Best of ColoradoBiz: Five secrets of high achievers

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.