Winning Moves: Success
at Every Stage of the Game

An Interview with Dr. Mike Armour

(Part 2 of 3)

Part 1   Part 3


Do you find some people who have never had joy in the game?


Oh, absolutely. I can think of people who chose an unfulfilling career path because of parental or peer pressure. Or perhaps they embarked on their career, only to discover that it is not at all what they originally imagined. Then there are people who chose the right career for themselves, but ended up in a company with a dysfunctional culture. There can be many reasons why people have never found joy in the game.

Does that mean that they should change games? Not necessarily. First, they should determine whether joy is possible in the present game. And if so, is the joy sufficiently deep to motivate them to stay in the game.


How would you help them find joy in the game?


There are two paths that I explore with people seeking joy in the game. Both paths are helpful, whether the quest is to recover lost joy or to discover joy for the first time.

We embark on the first path with this question:

Looking back over your life, when have you felt most alive? What were you doing? What were you experiencing?

We consider that question at length, then follow with a second one:

What do you enjoy so much that, when engaged in it, you lose all track of time?

The answers to these questions help people identify activities and experiences that evoke genuine joy for them. We then look for ways to incorporate such moments into their game. We restructure their daily routine to allow more time for joy-evoking experiences.

A second path to finding joy is to integrate daily activities and responsibilities into a higher, more invigorating purpose. Let me offer an example. A former client is a mortgage banker, one of the best in the industry. He excels at making loans. What ultimately motivates him, however, is not setting new benchmarks for the number of loans he closes. Instead, he is motivated by a dream of making his community healthy and wholesome. In his view healthy communities require strong families. And strong families need affordable places to live.

Consequently, he sees himself not so much as writing loans, but as building a healthy community. How? By helping families have homes in which to thrive. With each loan his joy is renewed, because another family now has an affordable place to live. Thus, he has just made the community stronger.

To stay true to these same values, he shuns risky loans. Putting families in risky loans would violate his commitment to promote thriving families and a strong community. As a result, his balance sheet is never burdened with risky loans. When the mortgage industry collapsed in 2008 and 2009, he escaped largely unscathed. In fact, his company continued to flourish through the entire downturn because he had so few losses on his books.

Now, nothing is more seemingly mundane and materialistic than making a mortgage loan. But he has found a way to recast the mundane into a higher purpose. Serving this higher purpose then brings joy to his game. The key to this approach is tying the daily routine to a higher purpose that indeed evokes joy. If my friend did not have such a passionate desire to build a stronger community, loan-making would trigger little if any joy.

And while we are on this topic of higher purpose, let me make a side-comment. There is a special case of lost joy that is common among people at mid-career and beyond. For many of them, joy will not be recaptured by merely re-engaging the things that once gave them joy.

The reason is simple. What brought them joy in the past may no longer have the power to do so, at least not to the extent that it did previously. As we grow older, the very essence of what gives us satisfaction and joy is subject to wholesale change. Bob Buford, the founder of Leadership Network, has detailed this life-transition in his book Game Plan.

We begin our career, he says, wanting to make our mark, to make an impact that brings us recognition and reward. But over time, making a mark loses its grip on many of us. It quits being a compelling motivational force. What drives us now is making a difference, making a significant contribution to the world around us, in a word, leaving a legacy. This move from making a mark to making a difference reflects sweeping change in our view of our higher purpose.

For people in this situation, it’s unlikely that joy is to be recovered by simply turning again to what once made for joy. To borrow from Bob’s title, they have to develop an entirely new game plan. His book and his follow-on volume Half-Time are excellent step-by-step guides for making this type of transition to a new game.


I take it, then, that you do not hesitate to recommend that people change games?


For some people changing games is the appropriate thing to do. But I never draw this conclusion hurriedly. I only move to it after we have exhausted the possibilities for discovering or recovering joy in their present game. Still, in the final analysis many people are simply in the wrong game. Whatever success they may have in the game will never be as fulfilling as they desire.

Fortunately, there has never been a time when it has been as easy to change games as it is today. It’s one of the great blessings of the modern world. Changing games is rarely easy. But changing from the wrong game to the right game is extremely rewarding.


