When we look at the careers of incredibly successful executives and entrepreneurs, it can be easy to interpret them as a series of carefully calculated moves, with each steppingstone leading inevitably to the next. Yet, the reality is that when you’re in it, this isn’t the case at all. The next step may not be obvious; no matter how good a planner you are, you can’t predict the future. The most successful people know they need to trust themselves.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said that “you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
This may sound simple, but as leadership coach Marcel Schwantes notes, “this kind of trust is counterintuitive for type-A entrepreneurs who relentlessly focus on speed, drive, and scaling a business.”
He has a point here. Trusting yourself can be hard. Trusting your game plan can be hard. But it’s absolutely necessary to win.
Yet trusting yourself isn’t enough on its own. You also have to learn from your mistakes.
The Importance of Trust
As a football coach, you’ve got to trust the process. Whatever you think your prospects are for winning, you don’t share those with the team. Instead, focus on preparation and execution. No one can control the future, but you can control how prepared you are and whether you’re doing everything you can to maximize the team’s ability.
With a football team, they’ve got to be totally physically ready to go. That means taking care of their bodies, eating right, getting enough sleep, etcetera. And a coach needs to totally understand the game plan. On game day, the result is mostly dependent on how well you manage that physical fitness process throughout the previous week.
It’s only once the game is done, win or lose, that you can look back and connect the dots. Just because we can’t control the outcome, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do this. Postgame analysis is vital, because it gives us an opportunity to understand and learn from our mistakes. This holds true in business, sports, and any other field.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Trusting yourself and your gameplan doesn’t mean pushing forward blindly. Similarly, just because some mistakes are made doesn’t mean the entire gameplan is a failure and should be thrown out. (Again, you’ve got to trust yourself!) Understanding what data to respond to and what to ignore is hard, and it’s something that sets the best leaders apart from the herd. If you trust yourself totally but do a terrible job of analyzing your mistakes, failure is often right around the corner, even if you don’t know it yet.
History provides many cases of this. When the Black Death struck London in 1665, the Lord Mayor believed that dogs and cats were plague vectors, and as a result, he ordered as many as hundreds of thousands of cats and dogs to be killed. The only problem was that the plague was spread by rats, which carried infected fleas. By killing the dogs and cats, the natural predators of the rats, the city made the problem immeasurably worse.
The lesson here is that when we analyze our problems or errors, it’s not enough to just identify them, we must truly understand their root cause. If we allow ego to cloud our judgment, this isn’t possible. Leaders have to trust themselves in order to make decisions and execute a game plan. But they also need to be humble enough to not just see mistakes, but actually understand what caused them, even if that’s a flaw in their own decision-making or the game plan.
Truly great leaders also know which mistakes or weaknesses are relevant or severe enough to alter a game plan. Some mistakes are flukes. Some are small but fixing them would undermine a major strength in your game. Some errors may be significant, but in an area that is a distraction from your core competency, in which case that area should be eliminated.
Time, attention, and resources are always limited, so it’s vital that once leaders have identified problems and mistakes, they focus on the most critical ones, rather than trying to play Whac-A-Mole with every tiny thing.
Finally, leaders must understand that making mistakes is natural. Everybody does it, and they’re great learning tools. Just because something goes wrong does not mean that we shouldn’t trust ourselves. Rather, it allows us to look at what went right and correct things for the next time. Trusting yourself doesn’t stop when you fail or your results are less than stellar. Instead, it means having the conviction to try again, only this time, better informed because of your mistakes. Your process will help increase the probability that whatever you’re doing turns out right.
The Ultimate Competitive Advantage
The most successful leaders have three competitive advantages:
- They trust themselves and their game plan.
- They analyze and learn from their mistakes and then seek to solve the root problem.
- They understand which mistakes need to be fixed and which ones can be ignored.
The wisdom of Steve Jobs’ words holds true today in business, entrepreneurship, sports, and every other field. When leaders combine the trust he spoke about with humbleness and the ability to learn from their mistakes, they win.
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