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Want Your Team to Win? Find the Root Cause of Success.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a young Battalion Commander in Vietnam. On November 14, 1965, you’re leading your troops into what you expect to be a routine mission in the Ia Drang Valley.

Suddenly, you’re attacked by an enemy force. You’re outnumbered four or five to one.

Imagine four days of deafening mortar blasts, endless machine gun fire and the constant whirring of helicopter blades—and on top of all that, the agony of wounded men.

Can you imagine what you would do?

Let’s look at what happened.

The Battle of Ia Drang was one of the most ferocious and bloodiest battles in American history. When the young Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, met with this unexpected onslaught, he had to act in the midst of all the chaos. What he did surprises and humbles me.

Despite everything going on around him, Moore had the mental fortitude to pause, withdraw and ask himself three simple but powerful questions:

  1. What is happening?
  2. What is not happening?
  3. How can I influence the action?

Under Moore’s superb leadership, the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry distinguished itself against a force of superior number.

In the end, the enemy withdrew.

Why am I telling this story? Because it teaches a powerful lesson about effective, strategic leadership that all of us would do well to learn.

What can we learn from this story?

When I look at what Moore did, two things jump out that really intrigue me.

First, Moore had the presence to pause and reflect on questions.

If you think about it, every action you take is preceded by a question that you ask yourself. For example, many people wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is check their email to see what they have on the day’s to-do list. They do this because they’ve asked themselves internally, maybe even without knowing it, “What do I need to get done today?”

In leadership, the same thing happens. Our actions are driven by the questions we ask ourselves—intentionally or not. The questions we ask ourselves focus our immediate attention and motivate our actions. So, by taking the time to pause and reflect on the most productive questions, we choose a productive focus and become more effective leaders.

Secondly, Moore asked the questions in the Most Productive order.

Moore had a lot of negatives to focus on in this situation. First off, he was vastly outnumbered. Secondly, he was losing men. On top of that, there’s the hostile jungle environment, the noise, and the stress.

By having the presence of mind to focus first on what was happening—what was going right—Moore identified ways in which his team could do better, instead of devoting all his energy (as is common in business) to “putting out fires” and focusing on what we are not doing.

Prioritizing what’s going right isn’t easy, but it pays off.

In life, there tends to be an almost automatic focus on what’s going wrong; it appears that our brains are actually wired with a “negativity bias.” Observe how much of your mental activity is focused on problems and problem-solving. I think you will be surprised. Our mental default setting is to start with Moore’s second question— “what is not happening?”

While this might help us to avoid failure, it doesn’t help us to achieve excellence. In fact, when we look at people who achieve excellence, we find they don’t tend to focus on failure, on what’s going wrong.

For example, let’s look at American sports shooter Larry Bassham, a World Champion and 1976 Olympic Gold Medalist. In his book With Winning in Mind, he recalls a question he got after making a presentation:

Question: “Mr. Bassham, in the 1978 World Championships you shot a 598/600 to win a medal. What happened on the two nines?”

Bassham: “Do you want to know how I got nines? That will not help you…What you should be asking is how I got 58 tens. Besides, I can’t remember how I got the nines. I do not reinforce bad shots by remembering them.”

This quote from Bassham drives home the point: excellence is about maximizing our strengths.

Excellence in leadership comes from drawing out the strengths of your team members.

The lessons from Hal Moore and Larry Bassham all tie in to effective leadership in business. I’m thinking specifically of a growing body of research first proposed by David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University. It centers on something called Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a leadership philosophy that aligns with Moore’s first question: What’s going right? Here’s how AI works:

  • It recognizes that we learn little about excellence from studying failure because excellence is not the opposite of failure—we move forward by identifying the factors that contribute to success, rather than studying the reasons for problems and their failures.
  • AI looks at the strengths, peak experiences and accomplishments of an organization—a “positive core”—and then focuses on how to repeat them and build on them to achieve productive and profitable outcomes.

Like most of you, I have years of training and experience in the normal approach of identifying problems, analyzing possible causes, generating and then implementing solutions. (Let’s face it, I practiced law for a decade.) Let me share with you an instance where I took a different approach more consistent with AI.

When I was helping to build a company in the insurance restoration industry in the early part of this decade, we had underperforming offices and we wanted to improve their gross margins. Instead of analyzing the problems in all of the underperforming offices, we decided to look and see if there was any office that consistently delivered the margins we wanted.

There was one out of sixteen.

After looking carefully at what that one office was doing, we boiled their success down to a key practice that was absent in the underperforming offices. Then, we took that practice and implemented it across all sixteen offices. Sure enough, we got higher margins—market-leading margins. Everyone was very proud of this achievement, and it created a lot of momentum in the company.

I see this approach as looking for the root cause of success.

Look for the root cause of success every day.

I’m privileged to provide executive coaching to leaders who are committed to high achievement. To help leaders overcome the brains’ natural negativity bias, I invite them to take a 21-Day Challenge.

The Challenge is simple; it’s just two steps. At the same time every day, near the end of the day, ask yourself this question:

What are three things that went well today?

Then, ask yourself how these things happened. In other words, how did you achieve this outcome?

Continue this for 21 days. By making a habit of asking these questions, you retrain your brain to focus on what’s going well. That way, you can make sure to do it again (and even better). My clients have noticed positive results after trying this challenge, and I’m sure you will, too.

If your goal in life and business is to avoid failure, then you’d do well to focus on what’s going wrong and fix it. But if your goal is excellence, you need to change your focus and start thinking about what’s going well and how to make it even better. What I’m encouraging you to do is change your default setting. Like Moore, before you focus on what is not happening, discipline yourself to pause and consider what is happening, what is driving good results for you and your business.


Are you ready to help your executives and managers maximize their leadership potential? I’m ready to start that conversation today. Let’s talk!

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