When I was a child, from the age of about seven upwards, I was the fastest runner in my year, and often the year above. I won every race I was put in, at school, at cubs, at inter school competitions. As I got older, I didn’t particularly fill out and so moved up the distances to 400m, eventually winning the English Championships. I was so proud when I dipped under 50 seconds.
But that was it. I took a Gap year, ran twice in three years at university – hungover on one of those occasions – and did ok on both occasions. And then I just stopped. Or rather, I simply never raced again.
That was in 1994. It wasn’t until 2012, watching the athletics at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London, that I started to wonder, “What if?”
I believe that, of course, there are inherent abilities that we are born with and can develop – our potential, if you like. These might be physical – to do with height, weight, muscle mass and so on – or mental, but in either case they can be exponentially developed. We know that learning leads to greater understanding and knowledge, hence the existence of schools; it is commonly accepted that going to a gym on a regular basis will lead to higher levels of fitness, or an increase in muscle tone.
The only thing, then that stands in the way of achieving as highly as we can is our own mindset.
The psychologist Carol Dweck argues that our basic beliefs “affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it.” In other words, those attributed to Henry Ford, above.
And this self-belief comes from a range of influences. I was never taken to an athletics club or watched run by my parents; my teachers just put me into races and told me to run. There was no coaching, no personalised training plans. No even being told, ‘You can do it!’ The distractions of socialising at university, then, seemed a far more attractive proposition: there were immediate benefits.
There were other factors, but in short, I didn’t have the ‘can do’ mindset needed to commit myself to a proper training, get myself to a club, experience defeat in a race and come back stronger. I’d hit my ceiling and quit. I had a fixed mindset. But that fixed mindset was, in part, a result of external influences.
We see it time and again in schools, particularly where setting is used. What child put into the bottom maths set in year 7 has ever gone on to achieve an A* or grade 9 at GCSE maths? And yet we know children develop at different rates. Being labelled a failure at the age of 11 is enough to knock the self belief of anyone. In education, it’s termed a glass ceiling, and yet it continues to be perpetuated.
In business, how often do we do the same? When we set a revenue target, how aspirational are we? And if we meet it, do we aim higher next year? What about it we don’t meet it? How often do we allow our employees to try something their way and fail, and support them in learning from the process rather than criticising the result? And how well do we encourage a culture that allows this to happen organically?
It begins, of course, by leaders developing a growth mindset themselves. If you’re the CEO of an extremely successful organisation, it’s quite probable that you have the self belief – and why not? The proof is there in your results, right? But a growth mindset is dependent also upon a significant degree of self awareness, and this is where an understanding of behaviour styles can be so vital, because our behaviours can also be developed through the same mindset.
Typically, when we are successful, we are more likely to attribute this success to internal aspects such as our ability, effort and values. When we fail or do something wrong, we often attribute these things to the external aspects – tools, other people, the environment. Whilst some of this attribution may well be true, some of it may well be ‘twisted’ in our minds and we often bury our heads in the sand.
On our PDW’s popular and successful mental toughness training, we encourage people to be clear and honest about the contributors to their success and failure; this means we build better relationships, manage stress better, build our self belief and are clearer on what we should keep doing and what we should start or stop doing to improve performance. This takes courage to hold the mirror up and be honest with ourselves on the internal aspects.
An interesting exercise is to take any issue, define the aspects that contribute to the issue and then plot them on the target below according to the key.
Having a growth mindset in how we lead, and helping those in your employ to develop the same, can unlock limitless potential and take you to levels of success you never thought possible. There will be bumps and bruises along the way, but the very nature of how you face up to each of them will serve to limit their negative impact. Instead, you are encountering a learning opportunity.
In his book Off The Wall – How to Develop World Class Mental Resilience, John Dabrowskiwrites that “Your expectations become your own self-fulfilling prophecies. Whatever you expect with confidence seems to come into your life. So expect to be successful.” This isn’t to say that there won’t be hardship along the way. “Stress may be inevitable, but how we cope with it is our choice.”
Not everyone can win an Olympic Gold medal or the Nobel Prize for Literature, but everyone can try. And everyone can achieve in their own field of expertise if they know how, if they believe they can, and if they are supported along the way.
As Michaelangelo said, the problem with many of us is “not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.”