Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

This article takes a brief look at the vast impact that spoken words may have on our life style and our development as leaders.  Last week we used the old saying ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.  As is the case with many slogans, this one is only a half truth.

Words may not normally incur physical harm, but words can and do inflict considerable pain and influence on others. Sometimes words can in fact cascade into our future and become self-fulfilling prophecies, especially if these words are repeated often enough.

Fortunately in terms of universal realities, the opposite is also true: Positive words can also impact profoundly on us and on others around us. I know of people who carry with them a list of positive affirmations. In this manner they continually boost their own confidence with carefully chosen words. Constantly reading positive literature tends to strengthen our self confidence in universal values. Spiritual giants are often passionate about written sources of spiritual values such as scriptures and they will feast upon these positive words on a daily basis. We all need positive words!

Almost without exception we find that in interviews with top leaders and performers they reveal deep rooted influence of words of parents, close family members or other sources such as teachers from early youth.

Let me tell you about James, a young career army officer and family friend. I asked him once why he became an army officer. He told me that he cannot recall the precise reason for his early childhood ambition to be a soldier, with the exception of one occurrence that stands out in his mind. When he was about four years old, his father left his mother and him. As he was leaving the house, he hugged the little boy James and told him: ‘I want you to be a good soldier now!’  He obviously meant that James must be brave at losing his dad, yet the young boy understood the words literally. He became a professional soldier.

Years ago I was a young factory manager, barely in my twenties, eventually responsible for more than a hundred workers in Cape Town. I was very inexperienced but willing and after a few years on the job I asked my boss’s wife, who was an active director of the company, what I could do to improve my performance. She told me that I was a ‘perfect manager’ and that I had the ability to somehow do the right thing even when her husband, the boss, sometimes in an emotional frame of mind told me to do something that was not thought through properly. I still remember those words after all the years! They boosted my confidence and gave me courage to continue believing in myself. By the way, looking back I was most certainly not a ‘perfect manager’ but I appreciated the words at the time and they motivated me to improve my performance. In different ways, the words spoken to James and myself became self-fulfilling prophecies.  

In our society we place great value on freedom of expression and speech. This is a hallmark of democracy and we greatly value this freedom. But having the freedom to express ourselves does not remove the consequences of misuse of that freedom. It is symptomatic of modern democratic societies that we do not always evaluate the negative domino effect that words can have. How often do we hear the expressions: ’I say what I think!’ or ‘At least I am honest about my feelings’. We like to speak freely but we do not necessarily like to evaluate the harm that our words may do to others. Is that being honest?

A negative attitude is often the source of irresponsible words. We list some of the signs of a negative attitude:

1.      Expressions of total judgements such as ‘He always lies or exaggerates’. ‘She never comes on time’. ‘He is a real loser’. ‘Why do you always have to argue?’ ‘I always have to do the dirty work around here’. ‘He always favours Bob above me’. ‘I must have a drink!’ Such expressions of ‘total judgment’ tend to demonstrate a negative attitude. Be careful of using total judgement expressions! They tend to offend and draw negative responses. When such expressions are interpreted as a judgment of the person (rather than the specific action), the negative impact may cascade into the distant future. This is especially applicable when leaders at home or at work tend to make harsh personal judgments. 

2.      A tendency to judge situations before getting all sides of the story. This is a common tendency in our society and it is amazing how adult people cling to this habit! Respected leaders tend to be very careful about making snap judgments of situations before the necessary home work has been done. It is during this phase of making snap judgements that relationships and situations may be damaged, sometimes beyond repair.

3.      A negative attitude is often backed by passionate emotional conviction that our feelings are justified. A negative attitude often wants a quick kind of ‘justice’. If undisciplined by our social system, such negative feelings can result in terrible consequences. Although the majority amongst us resists allowing our negative attitudes to escalate into terrible social crimes, we need to realize that our words can often cause a rippling impact that may stretch much further than we realize.

4.      Make no mistake; a negative attitude is a form of blindness. It is like wearing coloured or foggy spectacles that we do not necessarily recognize until somebody points it out to us. Negative words and feelings simply flow out of a negative mind.

The expression self fulfilling prophecy has significant implications in terms of our leadership legacy. What I am committed to emotionally at this moment in time is prophetically indicative of what is going to happen in my future. What you and I say today is a direct indication of our believed values and self worth. To remain quiet is often indicative of great wisdom! As the old saying goes: “If you cannot say something good about a person, then don’t say anything”.

We have listed some of the many evils that may result from negative words. The other side of the coin is more important for those of us who strive to be good leaders and better people in general. As we learn to spot our negative moods we will learn to be more disciplined in our choice of words. In this way we make room for the better part of us to surface more often. I have yet to meet a person that does not have a better part of his or her nature! 

Our struggle to govern words is as old as time itself. We should not need sophisticated training courses to tell us that we are responsible for our own words.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Louis on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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