Exceptional leaders know their strengths and play to them, rather than comparing themselves to someone who has a different experience than theirs. One common tendency is to see a successful person and play down our efforts or accomplishments in comparison. This practice often leaves people depressed, hopeless, and desperately chasing illusions. A strength-focus, on the other hand, is the primary reason exceptional leaders appear to have greater self confidence. They have taken that hard look at reality that we talked about earlier and have identified their strengths and chose to build on what they do have instead of dream or whining about what they don’t.
It is easy to say how nice it would be to have Bill Gates’ fortune. However, he didn’t just stumble into it. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, reminds us that it was the 10,000 hours of practice that led him and others like him to become Outliers. Gates’ 10K effort led him to become a computer expert whose practice resulted in advances in technology that have become invaluable to our wired society today. It is possible for any of us to have similar results with similar efforts. So instead of sitting around wishing and dreaming of what might have been, or being depressed because of these comparisons, exceptional leaders play on the strengths they have. They focus on continuous improvement and personal development. They are not destroyed by their failures, and they refuse to be limited by their weaknesses.
There are numerous examples of people who have done just that, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or holocaust survivors such as Victor Frankl, but I want to highlight a group of survivors. In the field of psychology volumes have been written about adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) and the devastating effects that growing up in such an environment can have on a child’s life. Take a moment to Google or Bing ACOA and you will find page after page of lists and symptoms, sympathy and help. And, while most of what is written may be true, the reality is that only about 15% of ACOAs are debilitated by the experience. The other 85% have become what I like to call “thrivers“. Though they have had a tough life experience, completely undeserved by them, they have done more than survive. They have refused to allow that experience to dictate the outcome of their lives or to stop them from living productive lives. They choose instead to control the things they can control. They focus on their competencies, capabilities and strengths. Then they gather the resources at their disposal and build the best life possible, one step at a time. Many do so quite successfully. It does not mean that they are free from pain of those early experiences, or that life may have been better for them had they not had such an experience. It simply means that they do not allow the pain of their past to destroy them.
Regardless of your life experiences, it would be easy to look back to your past or your childhood and find hurts or injustices that you could point to as justification for failure or lack of progress. However, the same look back can find better things to focus on that can, just as easily, become your reasons for thriving today. It is simply a choice that everyone must make, often on a daily basis. Exceptional leaders have learned to do this exceptionally well. They come from all walks of life, family backgrounds and personal experiences. They have had their setbacks and successes. They have learned to play on the one string they have and, from this make great music.
One of my best friends in all the world gave me the following poem on an occasion when I was going through a rough period in life. He likely does not even recall the gift, but to me it was a God send that I have imprinted in my memory. When I received it, it was on a plaque that was unauthored. I have since learned that it was written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
The Set of the Sails
One ship sails East.Another WestBy the self-same winds that blow.Tis the set of the sails and not the galesthat determine the way they go.
Like the winds of the seaAre the waves of time,As we journey along through life,‘Tis the set of the soul,That determines the goal,And not the calm or the strife.