The acronym VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. It may be a military coinage, but it seems to sum up so much of what the modern world feels like.
But, never fear: linguistic fluency and creative ingenuity have conjured a number of strategies to counter the prevailing VUCA environment we inhabit. Best known among them is Bob Johanson’s ‘VUCA prime’. It is an alternative acronym with four ripostes to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.
Four years ago we wrote about Growth Mindset, in our Management Thinkers series. We profiled the originator of the idea, Carol Dweck, and introduced the subject.
If there was any concern then that Growth Mindset may be little more than a fad, further research has only strengthened Dweck’s early conclusions. So, it seems timely to return to the topic.
While this article stands alone, I would recommend you to review the earlier article first. It’s good context. Because, to avoid repeating it, we’re going to use this article to look at how you can put the Big Idea of Growth Mindset to work in your workplace.
A lot of the formal descriptions of Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS) use dry academic language. Put simply, it’s the study of what makes members of an organisation perform at their best levels, by focusing on what they do well.
Every few years we seem to get a new aspect of psychology that is ‘more important to success than intelligence’. In the 1990s it was Emotional Intelligence. In the Twenty-teens, it’s Grit.
So what can we learn from a woman whose father told her that she was no genius? Well, when that woman has a string of academic, commercial, and social successes to her credit by her early 40s, perhaps we should listen to her.
What are you really capable of? And what holds you back from achieving it? Competing against your own mental obstacles is the ‘Inner Game’.
Although many people in the world of work have never heard of the Inner Game, nor of Timothy Gallwey, its founder, this big idea has been extremely influential.
Because Gallwey and the ideas behind the Inner Game are very much the immediate progenitors of modern performance coaching. It it is hard to over-estimate the impact that has had on management and organisational life.
Napoleon Hill has a lot to answer for. As if the 1980s’ and 1990s’ surge in the self-help book market wasn’t enough, you can now hardly move around the internet without the offer of a get rich quick scheme or the opportunity to build an amazing lifestyle with barely four hours of work a week. That isn’t to say, that Hill was the first into the market, but he was, perhaps, the first and most important contributor to our literature on personal success.
Napoleon Hill was born into a fairly impoverished Virginia family, in 1883. He was 10 when his mother died, and quickly became something of a local menace, roaming the locality with a six-shooter, trying to emulate his then hero Jesse James. It was his stepmother who pointed him in a new direction. He was to find new heroes in America’s great industrialists, and to learn that the typewriter is mightier than the handgun.
At 15, he started a journalistic career, writing articles for local papers, which led, in 1908, to his first big interview, with ageing steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Over a couple of days, Carnegie shared his philosophy on how he became successful, while Hill sat rapt. At the end, so the mythology goes, Carnegie challenges Hill: if Hill would dedicate himself, unpaid, to researching a philosophy of success, Carnegie would get him started with letters of introduction. Hill accepted and got a personal introduction to Henry Ford. This led to further introductions that allowed Hill to interview such ‘great men’ as Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, and Elmer Gates.
In a short biography, we don’t have time to detail the many achievements and setbacks that Hill encountered in his life, including his work as PR advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson. But lasting success appeared to have arrived when, in 1928, Hill was able to publish his eight-volume analysis of everything he had learned on the quest Carnegie had set him. With the proceeds of The Law of Success, Hill bought an impressive new family home. Sadly, another reversal came in 1929, when the Wall Street crash took book sales with it. The Hills were destitute.
There followed a series of ventures and adventures in a colourful life that saw Hill working for another US President, FD Roosevelt (and, it is claimed, penning the famous ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’ line), launching several magazines (that all folded in a variety of circumstances) and surviving, by pure good fortune, an attempted assassination attempt by prohibition era gangsters.
But let’s cut to the chase. In another attempt to revive his fortunes, Hill re-wrote and shortened his Law of Success ideas into a new book. Hill did this at the prompting of his second wife, who also suggested the (early 2000s -sounding) title ‘The Thirteen Steps to Riches’. His publisher rejected this with a suggestion of his own – which was mercifully abandoned. The book we now know of as Think and Grow Rich, was very nearly titled: ‘Use Your Noodle to Win More Boodle’.
More good fortune and ill were to follow, as were more magazines and more books. Perhaps the most significant of these reads a little like a summing up. Teaming up with businessman W Clement Stone from the early 1950s, the two men taught his philosophy of personal achievement. In 1960, they co-wrote Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. More books were to follow – including some finished and published posthumously.
