The Extra Plus In Leadership: Attitude

Write the name of a friend whom you greatly admire


Write one thing that you admire most about that friend

Let’s take a moment and contemplate this exercise before you continue reading. I think you’ll gain an interesting and important insight. The odds are high that the thing you most admire about your friend has to do with attitude. After all the conference participants have completed this exercise, I ask them to tell me their answers. I list the first twenty-five responses on an over head projector for everyone to see. I put an A beside the characteristics that describe attitudes, an S beside those describing skills, and an L if the words deal with looks. Every time I conduct this exercise, 95 percent of the descriptive words represent attitudes for which the friends are admired.


Chuck Swindoll said, “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company, a church, or a home. ‘The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. Nor can we change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We also cannot change the inevitable. The only thing that we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. And so it is with you—we are in charge of our attitudes.”

Just as our attitudes are the extra pluses in life, they also make the difference in leading others. Leadership has less to do with position than it does with disposition. The disposition of a leader is important because it will influence the way the followers think and feel. Great leaders understand that the right attitude will set the right atmosphere, which enables the right responses from others.


Our attitudes are our most important assets.

Our attitude may not be the asset that makes us great leaders, but without good ones we will never reach our full potential. Our attitudes are the “and then some” that allows us the little extra edge over those whose thinking is wrong. Walt Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

The 1983 COS Report on American Business said that 94 per cent of all Fortune 500 executives attributed their success more to attitude than to any other basic ingredient.

Robert Half International, a San Francisco consulting firm, recently asked vice-presidents and personnel directors at one hundred of America’s largest companies to name the single greatest reason for firing an employee. The responses are very interesting and underscore the importance of attitude in the business world:


  • Incompetence: 30 percent.
  • Inability to get along with other workers: 17 percent.
  • Dishonesty or lying: 12 percent.
  • Negative attitude: 10 percent.
  • Lack of motivation: 7 percent.
  • Failure or refusal to follow instructions: 7 percent.
  • All other reasons: 8 percent.


Notice that although incompetence ranked first on the list, the next five were all attitude problems.

The Carnegie Institute not long ago analyzed the records of ten thousand persons and concluded that 15 percent of success is due to technical training. The other 85 percent is due to personality, and the primary personality trait identified by the research is attitude.  Our attitudes determine what we see and how we handle our feelings. These two factors greatly determine our success.

What we see: Psychology 101 taught me that we see what we are prepared to see. A suburbanite, unable to find his best saw, suspected that his neighbor’s son—who was always tinkering around with woodworking—had stolen it. During the next week everything the teenager did looked suspicious—the way he walked, the tone of his voice, his gestures. But when the older man found the saw behind his own workbench, where he had accidentally knocked it, he could no longer see anything at all suspicious in his neighbor’s son.

Nell Mohney, in her book “Beliefs Can Influence Attitudes”, pointedly illustrates this truth. Mohney tells of a double-blind experiment conducted in the San Francisco Bay area. The principal of a school called three professors together and said, “Because you three teachers are the finest in the system and you have the greatest expertise, we’re going to give you ninety high-IQ students. We’re going to let you move these students through this next year at their own pace and see how much they can learn.”


Everyone was delighted—faculty and students alike.

Over the next year the professors and the students thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The professors were teaching the brightest students; the students were benefiting from the close attention and instruction of highly skilled teachers. By the end of the experiment, the students had achieved from 20 to 30 percent more than the other students in the whole area.

The principal called the teachers in and told them, “I have a confession to make. You did not have ninety of the most intellectually prominent students. They were run-of-the-mill students. We took ninety students at random from the system and gave them to you.”

The teachers said, “This means that we are exceptional teachers.”

The principal continued, “I have another confession. You’re not the brightest of the teachers. Your names were the first three names drawn out of a hat.”

The teachers asked, “What made the difference? Why did ninety students perform at such an exceptional level for a whole year?”

The difference, of course, was the teachers’ expectations. Our expectations have a great deal to do with our attitudes. And these expectations may be totally false, but they will determine our attitudes.


How we handle our feelings:

Notice I did not say our attitudes determine how we feel. There is a great difference between how we feel and how we handle our feelings. Everyone has times when they feel bad. Our attitudes cannot it stop our feelings, but they can keep our feelings from stopping us. Unfortunately too many allow their feelings to control them until they end up like poor Ziggy (funny character in the comic strip. He is sitting beneath a tree, gazing at the moon, and says, “I’ve been here and I’ve been there. I’ve been up and I’ve been down. I’ve been in and I’ve been out. I’ve been around and I’ve been about. But not once, not even once, have I ever been ‘where it’s at’!”


