The Mythology of Greatness

It’s not human nature to be great. It’s human nature to survive, to be average and do what you have to do to get by. That is normal. When you have something good happen, it’s the special people that can stay focused and keep paying attention to detail, working to get better and not being satisfied with what they have accomplished. Nick Saban

One of the most common misconceptions I hear from leaders is the following: “I am a vision, big picture person, I’m not a details person.”  In that same vein, I often also hear, “I am not a manager type, I’m more of a leader type”, relegating management of the details to lesser mortals, while interfacing with the gods Zeus, Mercury or Poseidon to divine a 12.5-year strategic vision. I’m no Poseidon, but I tend to think in order to be a great leader, we first have to be a great manager.

Please re-read the Saban quote above. It will come as no surprise to you that Saban is one national championship game away from matching Bear Bryant, the only individual in history to win six college football championships. He may not be Zeus, but Alabama does have a statue of him on campus. But I digress.

Coach Bryant was obsessed with doing the small things right. Saban, as evidenced above, had a similar ilk for mastery of the details. John Wooden, former UCLA’s men’s basketball coach, is famous for his, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Coincidentally [read: sarcasm], Wooden won ten national titles in twelve years during his tenure at UCLA. Jack Welch, considered by many of his colleagues and peers to be “the” or “one of the” greatest CEOs of all time, was also a so-called “lesser mortal.” During his tenure at General Electric, the value of the company rose 4,000% under his watch. A 1998 Fortune article, “Revealed at last: The secret of Jack Welch’s Success”, states “Now you have the secret of Jack Welch’s success. Not a series of brilliant insights or bold gambles, but a fanatical attention to detail.” Steve Jobs, ranked the #1 CEO in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article titled, “The Best-Performing CEOs in the World” was once quoted as saying, ““Everything is important- that success is in the details.”

It is often said that “the devil is in the details.” Now while I tend to prefer the origin of this idiom, “God is in the details” – I do tend to think that unless the gods Zeus, Mercury or Poseidon  had Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, John Wooden, Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs doing their bidding, perhaps it is worth learning a thing or two from these mere mortals. They seemed to have removed the practice of rabid attention to managing the details out of the ranks of ancient mythology.

Worldclass Vs. Average

“Work Hard and Become a Leader,
Be Lazy and Become a Slave.” Proverbs 12:24

The most confounding question I receive from students, friends, and clients is the answer to, “What is the most important characteristic of winners?” After nearly 11 years of coaching well over 900 executive leaders, seven years as a college professor, and a twenty-two year study in order to discover what separates the world-class performers from the average performers, I am going to take a swing at an answer:

The “average” or amateurs wait for inspiration to get done what needs to be done, professionals or the world-class just get to work – Daily.

Inspiration is an incredible thing to experience, it is behind some of the greatest human achievements in history. Problem is, inspiration strong enough to counter the inertia of fatigue, stress, and living day to day is not enough to rely upon to get you to anything worthwhile. It is too sporadic to rely upon and thus, if you want to achieve anything worthwhile, you are left with identifying the daily habits of what needs to be done and getting to work. Inspired or uninspired, champions and their “dynasties” are built upon the foundation of DAILY getting down to work.

Waiting to move until you are inspired is a clever and deluding way to reframe good ol’ fashioned laziness.

Today’s Habits, Tomorrow’s Outcome

Successful people aren’t born that way. They become successful by establishing the habit of doing things unsuccessful people don’t like to do. The successful people don’t always like doing these things themselves; they just get on and do them.

DON MARQUIS

 Your latent potential or achievement is directly proportional to your DAILY habits. Habits are domineering little actions that either control you or are controlled by you. The American Journal of Psychology defines habits rather simply, “A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience” (Andrews, 1903, p. 123). This fixed way of thinking will eventually create the blueprint of your life. Unless thinking is altered, it will serve as a crystal ball into the remainder of your future.

Daily Habits = Eventual Outcome

Daily World-class Habits = Eventual World-class Outcomes

Daily Poor Habits = Eventual Poor Outcomes

Champions have habits that support their success. Unsuccessful and near-champions have average habits.

Depending on how you are doing today, I have either great news or a rather pessimistic outlook to share. Habits, both good or detrimental, will eventually go into auto-pilot or unconscious repetition, making them extremely easy to persist in perpetuity (When is the last time you missed brushing your teeth two days in a row?). What do your habits today reveal about your eventual tomorrow?

Little wonder Dr. John Maxwell writes, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine” or John Dryden’s famous, “We first make our habits then our habits make us.” Not happy with today or the prospects of tomorrow? Finally, John Wooden’s, “Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, the habits you are developing now will be with you for the rest of your life.” Not so sure about tomorrow’s prospects? Change your habits….or….change your name to “John.”

