The Pursuit of Excellence Begins with Your Mindset

user Darren Gold
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This article was originally published in Forbes.

Imagine you are the chef of a three-star Michelin restaurant. For context, there are currently only 14 restaurants in the U.S. with such a distinction and only 133 worldwide. It’s such an extraordinary award that the greatest chefs in the world can work their entire lives without ever reaching that pinnacle. Now imagine one day you’re notified that you lost your three-star status. To make matters worse, you weren’t merely downgraded to two stars, which is what most commonly happens, but rather stripped of all three stars — overnight!

What would you do? How would you react? Would you recover? Would you lash out at the unfairness of it all?

Last October, one chef had to make these decisions. Marty Lau, head chef of the exclusive sushi restaurant Araki, was notified last year that the restaurant’s status as one of only three three-star Michelin restaurants in London was being completely revoked.

Lau was interviewed after receiving the news. He didn’t complain or blame. He wasn’t furious. Rather, he demonstrated the essence of a responsible mindset: a belief that we are 100% responsible for what happens to us in life.

While he called the decision “a shame,” he quickly added, “But we take it as a fair judgment and a fresh start.” He seemed to take responsibility for putting Michelin in a difficult position given the departure of Araki during the inspection period. He didn’t ask for an explanation from Michelin. “It’s their guide, and we’re in total respect of how they want to do it,” he said. “I’m taking it on the chin and getting on with proving myself. Lots of chefs are devastated when they lose stars, but you’ll get nowhere with that attitude. You have to dust yourself off and try again.”

When I first read the account, I was shocked. Not so much at the decision to strip this chef, highly raved about by GQ magazine as “phenomenally capable,” but by Lau’s reaction. In a culture where the default mindset and behavior are often to blame others for one’s misfortune, Lau’s resiliency and responsibility stood out as something exceptional – even more exceptional, perhaps, than his restaurant’s cuisine.

In my work with business leaders, I stress the importance of a responsible mindset — the belief that there’s always something you can do or could have done to affect any situation. I offer that it may be the single most important driver of effectiveness, not just in leadership, but in all aspects of one’s life: education, career, finances, health, and relationships.

In a culture where the default mindset and behavior are often to blame others for one’s misfortune, Lau’s resiliency and responsibility stood out as something exceptional…

When you hold a responsible mindset, two critical things happen. First, a whole set of potential actions appears — actions that wouldn’t have occurred to you if were operating from a victim mindset, which is the view that there is nothing you can do to affect your situation. Second, it forces you to reconsider your role in any outcome and invites you to learn from your situation.

What a lesson Lau has given us. What would it look like if we adopted a similar response to our next “crisis”? Rather than blame others or come up with excuses, what if we took 100% responsibility? What if we just “took it on the chin” and got on with it? What a world that would look like.

Take the following example. You lead a team at work. It’s annual planning time. You’ve asked each of your seven team members to come back with a detailed, bottoms-up budget within 30 days. Two team members miss the deadline entirely. Of the remaining five team members, three deliver draft budgets that meet your expectations, and two don’t. Your immediate reaction is, understandably, one of frustration and anger. You were clear about your expectations, and people failed to deliver on their commitments. Most leaders would then go to a very familiar and comfortable place and blame their team. And, in doing so, they would miss a huge growth opportunity — for themselves and their team members.

If you were operating with a responsible mindset, however, the result might be completely different. If you asked yourself, “If I were 100% responsible for this situation, what new facts would I see, and what new actions could I take?” You might remember that the same pattern played out last year: The two team members who failed to deliver budgets on time were generally late on other assignments. You haven’t had clear and direct conversations with either one of them about this recurring behavior or clearly explained what would constitute an acceptable draft budget. As a leader, you had a hand in this mess and are responsible for figuring out a way to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Can you begin to see the power of a responsible mindset? Sure, it means you can no longer avoid responsibility. You will likely have to work harder. And you’ll have to give up the satisfaction of blaming others. By the way, having a responsible mindset doesn’t mean you can’t hold others accountable. But the payoff in terms of growth, learning, and most importantly, results, is huge.

So how do you begin to adopt and lead with a responsible mindset? The first step is to notice when you are blaming. This is your cue that you’re operating from a victim mindset and neglecting to see your own role in the situation. The second step is to ask, “What would I see and do if I were 100% responsible for this situation?” The final step is to take action. From a responsible mindset, you’ll begin to see dozens of new actions that weren’t previously available to you.

Being a leader means that you’ll be constantly frustrated and disappointed. You won’t be able to change that. What you can control is the way you interpret your environment. You can choose to complain and be a victim of your circumstances or choose to take the stance that you control your circumstances. This may be the most important choice you ever make as a leader.

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