In high school, I missed an entire track season due to an injury, and returned just in time for the state championship. When I asked my coach what place I should be running for in that race, he reminded me that at the beginning of the season my goal had been to win the state championship. I challenged him on how winning could even be possible given I’d been injured all year, and he responded that I shouldn’t run if I didn’t believe I could win. But I wanted to compete, and my coach went on to show me exactly where he thought I should take the lead in the race. Sure enough, I won the race by 200 yards. I still have the newspaper article with the headline “Long Shot First in Boys.” I could have settled for second or third place, and excused it because of my injury. But my coach taught me how powerful the mind can be in achieving success, how important it is to set clear goals, to have a clear vision, and to avoid making excuses. All of those lessons have stayed with me throughout my life.
As I’ve watched other leaders find their own unexpected sources of success throughout their leadership journeys, here are a few of the sources of success I’ve seen great leaders lean on:
- Be open to the possibility that there is more than one right answer. Successful leaders acknowledge there are several paths to success. When leaders are vulnerable and transparent, it allows room for constructive feedback and helps avoid confirmation bias. Listening without interjecting long-held beliefs allows for unexpected collaboration, creativity, and innovation.
- Believe you have something to learn from everyone. Many years ago a mentor taught me the power of asking questions, being open to learning from others, and collaborating to achieve a better outcome. It changed my leadership trajectory dramatically. Being open to feedback and self-analysis creates a lot of space that opens up possibilities for success. When leaders stray away from humility, it closes the door on learning and improving.
- Have clear, unambiguous goals. It is no secret that the key to success is hard work, but hard work alone doesn’t guarantee success. Effective leaders work toward clear goals, and they don’t justify poor results when goals aren’t achieved. Rather, they evaluate what could have been done differently and keep moving toward the goal. In the wise words of Earl Nightingale, “You become what you think about.” This has proven true for leaders who take time to set realistic, success-driven goals for themselves and their organizations.
- Stay close to customers for inspiration and ideas. To understand what customers truly find valuable is vital to success. When leaders ask questions and listen to customer feedback, they are so much more effective. Customers can also be sources for new ideas that lead to fresh solutions and innovations.
- Focus on mission, vision and purpose. I’ve observed that effective leaders return to their guiding principles each time they need to make a key decision. And when leaders communicate strategy to their team rather than focusing on individual tactics, everybody aligns around the key pillars of the strategy.
Strong leaders are curious, seek to understand, listen, and are open-minded. They know the tools that lead to success can come from unexpected places and people, from within and outside their organization. Leaders who are open to these unexpected sources of success can change the course of their careers and their companies.