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You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself. – Galileo
If you open your eyes in the morning and you are still breathing, then you are alive. Every thing else is a bonus.
Part of my training as an Infantry Officer required me to go to Ranger School, which is primarily a leadership school for combat soldiers who want to join the Army’s elite light infantry fighting forces known as the Rangers.
When I went through Ranger School, it was a 68-day course. There was the Benning Phase, The Mountain Phase, The Desert Phase and the Jungle Phase. Ranger courses run all year long, I drew the unfortunate short straw of having to attend during the winter months. I have never been so cold in my life (well except maybe the time I nearly froze to death in a snow storm when I was 14).
One morning we were huddle together like seals trying to stay warm. We had on our Gortex winter jackets and we were still cold. One of our Ranger instructors came strutting out of his command post and yelled, “Take those Gortex jackets off men. It ain’t cold out here. It’s 80 degrees out! Cold is a state of mind.”
We groaned and shuffled and did as we were told. Watching us shiver from the cold, our Ranger instructor said with a big old grin on his face, “Men if you make it through Ranger School, for the rest of your life, every day will be a holiday and every meal a feast.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Life is a mental game, and the quality of the game is determined by how you perceive the game in your mind. If your perception is that life is hard, then you will attract the conditions in your life to make it hard. Our Colonel told us, before sending us off to Ranger School, that “nothing is as hard as it seems, but if you think it’s hard, it’ll be harder than it actually is.”
To play the game of life well, you must first play a good game in your head.
What’s your mental game like?
The trail as a metaphor is a wonderful concept. Each person must walk his or her own path through life, and is ultimately responsible for the direction that path may take. Life, like any trail, is a matter of ups and downs. When one is going up, and the way is steep and tiring, the idea that there will ever be an easier time of it is only a belief. It is not real. What is real is the feel of aching muscles and burning lungs as you head up the trail. Yet when you reach the top and your breath returns to normal, the pain is soon forgotten and the misery of the climb has been left behind. Where I have been seems immaterial. Where I am going is what engages me. The top is like the goals we set in life that, when achieved, sometimes seem unimportant. It is the process, the steps, the getting there, the human effort that is important. Inspired by Hugh Swift
Hugh Swifts paints a wonderful metaphor for the way we proceed through life in search of our dreams and goals. I have humped up and down many mountains over the years. Always it starts the same. I see a mountain peak. It is a peak I have not climbed before, and I suddenly get the urge to climb to the top. I tell myself the view from the top must be fantastic. And so I gather up my resources – rucksack, map and compass – and start up the trail with only a vague idea of where I’m going.
When I think about it, this is exactly the way I tackle the big goals in my life. I get an idea, buy a few books, or attend a course, and then I start off in pursuit of my goal with only a vague idea of how I’m actually going to achieve it. So what can the mountain trail teach us about our goals?
The trail teaches us that we must have a plan even if it’s a loosely devised plan. Looking at a map of Snowdon there are many marked paths to top of the mountain. Paths that others have trodden and left sign posts and guides to aid us on journey. However upon closer inspection there are literally an infinite number of paths to the top. Some are harder then others. And some seem all but impossible. Which path should I choose? Should I take the one that many have done before and thus have left an easy trail to follow? Or should I take a little known more secluded trail? Robert Frost reflected upon coming to a fork in the road that he took the path less travelled and that made all the difference.
If we think of the mountain top as our goal, we look upon it from the start and think to ourselves that we will never be able to get to the top. The climb is too difficult. We don’t have adequate training to attempt such a feat. But then slowly, gradually we start to engage with the mountain. The trail starts off gentle at first and then the incline to increase. Our legs and our lungs burn and our bodies cry out stop. Turn back. You can’t possible make it to the top. We think we will never see the end. Some turn back and give up. Others seek a less strenuous path.
Another lesson is the map seldom looks like the territory. Jean Baudrillard tells us that the map is not the territory. We can sit and plan for days and weeks which route we will take to get to the top of the mountain. We note our grid references and mark our waypoints confident that we have a rock solid plan and should reach the top with few distractions.
The moment our feet touch the ground then the territory itself changes. And we exclaim that’s not how it looks on the map. We must make some adjustments based on what we see before us in the real. We must trust our own instincts our own judgements.
The mountain trail can teach us a lot about ourselves and our lives. The ancients believed that there was something called the mountain spirit – a spirit of purity and isolation. Even though the Tao was everywhere, spiritual wisdom was too easily lost in the cares and consideration of the plains. In the isolation of the mountains, with the voices of the throng stilled, the whispers of the Tao could finally be heard. This was what the ancients called the mountain spirit… and it’s what we call Ascent.
1. Create a clear and compelling vision
A compelling vision acts as a beacon of light that keeps your people focused on where you want to go. Napoleon Bonaparte achieved great victories on the battlefield. Part of his success was due to his decisiveness and the decisiveness of his field marshals in making decisions. Napoleon made sure his field marshals knew what to do when they didn’t know what to do. His standing order was: “In the absence of orders, march to the sounds of the guns.”
2. Focus on the future; leave the past behind
A young monk and an old monk come to a river. There’s a beautiful lady standing there who needs to get across. The old monk scoops the lady up in his arms and carries her across the river. The lady kisses the old monk on the cheek and thanks him for his kindness. The young monk raises an accusing eyebrow at the behaviour he has just witnesses; for the Order he and the old monk belong to, forbids any physical contact with women. He decides not say anything. The two monks continue on their journey. After a few miles, the young monk stops to confront the old monk. “How can you live with yourself having broken our most sacred vow of never touching a woman?” The old monk shakes his head and says: “Brother, I left that woman by the river an hour ago. It is you who are still carrying her around in your mind.”
3. Be open and visible
Never mind email, get belly to belly with your people; let them see and feel your presence. Good leaders lead from the front and set the example for others to follow. When I reported in to my first combat infantry battalion, my company commander showed me around the company area. He eventually showed me to my new office: “And here’s your office, but you’ll never see it, because if you’re doing your job properly as a leader, you’ll never be in it. Your place of duty is in front of your troops.”
4. Listen with no agenda
Your people like to be heard and they like to know you’re listening. Listen actively with no agenda other than to listen and understand. Steven Covey tells us, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In order to do that, you have to listen. And it doesn’t to every now and then let your folks have a “moan” session. They’ll feel better for it. I once remarked to my Platoon Sergeant that our soldiers complained to much. My Platoon Sergeant looked at me with a big old grin and said: “Sir, if they ain’t complaining; they ain’t training.”
5. Accept mistakes as your own; take the praise for nothing
As the leader everything is your fault, no exceptions! You are responsible for everything your people do or fail to do. If they fail to meet their targets, it’s because you failed to provide the proper guidance and support. You can delegate tasks and authority, but you can never delegate responsibility. If your team exceeds its targets, make sure it’s your people who get all the credit, and be sure to praise them openly and honestly.
What does your organization do when it wants to hire or promote the best person for a specific job or leadership position? The traditional answer is to test people for their IQ, technical skills to do the job, their personality or just by looking at their CV.
The late David McClelland, an American psychological theorist, identified a better way. He proposed that an organization should first study employees who are already top performers in that role, and systematically compare them with those who are just average performers.
What McClelland found was that a set of distinguishing competencies emerged: competencies that the top performers exhibited and the average performers did not.
Once you have identified those distinguished competencies, you can use those as a basis to hire or promote people who have the basic competencies to do the job plus the distinguishing competencies or help your people develop those strengths.
Using this methodology will help you develop a competency model that you can use to identify, train, and promote the next generation of top performers in your organization.