“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss
My wife Keri and I are huge bourbon fans. This past spring, after unsuccessful previous attempts, we were finally able to secure reservations to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and tour our favorite distilleries, including Woodford, Four Roses, and Makers Mark to name a few. We planned to travel there in our motor coach on our way home to Virginia from a mid-June factory maintenance trip to Michigan. Unfortunately, the motor coach gremlins struck, and the maintenance team at the factory uncovered the need for more significant work than we’d anticipated. As a result, we left the coach in Michigan for repairs, canceled the distillery tours, and came straight home.
On the one hand, we were absolutely crushed to miss the bourbon distillery tours. On the other hand, it was a relatively easy decision. The Michigan factory was, without a doubt, the best possible place to have the issues with our coach diagnosed and repaired. Further, Keri and I had newfound time to relax at home and accomplish several things around the house. Despite the dispiriting circumstances, we made the best of it and enjoyed a pleasant “vacation” week together at home.
This story illustrates an attribute I’ve strived to embody: an optimistic mentality. I’ve managed to wire myself to mentally make the best of any circumstance. To be clear, this isn’t fluffy optimism where I pretend everything is perfect, rather, I am referring to pragmatic, realistic optimism.
In addition to serving me personally, this trait is invaluable to leaders, increasing their resilience, improving their decisions, and motivating (and focusing) their teams.
How you think about yourself, your circumstances, your surroundings, and your goals profoundly influences your outcomes. These patterns of thought or mental models are the most critical “invisible” factors that distinguish high achievers in any domain. Whether you realize it, your thoughts have the potential to either propel or derail your success in any endeavor. They often manifest as the “voice in your head.”
Our thoughts are so powerful, they can even affect our health! A 2017 Stanford study found that people who perceived themselves as less active had up to a 72% higher mortality risk than those who felt they were more active—even though both groups completed the same level of activity. Another study found that employees who were told stress enhanced their health experienced lower levels of cortisol and increased levels of the growth hormone DHEA. In other words, just being told “stress is good” actually LOWERED the biological indicators of stress.
When properly harnessed, productive mental models yield awesome power, remarkable achievement, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. Left unchecked, they can cripple both you and your firm.
Which of your assumptions, beliefs, and habits of thinking serve you best? And which could be holding you back?
Consider those questions as you explore the following mental models high performing leaders use to 10x their results:
Business researcher, author, and consultant Jim Collins coined the term “return on luck” in his book “Great By Choice.” His research concluded that successful companies weren’t any luckier than their less-successful counterparts; rather, they generated a better return on whatever circumstances presented themselves.
“When we study this over and over again, what we find is we’re all hit in life with different kinds of luck. But a huge swing variable is there are those who grab it and then get a high return on that luck, and there are those who fritter it away. When you compound that over time, it tends to produce a very big difference. And the bad luck side is also important, because it’s not just return on good luck; it’s return on bad luck.”
— Jim Collins
It turns out, over time, there is a roughly equal distribution of “good” and “bad” luck events affecting individuals and businesses. What makes the biggest difference is how you and your team respond to them, whether good OR bad.
These findings demonstrate something I’ve found working with my clients: Habits of thinking about luck determine the magnitude of return a firm generates over time. For example, the way a leader behaves after winning a large account affects future returns.
She might think to herself, “This is fantastic, let’s celebrate and relax; we’ve achieved some security,” and use it as an opportunity to catch her breath. Unfortunately, by leaning back after a big win, she will probably generate a fair to poor return on the new account win (a good-luck event)—and miss the chance to further capitalize on it. On the other hand, if she were to think, “Wow, we just won this big account. We’ve got momentum, so let’s double down and create a new sales incentive program to help our salespeople continue to crush it in the market,” her approach would likely lead to a much higher return on the same event.
Of course, this also holds true for the opposite scenario when one’s habits of thought create either self-pity and inaction or concerted, focused action in response to a negative event–say the loss of a key account. The choice of action or inaction after the loss similarly leads to widely divergent returns over time.
The return on luck mental model helps you seek opportunities and positive returns, even in the face of extreme adversity. There’s a catch, though: You have to be ready to seize the opportunities and generate a return on your luck regardless of whether the event appears to be positive or negative. That’s where acceptance comes into play. As I wrote in my last article, if you can’t acknowledge that the unexpected will happen, your capacity to capitalize on unforeseen circumstances is lost.
The Stockdale Paradox is another powerful tool for leaders. This mental model also originated with Jim Collins’ research, this time from his book “Good To Great.”
Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American military officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent eight gruesome years in the “Hanoi Hilton” and was tortured over 20 times. Yet by his own account, he emerged from the camp stronger than when he entered.
After he returned home, Stockdale explained why both optimists and pessimists died in the camp. The optimists died of broken hearts, having their hopes for release and return home repeatedly crushed. The pessimists, on the other hand, had no hope, gave up, and lost the will to survive. Stockdale believed he survived because he retained faith that regardless of the difficulties of his horrendous circumstances, he would prevail and emerge stronger.
Here’s the paradox: he continually confronted the brutal facts of his current reality while simultaneously holding hope that he would eventually emerge as a better version of himself.
As this Harvard Business School article points out, the Stockdale Paradox played out in many businesses over the last few years through the global pandemic. Leaders standing on the edge of ruin may have pinned their hope on rescue in the form of a cure for the COVID-19 virus, but more than two years later, it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to what we once considered “normal.” Leaders who weathered the storm moved their teams past the doubt—not through happy thoughts and fluffy optimism, but by constantly reinforcing the organizations’ purpose, values, and fundamentals while simultaneously acknowledging the unknowns, risks, and other hard facts along the way.