Habits

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” 

Winston S. Churchill

The lion share of individuals in business and in life do not achieve (and will not achieve) their most sacred desires and aspirations. The rationale for this incredible miscarriage of talent is not the size of their individual visions or dreams, it has everything to do with executing the simple, mundane daily habits associated with the pursuit of these dreams. Successful dynasties are built in such ways. Vision is easy, daily execution is hard. Everyone desires to be a CEO, an Olympian, a National Champion, an entrepreneur, famous, best in their field, but very few possess the discipline and commitment to make these visions a reality. The reason? Vision dictates habits and our DAILY habits, dictate our success. Not willing to do it habitually and every day? Then set the dream aside, give yourself a break from the self-deprecation, it will likely not come to fruition.

Churchill fundamentally understood that those special moments originated with the tap on the shoulder to do something extraordinary was a result of daily practices to ensure they were not “unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” The race is not to the brilliant, gifted and talented, it is to the grinders who find the surprising progress of daily habits. Like it or not, failure’s culprit is your daily habits.

Conformity = A Recipe for Redundant

 “A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pursue the accolades and praises of men, and you will never have it. Follow a crowd and you will never be followed by a crowd.  Little wonder Emerson also said, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”

As previously noted, Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor and father of the radio. In 1901, he successfully transmitted radio signals across the Atlantic and in 1909 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The basis of his work began with the idea that sound could be harnessed and transmitted from one location to another. Upon sharing the idea with friends, he was thrown into an insane asylum.

Leads one to ponder Robert Frost’s reflection, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I… I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”

Reasonable, appropriate, standard, conventional, sound, sensible, valid, average, unexceptional, par for the course, expected, typical,…and normal?

Not a Chance….FAMOUS

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that….because what the world needs are men and women who have come alive” – John Eldredge

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” – Marcus Aurelius

“A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now that this is cleared up (Ignoring Critics, Naysayers, Reasonable, Conformity, and Convention) –  What’s next?  Carpe _____?

            

The Law of Plus One Minus One: The Way of the Tortoise

Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain-  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Leaders define the organizational reality. They create progress or generate inertia. Many live their lives as if the only actions worth taking are the ones that are strategic, transformational, and newsworthy in nature. Problem is, 70 to 80% of all transformation efforts fail. Whether you like it or not incremental, consistent progress, winning each and every play, and the daily habits/fundamentals are what separates the world class from the average. There is a reason we read the “Tortoise and the Hare” – In the story, the tortoise wins. In business and in life, the tortoise wins. In relationships, health, fitness the tortoise wins. No one likes the tortoise because the tortoise does what is hard.

Why are the perennial best-sellers almost always self-help books? Yet, these promised and anticipated  “life” changes are rarely ever realized?

Is it laziness or are we looking at change and progress incorrectly?

The Law of Plus One Minus One

Abraham Maslow in “Motivation and Personality” wrote that each and every day and at any given moment we are faced with a series of small, singular choices. Either to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.

We wake up in the morning. Is our first act a step forward or do we step back into safety (do what is comfortable)? Philosopher Brian Johnson devised a decision scale worth considering…

 +1 one if you stepped forward. -1 one if you stepped backward.

So, after that first act/thought, you’re either at +1 or -1. Yah?

                        <|———–|—–|—–|—–|—–|—–|—–|———|>                                  

               -100                            -3    -2   -1     0   +1   +2   +3                            +100

Ok, what about the next moment? The next decision? Forward toward growth or back into safety and mediocrity? Forward or back? Moment by moment?

Fast forward to the end of the day. Where are you? +10,000 or -10,000?

This is our lives. The choices we make, one by one, little by little, define our life. Both a deprived life and a fulfilled life all originate with the hundreds of small choices we make everyday that lead us forward toward growth or back into safety. The way of the tortoise.

Quick Exercises to Get You Started:

  • Write down the “one thing” that has been almost impossible for you to change. It could be your weight, anxiety, anger, exercise, etc.
  • In that “one thing” — Moment by moment, decision by decision, decide to step forward toward growth and do not retreat back into safety.
  • Give it a try – If you make more choices toward growth vs. safety, then you’ll be well on your way.

CAUSE & EFFECT

“Life is a perpetual instruction in cause and effect” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” – Rand

Aristotle and the ancients knew well the law of “cause and effect”, “we reap what we sow”, it is inescapable. It’s as applicable in nature as it is in our own lives.

Apple Seed -> Apple Tree Healthy Root System -> Healthy Tree

Apple Seed ≠ Peach Tree Unhealthy Root System ≠ Healthy Tree

Apple seeds will never produce peach trees just as an unhealthy or diseased root system will never produce the effect of a healthy tree. Cause effect, action reaction. The premise is simple.

