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Posted: July 06, 2009

Five secrets of high achievers

Responsibility will take you far (and keep you out of jail)

Scott Halford

Let everyone sweep in front of their own door. Then the whole world will be clean. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is a tough love message, so be forewarned. Entitlement and victimhood drive me nuts. It probably rattles me because I work in the world of high achievement, and high achievers run hard and fast from entitlement and victimhood, which admittedly can be difficult.

Several years ago, when I was working as a television documentary producer, I had the opportunity to interview death-row inmates for a documentary on capital punishment. After our first interview, the cameraman, Tom, and I walked out of the interview room feeling utterly confused. Was the man really guilty? Based on his side of the story, both Tom and I were having serious doubts as to whether or not this man had committed the horrible crime for which he’d been convicted -- and was now facing the death penalty. His account was compelling, his tone convincing.

“So how’d it go?” the warden asked us.

“Uh, fine,” I said, “but … we both were just wondering if this guy is maybe, uh, not guilty. His story is so radically different from what the court records say, and he’s so believable. What if he’s locked up for something he didn’t do?”

The warden looked at us and chuckled. I thought he was being callous.

“You’ve been had,” he said. The warden explained a Bureau of Prisons statistic showing that more than 90 percent of all death row inmates are convinced they are not responsible for the actions that put them there. He went on to recount detailed evidence from this man’s particular case file that had contributed to his conviction (the jury had no trouble reaching a verdict). It was hard to argue with facts, but nevertheless Tom and I were stunned. We had no experience with the crime world, and our naiveté was showing. I had not been in an environment where most people didn't take responsibility for their actions.

That is until I started consulting in the corporate world.

Of course, there are some amazing corporate cultures out there. But I've been stunned to see how many employees, from the top down, refuse to take responsibility for the mood and morale of their workplaces or for the way things are going for their companies in general or even for the wellbeing of their own careers. In my conversations with individuals, I find something that parallels my conversations with the inmates at the prison: It is always somebody else’s fault — they made a stupid decision, they did the wrong thing, they didn’t treat people fairly, they didn’t care about anyone. They didn't work hard because they weren't inspired. The implication being, "So why should I: Do the right thing, treat people fairly or care about others? THEY don't."

It's like putting on ugly clothes in the morning and then blaming everyone else for how bad you look. It simply doesn't make sense. It's your life (your wardrobe); make choices that lead you to fulfillment and success (and compliments).

The world you live and work in is driven by a series of choices. Sometimes you have to make very difficult choices to get out of very difficult pickles. Bad leadership is often complicated to overcome and shortsighted decisions from on high can wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. And that's when it's most important to take responsibility instead of acting trapped like you're in a prison from which you cannot find release.

So, do what high achievers do.

High achievers -- or shortcuts as I call them -- take responsibility for their actions and behavior. Perhaps that’s why they are the people we want to be around; why we want to help them succeed and why they garner so much influence. They create their own reality, one that works for them and others, and above all, they take responsibility. You can take on the attributes of high achievers by doing a few things better than their victim counterparts:

1. Take responsibility for the good and bad in your life and do something about it if you don't like it.

2. Make sure that your world is humming along in a productive and effective manner before you dispense advice to others.

3. Keep on going and don't let the cynicism get you. Don't let the victims drag you into their drama. It's easy to become mired in the gloom and doom. It takes work especially when you want to give in to the rumor mill.

4. When others start down a negative path, turn the conversation around by suggesting things you do have a choice about.

5. Be aware that the energy-suckers want you to stoop into the trenches with them and when you don't, they might resent you. That's life. That's the way of the high achiever. Sometimes it sucks to be at the top. Do it anyway.

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at

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Readers Respond

Great read; reminds me of Denver's own Brad Hams and his Ownership Thinking. A mind-shift is required in today's world and our current culture. Those who do it proactively today will be tomorrow's Leaders in every arena. By Malachi on 2009 07 07
Scott, These tools are valuable to everyday life. This is what I teach four young boys (my children) and the system that we use is all based on accountability and real world events. We use a point system and a consequence bucket. On a professional level and as a result of my high ambition and goals I had to isolate myself from negative thinkers, some of which are still bitter. They were surprised that they too, fell into the negative heap of people that I disassociated with. In fact they are continuing to hold a grudge. Two family members actually drove past my house (they live 800 miles away) and didn't bother to stop. Family and friends were busy telling me that I couldn't achieve what I wanted to do particularly in a down market, however I am gradually taking off the ground and achieving more than anyone could imagine. I recommend obtaining an accountability partner, a coach and continually writing and reviewing your goals. If you need an awesome coach; I know where to find one. Feel free to send me an email and I will get you connected, I am not a coach, I just love helping others. Thank you for the article. I forwarded it on to my networking group! Cheers, Nathan D. Thurman By Nathan Thurman on 2009 07 07
Scott: Thanks for the great article, your points were timely and well stated. You are right, the art of taking responsibility seems to be a lost art among many companies and individuals. Kim is correct when she states that transparency of social media will serve to "out" many of the "it's not me, it's them" crowd. I also believe that the challenges of the current economy are "outing" many employers and employees. When things were great during the "rah rah" days, the rising tide of prosperity lifted all boats and kept many marginal businesses afloat. Then, when the tide fell, the innovators and high achievers found new routes to keep their businesses on course. However, the marginal businesses got stuck on "sandbars" or hit rock bottom without a clear plan, just the excuse of "it's the economy, there is nothing we can do except wait it out. But enough "boat talk," thanks again for your thought-provoking article. Rosanne Gain, Gain-Stovall, Inc. By Events Submit on 2009 07 07
Scott, You must have been listening in on the hundreds of conversations my husband and staff have had about this precise topic. I, like you, detest the lack of accountability in today’s business culture, not to mention the political arena. Your tips are basic common sense, but somehow people seem to forget about personal responsibility on a daily basis. I do, however, think that the changes in the way the world communicates today will profoundly affect the notion of transparency and accountability. Companies and individuals alike are being pushed into the limelight through social media, blogging, online communities and other web 2.0 technologies. Hiding behind others or utilizing the “not me” approach are no longer viable in today’s technologically advanced world. Those individuals and businesses that continually refuse to take responsibility for their actions will have a rude awakening when the groundswell of society starts calling them out on their exploits. Thanks for the excellent article! By Kim Mears on 2009 07 07

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