Every day I see people who are feeling controlled. A recent survey indicates that people with emotional problems are 144 percent more likely to have automobile accidents than those who are emotionally stable. An alarming factor revealed by this study is that one out of every five victims of fatal accidents had a quarrel within six hours before his or her accident.

It is improbable that a person with a bad attitude can continuously be a success.


Norman Vincent Peale relates this story in his book, Power of the Plus Factor: “Once walking through the twisted little streets of Kowloon in Hong Kong, I came upon a tattoo studio. In the window were displayed samples of the tattoos available. On the chest or arms you could have tattooed an anchor or flag or – mermaid or whatever. But what struck me with force were three words that could be tattooed on one’s flesh, Born to lose.

“I entered the shop in astonishment and, pointing to those words, asked the Chinese tattoo artist, ‘Does anyone really have that terrible phrase, Born to lose, tattooed on his body?’

“He replied, ‘Yes, sometimes.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘I just can’t believe that anyone in his right mind would do that.’

“The Chinese man simply tapped his forehead and in broken English said, ‘Before tattoo on body, tattoo on mind.’ “Once our minds are “tattooed” with negative thinking, our chances for long-term success diminish. We cannot continue to function in a manner that we do not truly believe about ourselves. Often I see people sabotage themselves because of wrong thinking.


The sports world has always appreciated Arnold Palmer. The members of “Arnie’s army” can still be counted among young and old. This great golfer never flaunted his success. Although he has won hundreds of trophies and awards, the only trophy in his office is a battered little cup that he got for his first professional win at the Canadian Open in 1955. In addition to the cup, he has a lone framed plaque on the wall. The plaque tells you why he has been successful on and off the golf course. It reads:

If you think you are beaten, you are.

If you think you dare not, you don’t.

If you’d like to win but think you can’t,

It’s almost certain you won’t.

Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man,

But sooner or later, the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.

What is the difference between a golfer who wins one golf tournament and an Arnold Palmer? Is it ability? Lucky breaks? Absolutely not! When an average of less than two strokes per tournament separates the top twenty-five golfers in the world, the difference has to be something more than ability.

It’s the attitude that makes the difference. People with negative thinking may start well, have a few good days, and win a match. But sooner or later (it’s usually sooner), their attitudes will pull them down.


We are responsible for our attitudes.

Our destinies in life will never be determined by our complaining spirits or high expectations. Life is full of surprises and the adjustment of our attitudes is a lifelong project.

The pessimist complains about the wind.

The optimist expects it to change.

The leader adjusts the sails

John Maxwell’s father, Melvin Maxwell, has always been his hero. He is a leader’s leader. One of his strengths is his positive attitude. Recently John’s Mother and Father spent some time with his family. As his Dad opened his briefcase, John noticed a couple of motivational attitude books, and said:

“Dad, you’re seventy years old. You’ve always had a great attitude. Are you still reading that stuff?”

His father looked him in the eye and said, “Son, I have to keep working on my thought life. I am responsible to have a great attitude and to maintain it. My attitude does not run on automatic.”

Wow! That’s a lesson for all of us. We choose what attitudes we have right now. And it’s a continuing choice. The large number of adults is amazing who fail to take responsibility for their attitudes. If they’re grumpy and someone asks why, they’ll say, “I got up on the wrong side of the bed.” When failure begins to plague their lives, they’ll say, “I was born on the wrong side of the tracks.” When life begins to flatten out and others in the family are still climbing, they’ll say, “Well, I was in the wrong birth order in my family.” When their marriages fail, they believe they married the wrong person. When someone else gets a promotion they wanted, it’s because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Do you notice something? They are blaming everyone else for their problems.

The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.

An advisor to President Lincoln suggested a certain candidate for the Lincoln cabinet. But Lincoln refused, saying, “I don’t like the man’s face.”

“But, sir, he can’t be responsible for his face,” insisted the advisor.

“Every man over forty is responsible for his face,” replied Lincoln, and the subject was dropped. No matter what you think about your attitude, it shows on your face!

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Misery is an option.” I believe it! So does the daughter of a woman I heard about. The woman and her daughter went Christmas shopping together. The crowds were awful. The woman had to skip lunch because she was on a tight schedule. She became tired and hungry, and her feet were hurting. She was more than a little irritable.

As they left the last store, she asked her daughter, “Did you see the nasty look that salesman gave me?”

The daughter answered, “He didn’t give it to you, Mom. You had it when you went in.”

We cannot choose how many years we will live, but we can choose how much life those years will have.

