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Where Do We Go Next After We Succeed?

Secret to enduring success in leadership

So you achieved that long sought-after success at work – great! Everyone is cheering you on, applauding your success while you enjoy your time in the limelight.

But as time moves on, your colleagues start to focus on other matters and that success that garnered you all those accolades and praise slowly dims, leaving you with one uncomfortable and glaring question – what do I do now?

It’s the part of process of achieving success that we don’t often talk about, mostly because the focus tends to be on how we can be successful without any real honest examination of what do we do when we actually achieve it.

Understandably, part of the reason for that is that success – especially when it’s a public or life-changing moment – is often seen as being the pinnacle of our journey, leaving us with no where to go but down.

A great example of that is when actors win an Academy Award in the early stages of their career. Although life-changing, it also seems to limit their future successes, as many of them go off to make films that are not as critically acclaimed or commercially successful as the one that won them the Oscar. Given their limited body of work, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that many of them went from being seen as rising stars to potential has-beens.

Fortunately, for most of us, our successes are not as character or career-defining, but that doesn’t necessarily free us from the expectations those around us might have about what we will do next or what achievement we will next attain.

It’s an idea that came to mind after seeing the overwhelming response to the piece I wrote last week about the power of expectations.

As a writer, you’re not always sure what ideas or insights will resonate the most with your readers. So when you see a piece of yours getting the attention like my last piece did – where it not only became the headline article for the Wednesday edition of SmartBrief on Leadership, but it was also featured in numerous other industry newsletters and leadership blogs – it’s hard not to feel like you succeeded in capturing lightning in a bottle.

Of course, as was the case with past articles I wrote which also captured the interest of so many and lead to dozens of new blog subscribers and new readers, it also gave rise to thoughts about how do we match that success. And even how can we surpass it.

There’s no question that this line of thought can leave you facing a daunting dilemma, if not a crisis of confidence in your abilities as you question whether that success was more a matter of luck, timing, or any other factor other than your own abilities and insights brought forth from past experiences.

Indeed, the irony about success is that it makes you adverse to the very risks which made you successful in the first place [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we become more interested in protecting our status, our reputation or our legacy than with doing what’s necessary to help us to keep pressing ahead in achieving our vision or goals. It’s a sad truth about success that conveniently gets overlooked whenever we have discussions about how various people and organizations have achieved the successes they have.

Seen from that light, the question for me in writing this piece was not so much will this be as successful as my last article as it is will this create the same sense of value for my readers? Will it inspire and encourage people to reconsider how they view the way they lead going forward?

Similarly, when it comes to your leadership after achieving a key milestone or helping your team achieve that desired outcome, the question you need to be asking yourself is not so much can you match or beat that successful achievement going forward.

Rather, the question we need to ask ourselves is how can I continue to inspire the best in those I lead? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] How can I continue to challenge them so that regardless of what we might achieve in the months and years ahead, they will become stronger and more valued contributors to our shared purpose?

We need to ask ourselves not will I continue to be successful going forward, but will I continue to create value for those under my care through my leadership?

A few months ago, I shared the story of Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose players affectionately call “Coach K”, and how he has lead his team to more game wins than any other basketball coach in history.

Now while it’s easy to assume that the secret to Coach K’s enduring success is his deployment of various strategies and tactics in how his team plays the game, the truth is that it’s something far more simple and elegant.

Every year, Coach K instills in his team members a critical message – that it doesn’t matter how many games they’ve won or lost, or even what the score is for the game they’re currently playing. What matters most is what he gets his team members on the bench to chant to their colleagues on the basketball court – “next play”. In other words, what matters most to their ability to win is understanding what will they do next.

What Coach K’s example demonstrates is that the secret to enduring success lies not in what we’ve achieved, but in how we can do more [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we not rest on our past achievements, but continue to find a way to create value – to inspire and challenge those under our care, as well as ourselves, to be that better version of who we can be.

As much as Coach K’s new team players might be honoured and humbled to be able to play for such a storied basketball team, they soon learn that it’s not about what the team has done in the past that matters, but what will they do next going forward to build on what those before them have created.

In many of my talks, I like to share stories of certain leaders whose examples of leadership can serve to inspire all of us for how we can better serve those under our care. One of those leaders I talk about is Walt Disney and one reason for that is that when I’m faced with those moments of concern about how will I improve on or surpass the last article I wrote or that last talk I gave which garnered numerous accolades or praise, I pull out this quote from Walt Disney:

Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”

There’s no question that leadership in today’s faster-paced, ever-changing work environment is hard and it’s going to continue to get harder. But the fact that we do see people succeeding at leadership – succeeding at inspiring those they lead to not simply do their best but to genuinely care about why we do what we do is proof that it can be done.

And as that quote from Walt Disney points out, the key here is not to give ourselves the permission to ease off, whether it’s to rest on our laurels when we succeed, or resigning ourselves to thinking it can’t be done when we fail to reach our target.

The obligations of leadership today are huge because it’s no longer just about efficiency or productivity levels. The focus of today’s leadership is how do we help people to do their life’s work [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That’s a tall order to be sure, but it’s one that if we fully commit ourselves to seeing through – to not limiting ourselves in terms of our past successes or even our past failures – we can make happen.

While writing this piece, I came upon this quote by Andy Warhol:

Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

In many ways, what you create in leading people is your art as it’s the legacy of what you inspired in others [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. It’s a reflection of what you did to help guide and nurture your employees through your actions and words to believe in their potential to do more and to be more than they thought was possible.

Seen from that light, it becomes easier to appreciate how it really isn’t about how often we succeed or fail, but rather how often we’re willing to shift our focus to that next play; to what will help our employees to continue to move our organization forward in achieving our shared purpose.

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