Imagine going back in time to January 2020 and asking your CEO if all the employees could work from home full-time. What would they say? Likely, “Pack your desk, your employment is no longer needed.” Two months later when the virus was rapidly spreading around the world, the answer would be: “Get it done by the end of this week.”
Leaders were asked to do the unthinkable. Many executives had earlier resisted working from home for a variety of reasons while others had allowed it for a few roles. Few though saw it as a solution for their entire organization. It was considered an “unthinkable” or “impossible” solution. That all changed in March 2020.
Several years ago I interviewed 100 leaders about how they accomplished some extraordinary feats. Achievements others may say “couldn’t be done.” It was all for my book, “EPIC Performance: Lessons from 100 Executives and Endurance Athletes on Reaching Your Peak.”
From those interviews and seeing how so many leaders successfully navigated these last two years, I learned that “impossible” is more a state of mind than a reality. Three behaviors successful leaders often demonstrate are that they:
- Are comfortable being uncomfortable
- See around the obstacles
- Have confidence in themselves
Are comfortable being uncomfortable
I was working with an executive team to help them prepare their three-year plan. As we looked at their ideas on the flipcharts, I asked, “Does this make you nervous?” Most participants slowly shook their heads NO. “Maybe we should stretch a little further” was my response. Strategic plans should not be seen as a given. They should make you work hard. They should make you sweat. They should push you and the rest of the team into new territories.
The leaders I spoke with pushed themselves in all aspects of life like Heather, an Executive Director, who had an original goal of running 7 marathons. Knowing she could easily do that, she upped it to 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. Or another executive, David, said, “I always took jobs that I didn’t know how to do but which excited me.” Or Erik, the under-40 up-and-coming leader who set a goal to be CIO for a major organization by the time he was 40. His strategy was, “Do things that make my palms sweat.”
Heather completed those 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. Erik became CIO for a major bio-tech firm just before his 40th birthday. And David continues to take on jobs where the unknown often outweighs the known.
When was the last time you took on a project that made your palms sweat?
See around the obstacles
As I was talking with Jeff, a former CEO of a large software company, he shared a story of his heli-skiing experience. He had just skied from the drop-off point down through the trees. It didn’t go as well as he’d hoped but he made it safely to the bottom. He was getting ready to step into the helicopter for another run when the guide came over to offer some advice. He said, “Jeff when you started skiing through the trees, you were looking at the trees. Look at the white space between the trees and it will go more smoothly.”
When navigating through challenging situations, we often stare at the obstacles in front of us versus the path to safety. As a longtime cyclist, I was taught to look at the clear path forward and not the rock in the road. When we stare at the rock or the trees in Jeff’s situation, our brain guides us in that direction. And when we stare at the clear path in front of us, our brain guides us in that direction.
Whether on skis, a bike, or in the board room, it is good to look where you want to go versus where you don’t. While it is important to know what obstacles stand in your way, they should not be your complete focus. On the next ski run down the mountain, as Jeff approached the trees, he looked at all the white space between the trees and flew through those obstacles as if they didn’t exist. It is also how he managed his company.
Are you spending more of your time staring at the trees or the white space?
Have confidence in themselves
Plan A rarely works. Fortunately, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet for Plans B, C, and D. As one successful technology founder told me, “most people fail right before they were to succeed because they just gave up.” While everyone I spoke to had had some failures, it wasn’t because they gave up after the first, second, or third try.
Allie, the co-founder of a company that exports African-made baskets to Europe and the United States explained how her company almost didn’t make it when Ebola hit Africa in 2015. Having survived that pandemic by staying hyper-focused on her mission, she knew she could endure COVID-19. The first pandemic pushed her and her team to new limits but also gave her the confidence to excel through the second pandemic.
Each person had a strategy for how to deal with challenging times. Some focused heavily on ‘their why’ and kept looking at the big picture. Some focused so much on the details and what needed to be done today to get to tomorrow. Some did both. But all had strategies to not stop and confidence in their ability to move forward.
As I was in the middle of interviewing these 100 impressive leaders, I read an article about someone who wanted to ride her bicycle 500 miles. She made it 325 miles and in the interview said, “I wasn’t sure I could ride 500 and thought I could only ride 300.” She quit before she started and lacked confidence in her goal.
As one founder of a successful company who ended up selling it for almost 4 billion dollars said, “We had confidence in ourselves and believed the idea was possible?” That was a theme I heard from many others as well.
How can you increase your level of confidence?
In my interviews of these 100 highly successful and accomplished individuals, they shared many similarities. These were just a few.