, Matt!

  5. Bill Benoist /Leadership Heart says:

    As parents, I think many of us follow this Pygmalion principle. We believe in their abilities and our actions are often based upon those beliefs. (I’m sure I would not be where I am today if my mother had not believed in my abilities.) Just think if we had that same belief with others at work!

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