I had the pleasure of addressing the incoming class at Bethesda University in Anaheim, California this morning. They are a wonderfully diverse student body, many of whom are the first generation to enter college. In my time teaching there I was privileged to hear the stories of change, courage, and the desire to give back to their communities. In thinking about what would both inspire and challenge them this morning I thought of three blunt and transformative encounters Jesus had with his disciples.
The narratives of these encounters are stacked up together in Luke 9:46-55. In the first (v 46-48) Jesus addresses the idea of greatness. In the second (v 49-50) Jesus addresses the idea of synergy with others. In the third (v 51-56) Jesus addresses the subject of anger in the face of rejection. These three encounters frame the questions I find successful people ask themselves to remain focused on the important rather than the urgent. This kind of focus helps them see opportunity others simply walk past. And, it is this ability to see that seems to drop new opportunity at their doors step regularly. So, let’s look at the questions and how they work to generate focus and new ways of seeing.
What is your ambition?
The disciples clearly had ambition (a drive toward a new future and a trajectory away from a past). However, their ambition had gone down the road of power acquisition and prestige. Somewhere along the way, they began to run to the goal of dominance rather than destiny. This detour along the way doesn’t take a person toward their future – rather it reasserts the past as a diminishment to be avoided rather than a foundation on which to build a future. Those who are running from their past have not yet made peace with their past and end up running into an ever increasing intensity of shame and denial.
Jesus redirected the disciple’s debate by pointing to a child and asking them to receive or relate to the child. I think of my grandchildren who don’t care about the fact I have an earned doctorate, or that I own a successful company, or that I am recognized as an effect adjunct professor. All they know is that I engage them at their level with attentiveness, love, and a desire to see them succeed.
Jesus reduced the question about who is the greatest to a willingness to engage life like one engages a child. This generates a posture of learning v showmanship, curiosity v arrogance, and vulnerable v defensiveness. Refine your ambition – dream big AND do it as a learner, not an expert.
How do you see others?
Small minded people interpret knowledge as power and the means for exclusivity. Jesus redirected the disciples who shut down the effective efforts of some unnamed person flourishing in the works of God simply because that person wasn’t part of their “in-group.”
Jesus’ response had two parts. First, DON’T HINDER HIM. The success of others is not a threat – it is a point of potential synergy! If you view the success of others as a threat to your own power/prestige then you will never achieve the greatest part of your ambition. You won’t be a change agent you will be a toxic tyrant.
Second, Jesus’ lesson is powerful, listen to it. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST YOU IS FOR YOU! This is a significant shift in perspective and will keep you from being so afraid of loss that you fail to see friends. Highly successful people have large networks of highly successful friends. Why? They don’t view the success of others as a threat rather; they see the success of others as a potential point of synergy and momentum to their own ambition.
If you are proud about getting rid of others who threatened your own prominence, then competitors are about to eat your lunch. You got rid of the very people who would both accelerate and help sustain your own ambition.
What do you do with anger?
James and John were furious at the way the Samaritans refused to help them. They wanted revenge for the rejection and betrayal they felt. The reality is that in life rejection and betrayal happen. The question isn’t whether one has face rejection or betrayal it is whether they will engage in the ruinous circle of revenge or the virtuous circle of forgiveness. The cycle of anger and revenge is what destroys many communities and organizations and holds them in poverty and mediocrity.
You can choose to break the cycle of revenge and anger and be a healing force in your community or organization. If you want to transform your community or organization you won’t do it through anger and revenge – you will do it through forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and
attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this as an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive. Forgiveness possesses behavioral corollaries i.e., reductions in revenge and avoidance motivations and an increased ability to wish the offender well impact behavioral intention without obliging reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a one-sided process. Johnson defines forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her…” (Craig E. Johnson. Ethics in the Workplace: Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, 2007, 116).
So, what are the three questions highly successful people often ask themselves?
- What is my ambition?
- How do I see others?
- What will I do with anger?
How do you answer these questions?
“As a man thinks in his heart so is he.” Proverbs 23:7. Does the way a person think about life and events actually create their success or failure? Does a winning mindset impact performance? The question is critical for leaders in any field of endeavor.
