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Not Great, Just Lucky? Jo Owen debunks the ‘greatness’ myth

27th February 2015 | Jo Owen

Often when we call a person or organization 'great,' it is because they had the monopoly on their market, or were in the right place at the right time. The Mindset of Success author Jo Owen sees beyond the specifics of time and place to analyse the importance of mindset.

Not Great, Just Lucky? Jo Owen debunks the ‘greatness’ myth

Great business leaders often turn out to be lucky, not great. Much was made of the US writer Jim Collins’ 2001 book Good to Great, based on painstaking research to identify the most successful firms. After looking at 1,435 companies, he honed in on 11. These included Circuit City (now bankrupt) ‘Fannie Mae’ (bailed out by the US government) and Gillette (taken over). Only one of the eleven companies has significantly outperformed the market since the publication of this book.

Naturally, the research assumes that the only real success stories are American firms run by middle-aged white men who have huge resources at their disposal. It seems as though a large amount of success is down to luck. With a more or less global monopoly on desktop operating systems, it would have been hard for Microsoft not to make money. By contrast, you would have found it difficult to survive if you were in UK coal-mining or garment-making 30 years ago. Being a great firm or a great business leader is often a question of being in the right place at the right time.

As for the best leaders, the one factor that differentiates them from the rest is not skill or qualifications but mindset. Carol Dweck has written persuasively about growth mindsets, although outstanding leaders offer much more than that. They have exceptionally high aspirations, courage to take people further than they thought possible and huge resilience in the face of adversity. They never duck responsibility, they are relentlessly positive and they are collaborative, not lone heroes. They also have a hard edge: they will be ruthless in pursuit of the mission when they need to be. They are not the sort of people I would like to disappoint.

These qualities were absolutely consistent across all the best leaders who took part in my research. Mindsets are no more than a consistent way of thinking, and therefore acting and reacting to the world. The good news is that they can be learned. The bad news is that no one teaches them. The MBA, now a rite of passage for aspiring executives, looks at strategy, marketing, finance and organisation theory. It teaches nothing about what really matters: mindset.

Jo Owen is one of the foundations of Teach First: Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders; his book The Mindset of Success is published on March 3rd by Kogan Page. You can start your own journey to success by ordering a copy here

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