There’s never a straight or easy path to significant accomplishment in any domain. Take the time to understand the backstory behind greatness and you’ll uncover significant adversity was overcome along the way. To surmount the inevitable adversity on the path to your highest aspirations, you must embody Admiral Stockdale’s paradox by simultaneously maintaining faith in the outcome while accepting the hard facts of your current reality.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”
— Jim Rohn
Both research and life experience seem to indicate Jim Rohn was right.
A University of Exeter study in 2014 reported that humans evolved to be heavily influenced by their neighbors. The result? Our thoughts, our motivations, and our decisions are invisibly and profoundly influenced by those around us.
Sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be if you turn your genetic impulses into a strength through the mental model of choosing the right neighborhood!
When I was preparing to purchase my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me the following advice: “No matter what you do, don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood because there’s only one way the other houses will affect your property value over time.”
Years later and, sadly, after his passing, it occurred to me that Grandpa Ben wasn’t only giving me real estate advice. I had become one of the most expensive “houses” in my professional neighborhood and needed to upgrade the people around me. I purposely made a series of moves to surround myself with people who were far better and more accomplished than I was at the time; people who made me a little uncomfortable and challenged me. I harnessed my genetic herd instinct to accelerate my growth and development.
Be on the lookout for the indicators you’re in the wrong neighborhood: you’re contributing a lot, but reaping very little. As you grow, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll outgrow those in your mastermind group, networking organization, peer group, or other significant cohort.
Unchecked, these situations can, albeit with good intentions, work against your aspirations as a leader. For example, advice you get from others less capable than you likely embodies THEIR fears—and potentially validates some of your own—diminishing your value over time. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who have broken past where you are, they’ll help you stretch, challenge you to grow, and increase your value over time.
In this same vein, be wary of the information you choose to consume. I don’t care how smart or self-aware you are, spending too much time on social media will absolutely influence your mindset, and usually in a negative way. A study in the journal “Technology, Mind, and Behavior” found that binging on negative news in order to find answers during uncertain times increased feelings of anxiety, reduced self-control, and promoted depression.
This is the reason I haven’t watched the news for the past 15 years (and counting!). I’ve found the news is mostly “bad”—because that’s what sells—and doesn’t help me learn, grow, improve, and achieve my goals. I’m still quite aware of what’s happening in the world, however I’m very deliberate about how and when I expose myself to negative influences.
Author Tim Ferris puts media consumption in perspective in his book, “The Four-Hour Workweek:” If it’s important enough, everyone will be talking about it anyway!
In all of my years as a coach, I’ve yet to find a CEO who has all of the answers. In fact, those who KNOW they don’t know it all are usually the most successful! Their belief system includes the mental model that everyone needs coaching.
In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” psychologist Carol Dweck explains that when it comes to achievement, many people have a “fixed mindset”—that is, they believe their basic qualities like intelligence and talent are predetermined and immutable traits. These people often believe that if they’re not good at something immediately, they’ll never be good at it. The opposite also holds true; if someone with a fixed mindset thinks they have something all figured out, there’s no way to talk to them about potential improvements.
Those with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, believe that practice and hard work lead to improvement and eventual mastery. These individuals seek feedback and advice on ways to improve and view failures as opportunities to learn. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a primary characteristic of effective leaders is their desire to continually learn and grow.
As a leader, it’s productive to not just have a growth mindset for yourself, but to also expect it of your team. This train of thought sets the stage for the development of a learning culture and the rejection of those who can’t or won’t learn and improve.
To be clear, the mental model that everyone needs a coach does not imply that everyone should hire a coach (as an aside, I’m not sure there are enough coaches on the planet for that!). Rather, a coaching mentality is applied to drive continual growth and development throughout the firm.
Your job as a leader and as a coach is to identify behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s continual improvement. For example, here are a handful of patterns I’ve observed to be common in the workplace: consistently disorganized, unreliable, late to meetings, prone to argue non-essential points, slow to ask for help, too soft in negotiations, and being more problem than solution focused. Great leader/coaches speak candidly, directly, and with great caring when they deliver feedback and coaching to their team.
I’ve never observed a business with a sustained growth rate that exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it. This bar-raising mental model will get and keep you there by exerting a strong influence on hiring, expectations, decision-making, and ultimately the growth rate of the firm.
“We are no greater than the thoughts we think.”
– Bishop T.D. Jakes
In America there are two reasonable certainties when eating at a Chinese restaurant: (1) You’ll receive your check at the end of the meal; and (2) The check will be accompanied by a fortune cookie for each person at the table.
Many years ago, while traveling on business I ate dinner at the Chinese restaurant across the street from my hotel. At the end of the meal as I prepared to pay my server, I opened my fortune cookie. What I saw inside shook me to my core.
“With our thoughts, we create our world,” the fortune read.
It might sound strange because fortune cookies aren’t exactly known for dispensing profound wisdom, but at that moment, I knew it to be true. If I could find a way to productively harness my thoughts, I could create the “world” I wanted, which is exactly what I did in the three years that followed.
Now contemplate the power of this fortune for yourself. How you think can literally 10x your results, both personally and professionally!
Use the four mental models we’ve outlined to get started. And don’t doubt for a second they’ll work for you. Rather, rest assured you already have everything you need within you to fully capitalize on their power.
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