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Great Traits: The Power of Thought

Peter Aceto, the CEO of ING Direct, recently had a chance to take in a leadership lesson with Olympian Mark Tewksbury and Olympic Coach Debbie Muir, the founders of their inspiring program “Great Traits,” a program that teaches people to be victors in their own right. Using stories, activities, heart, and humour, Tewksbury and Muir connect individuals, teams, and organizations to the fundamental principles that drive achievement, leadership, and lasting legacies. Aceto raved about the session and the impact it’s had on him professionally and personally:

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that it was ultimately the power of thought that solidified Mark Tewksbury’s Gold medal win at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona – or for that matter, the National Synchronized Swimming Team’s four Olympic medals. But I was, and was left remarkably inspired.

I recently met Mark at a leadership workshop. He along with Debbie Muir – who worked with Mark prior to his Gold Olympic win and led the National swimming team to the four Olympics medals – wrote “The Great Traits of Champions.” This is a book that identifies the fundamental traits of achievers, leaders and ultimately their legacies.

Athletes have a tremendous amount of discipline, training and physicality that carry them through to championships. But what we often underestimate is the level of mental training that it takes for these athletes to achieve their goals. The mental roadblocks they work to remove are ultimately what make some champions stand out from the rest.

It’s really no different in life – and business. How many times have we heard ‘Choose your thoughts wisely’ or ‘You are what you think’ or ‘Focus on your successes, not your failures’? But have we actually put that advice to practice?

Debbie did, as she coached the synchronized swimming team and Mark, and that made all the difference. It wasn’t until Mark began affirmation exercises, for a consecutive ten weeks prior to the Olympics in 1992, that he truly believed in his own strength, removed all self doubt and self induced limitations and brought his beliefs to life. What Mark did in ten weeks is change the way he thought about himself in order to win the Gold medal for Canada, and break a world record!

Our thoughts and what we believe about ourselves can either cage or unlock our potential as individuals. But they also unlock the potential of our teams in how we lead them. What I learned from Mark and Debbie is the importance we must put on awareness – awareness of what runs through our head, and how we can use our thoughts to drive action, whether for ourselves or for our teams.

Leaders must create an environment where great things can happen. It’s easy to fall into a pattern where you spend most of your time focused on what is not going well. Yes, time should be spent on that too, but being consistently focused on the negative leads to a decline in the energy and productivity of our teams and the individuals themselves. We need to spend more time focused on what is going right, and we must celebrate even our smallest achievements. Sounds familiar? There is more to it…

When coaching the Synchronized Swimming team, Debbie turned 20 seconds of synchronized brilliance into a 3-minute gold medal performance. She explains how her team was struggling during practice but during her video reviews she found an absolutely perfect 20 seconds of their performance. Rather than improving the remaining 2 minutes and 40 seconds she focused on “the 20 seconds of brilliance” and how to build on it. This type of thinking shifts our awareness, keeps us thinking positively and creates synergy for our teams to deliver at the highest level.

Recognition is an often forgotten trait of great leadership. Praise fuels our energy. “You have no right to be a leader if someone who works for you doesn’t know where they stand,” Jack Welch said in his gruff way. So let’s make it a habit to applaud the contribution of the individuals who have impacted the greater success of the team. Let’s not spend 95% of our time telling the people around us what is wrong, or what can be better. Focus on what they are doing well, find those moments of brilliance in every day, and increase them until they fill our days and the experiences of our customers.

I have already attempted to alter my own behavior….at ING DIRECT, we are prioritizing for our leaders the requirement to ensure recognition becomes as important to our success as the customer experience, hitting the numbers, etc.

I was inspired by Mark Tewksbury and Debbie Muir. I made a few changes, which I am already observing the benefits of. What will you do to shift the power in your thoughts?

By Peter Aceto/