Popular thinking has often asserted that we attract what we secretly think about. The idea is more than a moralist warning against the idea one can assume a public persona that defies their innermost desires. It appears that people actually set themselves up for success or failure based on how they think about themselves and their environment. Empirical studies verify the connection between how one views him or her self and their situation to the outcomes they produce. Specifically depressed people tend to view life pessimistically and actually seem to attract negative events. Happy people view life with more hope and actually attract positive events. The impact of this insight for leaders is both personal and professional.
In his work on suffering and stress psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman found that some people actually learn to be helpless. They view themselves as victims of circumstance beyond their control. The result of this learned helplessness is that thinking determines behavior or outlook determines outcome. Said another way, an outlook anticipating success determines success in outcomes. An outlook anticipating failure actually determines failure, rejection, defeat, and etcetera in outcomes. The reality is that some leaders torpedo their success by the way they think. Seligman found that individuals who think about life pessimistically produced thought processes that help produce learned helplessness in three ways.
First, they personalized the explanation of their distress in other words they blamed themselves rather than external factors. For example: “I must be stupid because I can’t figure this out.” Or “I must be getting old because this problem is too overwhelming.” Notice that in each instance the person assumes responsibility for what is entirely outside their control thus adding to a sense of helplessness.
Second, pessimistic perspectives tend to extrapolate problems as pervasive rather than particular. If problems are pervasive they seem unconquerable – even normal or unavoidable. Statements like; “No one agrees with this decision” or “The Company always hoses the successful” indicate that learned helplessness is at work.
Third, pessimistic perspectives lead to the belief that problems are permanent instead of temporary. If a person believes that a difficult or uncomfortable situation will not change they tend to condemn themselves and others to a perpetual state of loss. Statements like; “they will not change” or “this will never work” indicate that such a belief is at work.
The reverse of pessimism or happiness actually leverage success in life by producing benefits like better health, frequent success, or more social engagement. The causal efficacy runs both ways which is to say that pessimism may lead to poorer health, less social engagement and infrequent success.
The unavoidable reality is that successful leaders set a course in life that anticipates and engenders success. Consider the characteristics of a happy person as defined in a study by Peterson & Seligman (2004).
Table 1: Virtues and their Corresponding Character Strengths
|Virtue||Strengths and Definition|
|Wisdom and knowledge||Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge characterized in:
|Courage||Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of internal or external opposition
|Humanity||Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others
|Justice||Civic strengths that protect against excess
|Temperance||Strengths that protect against excess
|Transcendence||Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
The successful are happy but here is the kicker, success did not generate happiness rather happiness generates (is causal to) success. Why? Happy people are people who pursue life with characteristically (a) positive emotion and pleasure; (b) engagement socially and emotionally and (c) a defined sense of meaning. The good news is that a pattern of learned helplessness is reversible.
How can a leader reverse the feeling of helplessness or help others in their charge reverse these feelings? Start with self awareness. Look at the characteristics in Table 1; do your inner thought patterns/beliefs differ from these characteristics? To the degree that one’s perception differs from these characteristics there is room to honestly assess why this is so and to see where mis-beliefs may actually be hindering success. So, how have researchers determined to apply these insights to help people move from a self-defeating pessimism to success building happiness? Employ one or more of the following exercises or coach your followers to employ them for at least a week and map what happens when you do.
- Use your signature strengths in a new way. Review Table 1 and determine which of the 24 character strengths best describe you. Now use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. Keep a log of how you used your strength. What were the results?
- Three good things. Write down three things that go well each day. Write down the causes, why did these things go well? Do this every evening at the end of the day for at least one week? At the end of the first week reflect on all the good things that happened the week before. What do you see or what can you learn?
- Exercise gratitude. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to you but who you have not properly thanked. Once the letter is written deliver it personally to the addressee. After you have completed this take a few moments to write out what happened. What insight did you gain or what can you learn from this experience?
Research verifies that interventions such as those outlined above provide a measurable change in how a person views life. Regardless of whether you are hoping for success or looking for ways to be more successful using these exercises can go a long way leading to a greater sense of positive emotion, social/emotional engagement in life and a growing sense of meaning that becomes contagious to you and to those you are around. You can learn to be successful…or more successful!
Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist (July-August 2005, Vol. 60, No. 5), 410-421.
Nansook Park and Martin E. P. Seligman. “Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-19.
Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 13-14.