Yesterday began with a quick stop for coffee in one of my favorite cafés in Grenoble. When I arrived, the morning regulars were discussing the role of luck in life. Why is it that some people attract good fortune while others are constantly fighting bad times, or does it just seem that way?
The conversation soon turned to an individual’s response to life’s events. Why do two people respond so differently in the face of adversity, some reacting with hope and optimism where others lament their fate and dwell on the negatives?
I thought of an example from my environment. My colleague Andrew lost the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident a few years ago. Since that time, I do not think I have ever noticed him feeling sorry for himself. In fact, every time I talk with him these days, his perspective on life and the future impresses me. He simply sees no reason to let this disability prevent him from participating in the activities he has always enjoyed, from teaching marketing to mountaineering or cross-country skiing.
I have known others with similar experiences who choose to live out their lives as victims, focusing mostly on the limitations of their situations.
Later in the day, I was talking with a group of MBA students about the myths our society harbors about leadership. In class a few days before, we had looked at the false belief that people of influence have some “special” event or experience in their past that has somehow shaped them and honed their ability to lead. I call this phenomenon the “extraordinary experience myth” of leadership.
Nelson Mandela, for example, states that the episode of going to prison for 27 years was the formative experience of his life, an experience without which he could not possibly have become the leader he became. Of course, one can hardly argue with his statement. At the same time, how unique was the experience of going to jail in South Africa under apartheid? Certainly, many other activists and freedom fighters were put in jail and had experiences similar to those of Mandela.
Why do all of these individuals who went to jail in the same conditions as Mandela not become outstanding leaders or presidents? Why did the prison experience not mold them all in a similar fashion?
To me, it cannot be the experience itself that sets Mandela apart from his fellow inmates. Rather, it is what he does with that experience, the way he reflects on it, turns it over and over in his mind, and transforms it into something meaningful.
In all my work with students, executives and seminar participants, I emphasize the point that most influential leaders have no great and spectacular “extraordinary experience” in their past. However, what is extraordinary is the way they learn to use their past. What I have seen in my study of outstanding leaders is that they develop an unusual ability to process their life experience, and to understand its lessons.
We all react to our experience in different ways. If Nelson Mandela was able to reflect on his jail experience and turn it into meaningful life lessons, it is largely because of an attitude he developed. Mandela refused to let the prison episode diminish or dehumanize him. He came to see his time in jail as a period of reflection, learning and challenge.
How important is attitude to a leader? For some, it is simply the most important aspect of the game of life. My discussions of yesterday, beginning with morning coffee and continuing with the students, brought to mind a quote that I have long remembered from Chuck Swindoll’s book, Improving your serve: “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than education, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill…I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
And so it is. Most of the time, we cannot control what happens to us in our lives. But, all of the time, we can control our attitudes.