We cannot control the beauty of our face, but we can control the expression on it.

We cannot control life’s difficult moments, but we can choose to make life less difficult.

We cannot control the negative atmosphere of the world, but we can control the atmosphere of our minds.

Too often, we try to choose and control things we cannot.

Too seldom, we choose to control what we can . . . our attitude.

It’s not what happens to me that matters but what happens in me.

Hugh Downs says that a happy person is not a person with a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes. Too many people believe that happiness is a condition. When things are going great, they’re happy. When things are going bad, they’re sad. Some people have what I call “destination disease.” They think that happiness can be found in a position or a place. Others have what I call “someone sickness.” They think happiness results from knowing or being with a particular person.

I am impressed with the philosophy of the following statement:

“God chooses what we go through. We choose how we go through it.” It describes Viktor Frank’s attitude as he was terribly mistreated in a Nazi concentration camp. His words to his persecutors have been an inspiration to millions of people. He said, “The one thing you cannot take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, under stood the importance of choosing a right attitude even in wrong situations. She was never known to hold a grudge against anyone. One time a friend recalled to her a cruel thing that had happened to her some years previously, but Clara seemed not to remember the incident.

“Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?” the friend asked.

“No,” Clara answered calmly. “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”

Many times people who have suffered adverse situations in their lives become bitter and angry. Over time, their lives will be negative and hardened toward others. The tendency for them is to point back to a difficult time and say, “That incident ruined my life.” What they do not realize is that the incident called for an attitude decision—a response. Their wrong attitude choice, not the condition, ruined their lives.

  1. S. Lewis said, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the control part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, you are slowly turning this control thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish one.”

The leader’s attitude helps determine the attitudes of the followers.

Leadership is influence. People catch our attitudes just like they catch our colds—by getting close to us. One of the most gripping thoughts to ever enter my mind centers on my influence as a leader. It is important that I possess a great attitude, not only for my own success, but also for the benefit of others. My responsibilities as a leader must always be viewed in light of the many, not just myself.

Dr. Frank Crane reminds us that a ball rebounds from the wall with precisely the force with which it was thrown against the wall. There is a law in physics to the effect that action is equal to reaction. That law is also true in the realm of influence. In fact, its effects multiply with a leader’s influence. The action of a leader multiplies in reaction because there are several followers. To a smile given, many smiles return. Anger unleashed toward others results in much anger returned from many. There are few actual victims of fate. The generous are helped and the stingy are shunned.

Remember the four-minute mile? People had been trying to achieve it since the days of the ancient Greeks. In fact, folklore has it that the Greeks had lions chase the runners, thinking that would make them run faster. They also tried drinking tiger’s milk—not the stuff you get down at the health food store, but the real thing. Nothing they tried worked. So they decided it was impossible for a person to run a mile in four minutes or less. And for over a thousand years everyone believed it. Our bone structure is all wrong. Wind resistance is too great. We have inadequate lung power. There were a million reasons.

Then one man, one single human being, proved that the doctors, the trainers, the athletes, and the millions of runners before him, who tried and failed, were all wrong. And, miracle of miracles, the year after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile; thirty- seven other runners broke the four-minute mile. The year after that three hundred runners broke the four-minute mile. And a few years ago in a single race in New York, thirteen out of thirteen runners broke the four-minute mile. In other words, a few decades ago the runner who finished dead last in the New York race would have been regarded as having accomplished the impossible.

What happened? There were no great breakthroughs in training. No one discovered how to control wind resistance. Human bone structure and physiology didn’t suddenly improve. But human attitudes did.

You can accomplish your goals, if you set them. Who says you’re not tougher, smarter, better, harder-working, more able than your competition? It does not matter if they say you can’t do it. What matters, the only thing that matters, is if you say it.

Until Roger Bannister came along, we all believed the experts. And “the experts” continue to keep others from reaching their potential. Why? Because experts have influence. I believe that a leader’s attitude is caught by his followers more quickly than his actions. An attitude is reflected by others even when they don’t follow the action. An attitude can be expressed without a word being spoken.

The effect of a leader’s attitude on others is the main reason for the importance of considering a candidate’s attitude when hiring executives. Practicing psychologists list five areas needing significant appraisal when employees are being considered for executive promotion: ambition; attitudes toward policy; attitudes toward colleagues; supervisory skills; and attitudes toward excessive demands on time and energy. A candidate who is out of balance in one or more of these areas would be likely to project a negative attitude and, therefore, prove to be a poor leader.

Take a moment and list the negative attitudes you possess that are influencing others right now.


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