In 1970, Napoleon Hill died. He had arguably achieved even more than his mentor. Whilst Hill was never remotely as rich as Carnegie, it is Hill’s book that is constantly re-issued and labelled as a classic.
The Cores to Hill’s Philosophy of Wealth and Success
At different times, Hill appears to have had a different ‘secret’ in mind. There are a thousand self-help volumes that repeat much of what Hill has said, but often, he did say it first. He has also spawned an industry of internet memes – lush pictures with Napoleon Hill quotes attached. Among my favourites are:
Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.
Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success
Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.
Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.
and, of course, the most famous may well be
What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve
But there is more to Hill than pithy quotes. In his evocation of ‘brain capital’ in Think and Grow Rich, Hill arguably foresaw the growth of Charles Handy’s Triple-i Company.
It is also important to acknowledge that Hill’s philosophy (like many of the men he interviewed) was rooted in an early twentieth century Judeo-Christian tradition of hard work, male dominance, and biblical foundation. Some of his writing may seem ahead of its time, but other aspects are very definitely of the past. His focus on a will to succeed (compare this to Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’) as a transmutation of male sexual energy reads as nothing more than bizarre to a modern reader.
But his concept of a group of intelligent, challenging individuals surrounding you as a means of accessing knowledge and wisdom, which he called a Master Mind, is probably the origin of modern Mastermind groups, which doubtless are responsible for much business success today.
Napoleon Hill’s Secret(s) to Success
In Think and Grow Rich, Hill alludes to his secret of success, without making it explicit. Most people therefore infer it to be some variant of a passionate, almost ungovernable urge to succeed. This is certainly a theme that recurs. It is also worth mentioning that Hill defined wealth far more widely than financial success, but as the quality of your friendships, the harmony of your family life (coming from a man twice divorced), and good working relationships. This last point is vital.
In the Law of Success – actually, 16 lessons – he argues that:
Only by working harmoniously in co-operation with other individuals or groups of individuals and thus creating value and benefit for them will one create sustainable achievement for oneself.’
This is a variant, of course, on the oft-cited and truly multi-cultural Golden rule: that you should treat others as you would wish them to treat you.
But it was in the 1950s and with the publication of Success through a Positive Mental Attitude that Hill described his settled opinion. People who succeed tend to be those who view setbacks as nothing more than a step on the road to success. A positive mental attitude, which finds its modern form in Positive Psychology, Learned Optimism, and a Growth Mindset is Hill’s final secret to success. And it seems a fitting one. Because few people in our Great Thinkers and Doers series have suffered so many setbacks, and mounted as many comebacks as Hill. His final success serves as one data point in the anecdotal confirmation of Hill’s self-help secret.
One facet of emotional intelligence is motivation, and this is front and centre of the work of another psychologist. Angela Lee Duckworth’s research interest is competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. And she has been putting the spotlight on two of them: self-control and perseverance.
Very Short Biography
Angela Lee was born in 1970, and grew up in New Jersey. She was the third child of immigrants from China, who had fled the cultural revolution. The parents were exceptionally results-oriented, leading to three children who have all excelled. However, as the third child, Duckworth recalls feeling a sense of benign neglect, as her parents focused their attention on her older siblings.
She was exceptionally bright and worked hard, entering Harvard and graduating in neuro-biology in 1992. Two years later, she took up a scholarship to study neuroscience at the University of Oxford, leaving with an MSc in 1996.
From there, she joined consulting firm McKinsey and Company (where she met her husband, Jason Duckworth). Promised opportunities to do pro bono work, but being allocated work in the pharmaceuticals sector, Duckworth left and started teaching, first in New York. During this time, she started paying attention to why some children succeeded and others failed.
She joined a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Positive Psychology Center, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who supervised her study. She was awarded her PhD in 2006 and took up an academic post there. She is now a Professor of Psychology and leads the Duckworth Lab, which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.
Grit and Self-control
Duckworth’s work shows that two traits predict success in life:
the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals
the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.
These two are different. Grit equips you to pursue especially challenging aims over long periods; years or even decades. Self-control operates at a short timescale in the battle against distractions and temptations – willpower, if you like.
Duckworth’s research shows that the two are related, but not totally correlated. People who are gritty tend to be more self-controlled, but the correlation is not total: some people have masses of grit but little self-control, while some exceptionally self-controlling people are not especially gritty. Her team has developed non-commercial scales that measure each.
Duckworth’s research has found that, when they strip out the effects of intelligence, grit and self-control predict objectively measured success outcomes. They have used contexts as diverse as children’s spelling competitions, military officer training, and general high school graduation results.