Before we leave this topic, could we revisit your example of the mortgage banker? His story seems to highlight something you spoke of earlier, namely, maintaining integrity and staying true to core values as vital elements of success. Would you elaborate on this further?


Well, let’s start with the title of the book that this interviw is to appear in: Bushido Business. These words themselves underscore the importance of core values. Bushido was the code of conduct for Japan’s samurai warriors. It built on seven key virtues, identified by most authors as moral uprightness, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, and chivalry. We think of the samurai as fierce, relentless warriors. But behind their training was this sense of values that determined whether their achievements equated with true success.

Interestingly, these same virtues are celebrated universally. With the possible exception of chivalry, these core values are held up as ideals in developed cultures around the globe. And this is true as far back as written records exist. It’s almost as though the human race is wired to define achievement as true success only if we play within these rules.

In addition, many societies (including the samurai) have called these qualities virtues, not values. This is a subtle, but vital distinction. If I ask you to describe your values, you will tell me what you believe in. But if someone describes your virtues, they will tell me how you behave.

Put simply, we espouse values, but we embody virtues. We can think of virtues as values held dearly enough that we translate them into habitual action. As one friend puts it, "virtues are values with legs."

That’s a great description, given the root meaning of "virtue." The word comes from virtus, the Latin word for "strength." Virtus, in turn, derives from vir, meaning "a man." To the Romans, virtue was what made a man a man. In their judgment a man without virtue was a man without strength.

Today virtues are a rare topic in management and leadership literature. And that’s unfortunate. If nature has indeed wired us to pursue bushido-like virtues as our calling, then we can see why success, attained at the expense of core values, leaves us feeling unfulfilled and hollow.


Does the bushido code omit virtues that are vital for professional success?


I think so. For one thing, it doesn’t include self-discipline. In the days of the samurai, discipline was imposed on you by the very nature of a top-down feudal hierarchy. Someone was always there to tell you what to do. Today, with our modern individualism, self-discipline and self-management are essential to enduring success.

Another missing concept is humility. The omission is not surprising. Humility has rarely been respected as a virtue, with the possible exception of cultures influenced by Christianity. But even there, humility has received more lip service than genuine commitment.

In fact, cultures have generally held humility in disdain. Take the Greeks and Romans, for example. In the ancient world no one wrote more extensively about virtue and ethics than they did. Yet, nowhere do their writings even mention humility as worthy of praise. That’s because the Greeks and Romans thought of "a real man" as someone who settled scores on his own terms, as someone who took revenge on his enemies in the manner of Ulysses in The Odyssey. In their worldview, there was not much room for humility.

More recently, however, Jim Collins has identified humility as one of the most telling hallmarks of those highly successful CEOs whose work he chronicled in his book Good to Great. Because of his influence, humility is currently part of the management conversation. But thus far there seems to be much more talk about humility than genuine commitment to it as a virtue.


Historically, you’ve noted, cultures have not generally embraced humility as a virtue to be pursued. If that’s the case, why do you consider it so important?


Because we live in a very complex world in which lasting success depends on our ability to build trust on a broad scale. And nothing makes it easier for people to trust us than to be known for integrity and humility.

Or to put it another way, we don’t tend to trust arrogant people any more than we trust dishonest ones. Nor do we trust people who are self-centered or self-serving. Humility serves as an antidote to poisonous attitudes that unduly elevate preoccupation with self.

I deal with this at length in my book Leadership and the Power of Trust. There I point out that today, more so than ever, sustained success depends on continuous learning. In our fast-paced, ever more intricate marketplace, humility reminds us daily that we need to be perpetual learners. Humility never lets us assume that we know it all. Or that we are even close to knowing it all.

In addition, humility allows us to empower strong teams, because we are not threatened when others get credit for what was accomplished. And humility allows us to treat every individual as a person of genuine worth. Humility also allows us to heal wounded relationships and make amends by acknowledging our mistakes and working to rectify them. By building strong teams, treating people honorably, and keeping friendships in good repair, we maximize the number of healthy relationships which we are there to support us as we pursue success.

This is not to say that arrogant, self-serving people never succeed. They do, all the time (at least according to popular definitions of success). The same is true of people who abandon their principles in pursuit of success. But as I define the word, these are examples of achievement, not genuine success.

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