“I’ll never be successful because successful people are born leaders with special abilities”.
“Really? I replied. “What kind of special abilities?”
“I don’t really know, but I certainly don’t have them. That’s for sure!”
It’s sad how many times I’ve heard comments similar to this over the years. My normal response to this kind of thinking is to ask a couple of questions. Are you able to learn? Did you graduate from high school? Do you have any hobbies that you’re good at?
If the person answers yes to any of these questions, I tell them they actually do have the special abilities needed to be successful. The primary skill of successful people is the ability to learn the skills they need from people who are already successful.
I had the good fortune of working under a very successful and well-respected manager at General Motors early in my career. His name was Bill. Not William, not Mr. Smith. Just Bill.
The first thing I learned from Bill was how to ask questions. In fact my initial impression of Bill was how little he knew. I often wondered to myself how he ever got promoted to manager level. Whenever I asked him a question, he would think for a moment and then ask me what I thought. How would “I” solve the problem. I’d give him my answer and he’d say “That sounds fine to me. Give it a shot and let me know how it works out”.
When my ideas didn’t work out the way I thought they would, he would ask “So what did you learn from your solution to the problem? Do you have any other thoughts on how we might solve the problem?” I would tell him what I thought we needed to do, and he would say “that sounds like a good idea. Let me know how it works out.”
When I was successful, Bill would tell the team in the next staff meeting that I had come up with a great idea to solve one of the manufacturing problems the team had been wrestling with.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Bill was teaching me the skills to be successful. He always listened with an open mind to the people under him. He was always encouraging and affirming of those under him —-even when their ideas didn’t work out. When they were successful, he always gave the credit to those under him. It was not unusual for the head of the Division to stop me in the hall and tell me that Bill had shared with him what a great idea I’d come up with to solve a particular manufacturing problem.
Bill taught me three other very important skills for success. First, learn to be a nondual thinker. In other words, don’t take the first idea as “the solution”. Always look for the truths on both sides of every issue, or problem. Second, be willing to take the risk of being wrong. Run with your ideas until you solved the problem. And third, always engage a problem with an attitude of “not knowing”. In other words, always be willing to learn.
As I look back at my time with Bill, I think the most important lesson was the third one. The ability to get my own ego out of the way and “not know everything”. Until I learned that lesson, the other lessons he taught me such as listening to the ideas of others with an open mind, remained undeveloped. Until I learned to tame my ego and began to practice “not knowing”, my ability to learn from those who had the wisdom I needed, was limited. Especially my ability to learn from people who were already successful.
Today I can look back and acknowledge that almost all of the “wisdom” I have accumulated from others over the years has come from my ability to observe and learn from others. “Not knowing” is the skill required for listening. And all successful people are excellent listeners.
As for Bill, I can see very clearly that Bill wasn’t as dumb as I first thought. He was dumb like a fox! He knew how to encourage and listen to those who worked for him.