I recently watched Brian Williams, the Channel 4 news anchor, discuss what he called “the DNA of the athletes” during a break in the Winter Olympics. He said people who competed in dangerous sports, whether in the Olympics or NASCAR racing, shared similar qualities. These athletes were energized by the challenge: the riskier the better, the more seemingly unattainable, and the harder they trained. Further, Williams said it was in their DNA and they are not like us, aka “normal people.”
So I started wondering about the DNA of successful leaders. Did they have ingrained traits that enabled them to achieve their goals and grow their enterprises faster and farther than their peers?
It sure seemed so. What, for instance, did Bill Gates, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, have in common?
I found answers after my second reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” Gladwell points to the propitious timing of Gates’ birth, for example. Gates was able, through luck and being in the right place at the right time, to get free computer lab time to learn about desktop computing. He spent more than 10,000 hours focused on everything to do with the new field of desktop computing.
I then wondered how we might translate Gladwell’s hypothesis and learn what made a successful innovator? Were there common threads running through the success of the people he profiled?
And what about the rest of us, who are not lucky, or born at the right time and place?
Here are some correlations that occurred to me:
• Find a field of study that you consider fun. Let your curiosity guide the way. And then learn everything you can about your chosen subject. If you truly love it, it won’t seem like work. That will make the next step manageable.
• Spend at least 10,000 hours perfecting your skills in your chosen field. If you are going to lead people you need to know your field from top to bottom. Yes, that takes years, but what else are you doing that’s more important?
• Surround yourself with smart people. All of Gates’ early influences were teachers and friends who had the same, or greater, passion and intelligence.
• Listen, read and learn from role models who have gone before you. Don’t be afraid to approach someone you admire in your field, asking for 10 minutes of their time a month to get their perspective.
• Be willing to experiment, fail and try again. Nobody is successful 100% of the time. The more failures/rejections you collect, the closer you are to success.
• Develop values to live by. Do you want to be known for fairness? Integrity? Transparency? Boldness? Creativity? You can build your reputation by leading with your values.
• Find ways to help others be successful. This will bolster your network and come back to you triple fold. The best leaders start with asking their employees what they need to succeed in their jobs.
Notice how many of the above correlations cover the same ground: hard work and dedication, taking risks, being bold, and inspiring people. These behaviors may not be part of your “DNA,” but they can be mastered. I can’t think of a better use of your time.