Because of the importance of these factors, therefore, Duckworth has introduced them into the routines for her family: husband and two daughters. Academically, her team is researching ways to instil self-control and grit into children. She has shown that children can learn and practise strategies to build grit and self-control.
In a recent Pocketblog, we looked at the work of Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. Duckworth sees Dweck as a role model and is collaborating with her because she has found that children who have more of a growth mindset tend to be grittier. Once again, there isn’t a perfect correlation, but enough to suggest that one of the things that makes you gritty is a growth mindset: the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’. This should help you to be tenacious, determined, and hard-working: gritty.
Orpah Winfrey (not a mis-spelling) was born into poverty and hardship in 1954 and rose to become both a celebrity phenomenon and a business magnate. Along the way she made many astute decisions. One of the first was to change her name, recognising that if too many people mis-pronounced Orpah as Oprah, then she may as well go with the flow. Part of her skill has been an adept assessment of the direction of flow.
There is far more biographical detail available about Oprah Winfrey than most other of our management thinkers, so let’s stick to summarising a few of the facts most relevant to our theme, and leave the more vibrant details to other sources. Many of them have been revealed on her TV shows and in her books – others have emerged through unauthorised tabloid revelations.
Winfrey’s early years in rural Mississippi with her grandmother, urban Wisconsin with her mother, and Tennessee. She experienced much hardship and poverty, including serious abuse, teenage pregnancy, and bereavement.
It was while living with her father for a second time that she started to succeed at school, enter Tennessee State University and land a news job on the local radio station, WVOL in Nashville. This led to a news anchor role at the local TV station, WTVF-TV (then WLAC-TV). She was a television natural and had evident star quality. In 1976, she moved to Baltimore as a news co-anchor at WJZ-TV, which didn’t work out well for her, but the senior executive at the station suggested she co-host a chat show instead.
Although she was reluctant at first, and both she and the station considered it a risk, this was her defining moment: the audience loved her and the show’s ratings rose rapidly. In 1984, she took on a new role as host of WLS-TV’s prime morning talk show, AM Chicago, broadcast head-to-head with the top-rated talk-show, hosted by Phil Donahue. Within a month, it was Winfrey who rated number one.
In 1985, she co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-nominated movie, The Color Purple, winning an Oscar nomination herself as best supporting actress. The following year she launched her nationally syndicated show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her style of being open and honest with her emotions made her a national hit with many millions of viewers.
Two years later, her astute business sense became evident, as she bought the rights to her own show, set up a production company (Harpo – Oprah backwards), and build a $20m studio in Chicago. After Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball, Winfrey was the third woman to own a major US studio. Hwer business life continued and continues to be a huge success, making her a multi-billionaire.
What Business Lessons can we Learn from Oprah Winfrey?
It is easy to think of Winfrey as a media celebrity: her TV chat show is the foundation of her business empire and she has 22 credits as an actress. But she is producer on half as many again films and TV shows and she is owner of a huge portfolio of media assets including TV networks, production companies, and magazines.
I think there are three principal lessons that any business person or manager can learn from her:
The value of sheer grit and determination. Yes, Oprah surely has talent, but to triumph over the hardships she faced, Winfrey needed hard work and persistence. Throughout her life, she struggled with setbacks, but has always pushed forward.
Recognise your strongest assets, and take control of them. From her earliest exploitation of her talents as a speaker when she went to a local radio station to collect a prize for winning the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, Winfrey has spotted her opportunities well and taken control. The best example is her decision to buy out the rights to her TV show and become its producer. This was a big risk and most hosts are content to stay just that: Winfrey was not. This is what made her a media mogul, rather than a media celebrity.
When rivals start to challenge you, shift ground to differentiate yourself. In the early 1990s, the Oprah Winfrey Show was a huge success and therefore, inevitably, widely copied by other producers. Everyone was interviewing anyone with a tale of woe, and the more salacious the better. Amid this race to the tabloid bottom, Winfrey took a step upwards. She started to produce uplifting shows that she started to call ‘change your life TV’. Instead of wallowing in people’s misery, she offered audiences a choice of improvement… which they loved. In transforming her show, she charted her way to where she sits now as a celebrity: a champion for highbrow self-help (and, to be fair, some practitioners offering advice that is less than empirically validated).
In 2003, Michael Moore wrote that Oprah should run for US President. That would be a shift, and it would take grit too. Will she do it?
Hear Oprah Winfrey in her own words
For more about her career and her advice to listen to your instincts, here is an interview (c.65 min) she gave at Stanford’s Business School in 2014.