“Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.”
Mitt Romney, past governor of Massachusetts
Without a doubt, people who achieve excellence share a common set of characteristics. And it doesn’t matter if they are in business, education, government, health care or even in parenting and homemaking. People of excellence have certain psychological mechanisms going on inside them.
Strangely enough, I learned that from a group of inmates when I worked in the Michigan prison system, inmates who were the very opposite of excellent. They consisted of about 100 young men between the ages of 15 and 21, who had committed crimes that ranged from petty theft and mugging to pimping and drug dealing.
From observing and interacting with them on a daily basis for a couple of years, I began to realize what produces excellence, mediocrity and failure, and I began to realize the difference between winners and losers.
1. Losers blame others for their problems.
Before I would meet with an inmate for our first interview, I would read his file. I wanted to learn about his family, his education, his history, culture, and crime stats. Then I would bring in a young man and say something like, “Byron, you look like a nice fellow. What’s a guy like you doing in here?”
Invariably, Byron would jump into his story as to why he didn’t belong there. He would say it was that darn judge that had it in for him. He never had a chance. Or he had a no-good lazy lawyer who told him to cop a plea, that he would get off with a warning, but now he was locked up for five years.
All the inmates had their stories that blamed somebody else for their problems.
In fact, the stories were sometimes so similar that it was “almost” funny. Several of them said, “I was out on parole, sitting in a bar, drinking a beer, minding my own business, and these fellas came over to talk to me. They told me they had some booze in the car and urged to come along and party with them. So I did.”
“We were driving along when all of a sudden one of the guys said there was this convenience store down the street. No one was there but an old man, and they all said he’s probably got $500 just sitting there in the cash drawer. We could run in there, pick up the dough, and be out in 30 seconds.”
“Of course, I said, ‘No way. Take me home. I’m trying to go clean. I don’t want nothin’ to do with this.’ They called me ‘chicken’ and just kept driving. Before I knew it, they ran in the store, knocked the old man over the head, came back out, threw the money in the car, and ran off in the woods, taking the car keys with them. Before I knew it the cops drove up, and here I am sitting with the money. It was all over.”
Sounds like a pretty bad patch of bad luck, doesn’t it? Possibly so, in some cases.
It would be easy to feel sorry for those guys, until you realize that EVERY ONE of them had a story like that. And NONE of them belonged there. It was always somebody else’s fault. It was that infamous “other guy” that got them into all that trouble.
We used to joke, “If we could only catch those ‘other guys,’ we could bring an end to crime in Michigan.”
I’m sure one or two or a few of the stories were true, but they certainly weren’t true for all 100 inmates. So what was going on there?
In simple terms, losers blame others for their problems. Indeed, I address this issue in my new upcoming book, “The Payoff Principle: Discover The 3 Secrets To Getting What You Want Out Of Life And Work.”
Or to put it another way,
2. Losers do not accept responsibility.
In psychology, it’s called “locus of control.” Some people are “externals.” Instead of taking responsibility for what is going on in their lives, they place the responsibility outside of themselves or “externally.”
That’s what those inmates were doing when they repeatedly told me it was the “other guy” who was at fault. It was the “devil who made them do it.” Someone else was responsible for what was going on their lives.
What makes it so difficult to live and work with people like this is the fact they’re not lying … in the technical sense. They honestly believe their stories. They really believe they’re not responsible for the mess they’re in.
Of course, not all losers are in prison. You find them everywhere, in your workplace and in your families.
As a consultant to a certain healthcare organization that had some major problems in keeping accurate records, I could never find the people that were responsible for the problem. When I spoke to the hospital administrator and asked about the problem, he said it was “those” doctors who thought they were “above” the new electronic record keeping system. When I spoke to the doctors, they said it was the insurance companies who forced them to see too many patients in a single day. When I talked to the department managers, they said it was those darn unions that protected incompetent employees in medical records.
In essence, according to the people in this dysfunctional organization, no one was responsible for the problem. Indeed, they had created an entire corporate culture where no one was responsible. No wonder they were losing … money, morale, employees, and even patients.
Simply put, it is a characteristic of losers to be highly external, constantly blaming others, and refusing to take responsibility. And that attitude will never produce excellence or greatness.
Continuing on with today’s Tip, by contrast to losers,
3. Winners invariably take responsibility.
They are internally focused. Good or bad, highly successful people take responsibility FOR the events in their lives, and as a result, they take action TO control their lives.
For example, one of my coaching clients, a high level senior manager at IBM is an excellent manager. When I asked him how things were going, he started talking about the problem he was having with one of his supervisors that he had put in charge of a certain project. He said things weren’t working out, and he couldn’t understand it. In fact, he said this was the second time he had assigned someone to that project, and neither one of the supervisors worked out.
My client went on to say, “What am I doing wrong? How is it that I picked the wrong person for the job two times in a row? I should have been able to see they wouldn’t work out.”
To the casual observer, it may sound like he’s not a very good manager. But he’s actually an EXCELLENT manager, because he accepts responsibility for his decisions. And because he accepts responsibility for his decisions, he will take the time to think, to do his homework, to figure out what’s happening, change his behavior, and make a better choice the next time.
By contrast, a loser would blame somebody else for the problem. A loser might say, “The training department doesn’t know how to turn people into effective supervisors … or … The HR department doesn’t send me good candidates … or … All the really good supervisors have been scooped by our competitors.” Blame, blame, blame.
The research clearly tells us that losers are blamers but excellence and winning starts with responsibility. Make sure you choose the latter.