Unhappy, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, anxiety ridden, unhealthy relationships, despair? Unproductive practices will never produce a productive life. Unhealthy can never produce healthy. Negative can never produce positive. Dysfunctional can never produce functional. Bitter can never produce content. Chaos can never produce peace.

The Root = The Crop

Let’s Go Gardening?

“If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist today…. in the present.”

THE SUPREMACY OF INCREMENTALISM

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” ~ William Faulkner

If you refuse to something patiently, persistently, and daily forget about doing anything worth mentioning. Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, proposed that “no great thing is created suddenly.” He knew the value of patience and process; he was born a slave in ancient Rome. According to scholars, Creeping Normalcy or “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, is the result of a massive change that occurs through small, persistent, and incremental changes that are almost so diminutive, that most do not take notice until a radical change has occurred (Think Grand Canyon and a small, incremental, persistent little process called “erosion”). “Creeping Normalcy” or “Death By a Thousand Cuts” can work in the positive or the negative.

Our lives, relationships, success, goal achievement are no different. The choices we make and the actions we take, one by one, little by little, define our life. Both a destitute life and an accomplished life, all originate with the small steps we take everyday.

The Chinese Philosopher Lao-Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You cannot alter your entire life in a day. You can only change your next action. One cannot alter their entire organization. They can only change the next task they take toward its improvement. Marriages, relationships, health, weight, physical fitness, your lawn, and a bad haircut will not improve overnight.

Nothing significant can be changed overnight, you can only change one small thing.

Hundreds of intentional, small actions will lead to massive change. Forget about the massive undertaking….worry only about the next small step. Have not the success and failure rates of your New Year’s resolutions provided enough evidence of this? Here’s to small, daily baby steps and the next small action.

What is Possible?

Society declares something is impossible, and just as soon as society and its experts buy into the proposition, someone comes along and does it anyway. JFK put a man on the moon, Roger Bannister ran a 4-minute mile, at the time of the writing of this, Michael Phelps has won 22 Olympic medals and just qualified for his fifth Olympics. And my favorite, Goran Kropp, Swedish explorer. He hops on his bicycle in Stockholm in October of 1995 and arrives at the base of Mount Everest on April of 1996. Outlandish! He then proceeded to climb the most treacherous mountain in the world without the aid of oxygen or Sherpas. He reached the summit, climbed back down and rode his bicycle home. Improbable, yes. But impossible was clearly not in this dude’s mind.

Most of the individuals I come across in my day to day executive coaching or within the university have encountered some narrow minded, small thinking morsel of a person who has told them what they REALLY want to achieve is impossible. The problem is, most of these dreamers, crazies, believe the lie and squander what has been gifted them and settle in for the long, monotonous, duty filled life that resembles the life of their naysayers more than it does their own true glory.

True, this kind of audacity can be a little dicey as unprecedented perspectives and aspirations can very quickly alienate the masses. The list of history’s mass alienators is long and distinguished. One such individual was the Nobel Prize winner Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi was an Italian inventor and father of the radio. In 1901, he successfully transmitted radio signals across the Atlantic, and in 1909 won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The basis of his work began with the vision that sound could be harnessed and transmitted from one location to another. Upon sharing his vision with friends, he was thrown into an insane asylum. The unprecedented is not for the faint of heart.

Marconi’s story resounds with Apple’s commercial, “Here’s to the Crazy Ones”:

“Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who do.”

If we are to achieve what is impossible, we must begin to think, “What is possible?” Not what is probable or looking to others as a measuring stick, but what “could I actually become” if I set my mind to it. This is not some pie in the sky, positive thinking without work hogwash that has become the norm today, but a reality. When LeBron James left high school and immediately entered the NBA, he was asked by sport psychologist, Dr. Bob Rotella what his goals were. Mr. James stated, “I want to become the best NBA player in history” – This kid arguably has arrived. You want to do something worth writing about? Stop listening to the counsel of the 99% of the population whose names and influence will never be written. It’s a decision, not a birthright.

Excellence

Excellence, yes, if you are a leader, it is required. If you refuse it, get out of the way and let someone else lead.  

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” writes, “Virtually every success story we’ve seen…involves someone or some group working harder than their peers.”

Calvin Coolidge writes, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Thomas Edison reminds us, “The successful person makes a habit of doing what the failing person doesn’t like to do.”

In Ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle argued that if we want to live with happiness, we need to live with “Arete”, which translates as “excellence” or “virtue” – the real meaning, living up to one’s potential.

Challenge: Businesses, institutions, leaders steeped in mediocrity, achieving the norm, just getting by, accepting the “acceptable” unfortunately domesticate its following in the same way we domesticate our pets. Irrespective of what leaders say, as Emerson stated, “Your actions speak so loud I cannot even hear what you have to say.”

The lost art of leadership: Model Excellence

(we get the followership we create…..but here’s the thing………….you can’t give what you don’t have)