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Is Magical Thinking Stopping You?

If you are on social media at all these days, you might notice a dominant set of content that is loaded with magical thinking:

Take your business from zero to fully booked in 30 days!

Use this patented technique to grow your business to seven figures overnight!

Let us bring 20, 30 and even 100 prequalified leads to you every week, guaranteed!

These are magical thinking statements.

Magical thinking is defined as a set of false beliefs about the capability of thoughts, actions or words to cause or prevent events. It is a commonly observed symptom in thought disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In other words, it is not just a harmless quirk in its most intensive form.

Although taken to an extreme, magical thinking is a sign of mental illness (don’t worry, you probably aren’t crazy—at least not any crazier than the rest of us), we inevitably do it in small, harmless ways all the time. When we toss a coin into a fountain, cross our fingers, or make a wish before blowing out birthday candles, we are engaged in magical thinking. And many of us perform these actions without any disruption or harm, because we aren’t counting on them to replace other, more productive efforts.

However, magical thinking in business seems to be on the rise as the barriers to starting a business are becoming less and less, markets are more volatile, the voices that incite magical thinking are getting louder and more insistent, and technology is advancing at wildly increasing rates. Inexperienced business owners are jumping in, underfunded and underprepared for the lengthy process of starting and growing a successful business.

(Yep. I said it. Growing a business to an overnight success takes years—even decades—in most cases.)

Many business owners are frightened of what failure might mean, and grasp at the all-too-available, overinflated promises. They are looking for a fast track to success, and magical thinking can put these folks in a bad spot even faster.

Magical thinking in a business setting is not limited to startups. I have seen many seasoned business owners, with as much as 30 years in a leadership role, who are trying to pivot, scale or sell their business, suddenly catch a bad case of magical thinking when it comes to marketing or sales as the path to a quick result. Behind this approach, whether it is a veteran or novice entrepreneur, is a sense of extreme urgency and intense fear that there isn’t enough time to use proven processes instead.

Unfortunately, magical thinking rarely creates the desired impact, and lacks real leadership, which demands self-awareness. This approach is self-deception, and it lures these otherwise rational CEOs and executives into attempting to work and manage using strategies and tactics that cannot achieve the goals for which they were designed. They want a silver bullet, instead of doing the work and taking the time to get the initiative done right.

Think You Are Immune to Magical Thinking? Think Again.

Here are some of the common forms magical thinking can take in business, using real examples of business leaders whose identities have been kept anonymous. How many can you identify with?

The Quick Thinker

The quick thinker is proud of her decisiveness. No matter how deep or challenging the problem, she seems to have no difficulty making a quick decision with confidence. She claims she is using her experience and intuitive abilities, when actually she is reactive and impulsive. She is certain the problem has been addressed and feels a bit superior to her team who couldn’t see how simple it was to solve this complex issue. Their desire to have meetings, and explore options, with lengthy discussions and exploration, as well as potentially costly outside consultants is an obvious waste, given her razor-sharp insight.

Problem solved.

Until it isn’t.

This was my early entrepreneur approach, and unfortunately for me and anyone who worked for me, it did appear to work some of the time, which only served to reinforce my magical thinking that I was an incredibly decisive leader.

Unfortunately, magical thinking doesn't work. For the quick thinker it might occasionally yield a fairly good outcome, like playing the lottery scratch-off games, where you break even at unpredictable intervals. But then the rapid decision leads to another problem, or the old problem resurfaces again.

When that happened, I would lean on my intelligence to rapidly discern a new approach, but in reality, I was panicking a little on the inside, and struggling to keep my fear to myself. But then, I would experience a new burst of magical thinking, announcing I had once again heroically outsmarted the problem.

The Self-Help Innovator

The self-help innovator is a student of the best business minds. She reads all the best-selling business books, attends conferences with headline business motivational speakers, and has been known to hire a coach or two to help her hone her business and leadership savvy. She adapts her focus, priorities and style to emulate her latest guru. Whenever her team sees a new book on her desk, they brace themselves because they know a change in strategy is coming. The self-help innovator is convinced that if she follows these thought-leaders, she can magically transform her business and her team’s success.

If magic fails, what succeeds? The careful, time-consuming, sometimes costly process of developing an RFP, of forming and running teams, of consulting outside experts. Doing the work, one step at a time. It isn't pretty. Or sexy. But it works.

Today’s new executive standard calls for leaders with the ability to embrace the grey and drive to black and white. Yet when we peer into the toolbox that leaders use in the effort, we sometimes find excessive use of a very dangerous tool: magical thinking.

The Marketing Magician

The marketing magician is certain that the right marketing content and strategy will do in days what she has not been able to achieve herself in months, or even years. A magical marketing overnight answer might entail launching a course, writing a book, building a speaking business, growing an email list, creating engagement on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, or TikTok. Never mind that they are not picking up the phone or getting out to meet prospects now. What she really wants is to avoid personal contact.

Similarly, this entrepreneur may believe her answer is a new website, the right catch-phrase, or stellar SEO. She may even apply this form of magical thinking to sales and similar hires,, believing a new sales person, a virtual assistant, or outsourced social media strategist can solve her low income stream.

And here’s the thing: Any or all of these may be smart, but they are magical thinking if they lack an intellectually honest assessment of whether or not the product is right, the messaging is targeted, the resources are in place, and there is ample time for them to work.

The Systems Sorcerer

The systems sorcerer spends huge blocks of time organizing her processes and systems. She can tell to the second how long it will take to perform any service or create any product. She tracks her budget, her time, her forecasts, her social media metrics. If it can be managed or measured, she will do so. Except, she can’t understand why she can’t manage to meet her deadlines, or grow her book of business.

She tells herself, “Sales will really take off once I have the right dashboard to onboard and nurture clients.” The idea that a system can replace her own engagement in building the business is simply magical thinking. Systems can help management, but they are not a substitute for the daily discipline and accountability of business development or delivering a product or service.

What’s the Alternative to Magical Thinking?

You won’t find any magical solutions because there are no magical solutions. You can call them a quick fix, a new algorithm, secret formula, or patented process if it makes you feel better, but if it promises you won’t need to expend much effort, and then success is almost immediate, you are veering into dangerously magical thinking. Whether you hope a marketing strategy, fast decision, sales person, website, or particular process will make things better, you are avoiding the reality that people (and that means you) using good, old fashioned efforting are the ultimate determinant of success.

Effective leaders cannot wave a social media wand and make clients and revenue appear. They chart a course, hire the best talent they can, and then free their team to pursue the chosen course. They make strategic, considered decisions, take meaningful action, and then adjust course where necessary.

Think you might be facing some magical thinking and want to redirect your efforts? Then let’s have a free strategy call. By the way, this isn’t a magic bullet. It is the beginning of doing the work you may have been trying to skate past, but at least you’ll get a clear vision of what that really means, and can decide realistically if it is worth your time and effort.

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