I remember reading a piece of research in the 1980s. It was a study into CEOs of the top FTSE 100 companies and what they had in common. What were their secrets? What made them successful? What was the magic ingredient that accelerated them and their companies ahead of the competition? If we knew that, the researchers thought, we’d help HR win the advantage by knowing who to appoint into that position.
They went into exhaustive detail – was it that these men (yes, they were all men) were great communicators? Were they able to sway shareholders with their deathless prose, inspire their subordinates to outstanding feats? Excite the media with their charm? Or were they brilliant strategists –analysing and predicting accurately? Were they able to see the consequence to a particular decision and respond appropriately? Were they visionaries? Were they determined? Were they rapport builders?
A number of characteristics was explored and analysed. The questionnaires were answered and the results came in. The research was remarkable disappointing. No, none of the CEOs had a profile in common. They were so different. Some were more and some were less effective at one thing or another. The outcomes were very mixed. However when the researchers went back and dug deeper, one thing stood out. What was it?
These powerful and highly successful men had just one thing in common: they knew their limits.
So they knew their limits. They knew themselves so well they were aware of their strengths and what they were capable of. And they also recognised what went beyond their capacity, skills, talents, ability and experience – and got someone else to cover what they lacked.
How well do you know yourself? What are your strengths? What then are your limits? Where are the boundaries to your knowledge, expertise, interest?
The approach to education and parenting in the UK has traditionally been based on weakness and failure. In order to get things right, historically a child has been told what they’ve done wrong, where they’ve failed to make the grade, what disgrace they’ve brought upon themselves. When I was young, children who failed to make the grade were made to stand in the corner of the room with a dunce’s cap on their head. When my father was young, they got hit with the cane.
Even now in our culture, the media is dominated by reports of what mistakes and misjudgements people make and what wrongdoing has been discovered. Newspapers go to town over the misdemeanours of those in power. It is a far rarer and more unusual to hear how well people have done and how much they have achieved.
Admittedly my experience of education is historic. The following though is a minor example of what I mean. When I was teaching English teenagers in the early 80s, I asked my class studying Civics to do some homework. I wanted to find out what had influenced their opinion of themselves. They were to fill in 2 columns over a week. In one column, they were to note down the compliments they’d received. In the other, they were to put the criticisms.
The following week I asked the class to tell me the results. A great many hands went up. I invited a bright and co-operative lad, Shane, to tell the rest of us what had happened to him. Shane reported that he’d filled up 2 pages of critical remarks.
When I asked, “So what about your Compliments Column, Shane?”
He replied, “One line, Miss. ‘You look nice today, Shane.’ “ He paused, then went on, ”though that was a bit of a cheat really Miss. I wanted to fill up my Compliments Column and it was still empty so I asked my mum whether I looked nice this morning and she said, ‘Yes’.”
When I asked other young people in the class they had a similar story to tell. It was a universal experience – not one young person had any entry in their Compliments Column, not one!
Now to be fair, they may not have been primed to hear when people were being positive. They were very sensitive however to negative remarks and kept note of them.
Those young people are now adults, many are parents – maybe (horrific thought) even grandparents! They make adult choices. Who knows, a few may be leaders. What kind of leaders do they make when they’ve been made so very aware of their failures and yet their talents, abilities, skills, character and contribution are unknown to them?
Do they know their limits? Are they self aware? I don’t think so.
Many high achieving scientific women and researchers I work with believe themselves to be frauds. They fear others will tumble to how fake they are. So they work and work and slog and slog and become more and more expert. They know so much, others consult them, they gain more and more recognition and promotion. They achieve magnificently. However, they are driven by the fear of their imagined humiliation of being found out. And boy, they have a wonderful imagination.
However much they rise in their careers, however much they develop magnificent businesses, they’ll fail to influence with any conviction. Worse, whatever senior level they achieve for themselves, they fail to reach the top level until they acquire strong self belief. Something will always hold them back. Something will always stop them from following through. Something prevents them from fulfilling their wonderful potential. And it will be the mistaken belief that they’ve conned their way into their high position – and don’t deserve to be there.
If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford