This interview originally appeared as a chapter in Bushido Business: The Fine Art of the Modern Professional, an anthology of in-depth conversations with top leadership experts st published in 2010 by Insight Publishing.
Dr. Armour, as a leadership coach, what strikes you about truly successful people?
More than anything else, I’m impressed with how much they enjoy what they do. They have a passion for it. They relish it. Their measure of success is not merely the final outcome of the game. For them success is equally the joy of the game itself.
Wherever you find truly successful people, you also find this joy of the game, whether in business, in sports, in the military, in non-profits, in research, in volunteer work — in any human endeavor. It’s a universal reality.
Unfortunately, I personally overlooked this reality for many years. I failed to recognize how truly important it is. As a result, I viewed success as simply a matter of setting goals and achieving them.
Today I put a different frame around success. I still talk about goals and plans and achievement, to be sure. But I also invite my clients to think of success as a game that they are playing. Then I help them tap into the joy of the game. If they can’t discover joy in what they are doing, then they are probably in the wrong game.
Why is the joy of the game so important?
Let me answer by relating a story that I first read 40 years ago. The story took place in the mid-1950s, at an international conference of socialist writers in Eastern Europe. They met to explore ways to use their craft to advance Marxism.
For several days the conference extolled the virtues of ordinary people who gave their lives for communism. Speakers repeatedly urged the writers to celebrate such stories in their novels and drama, since (in the judgment of the speakers) only a life given for the world revolution was truly heroic.
Finally, near the end of the conference, Andre Malraux from France took the podium. Instead of a lengthy address, he simply asked a question and sat down. He said, "But comrades, what shall I say to the widow whose husband was just run over by a trolley car?"
At first glance, the significance of his question might be missed. But what he was really asking was this: Is there any value to the life of someone who dies ingloriously and for something less than a noble cause?
Now, let’s take that question out of context and apply it to the topic of success. Is someone unsuccessful simply because they die short of achieving their dream? Has success eluded someone who is left paralyzed from a car wreck well before they reach the pinnacle of their professional ambition?
No, not if they enjoyed the game. The joy of the game is itself success. So long as we think of success as "out there in the future," achieved only when we reach our desired outcome, anything short of that outcome becomes failure. When we expand our understanding of success to include the joy of the game, we empower ourselves to enjoy a sense of success today, even if we never achieve our ultimate goal.
For some, indeed, the joy of the game will inevitably be their primary experience of success. Think of the countless people who give their lives to dreams or causes that cannot be attained in their lifetime. They will never experience their desired outcome firsthand. Yet, when we see the fulfillment and satisfaction that they derive from their effort, it’s hard to call them unsuccessful.
So, the joy of the game offers fulfillment and satisfaction. What else does it provide?
The joy of the game adds energy and motivation. It optimizes our creative imagination. It serves to inspire others who become caught up in our enthusiasm and passion. This energy, motivation, creativity, and inspiration then feed back into the process and serve as a catalyst for even greater achievement.
The joy of the game is especially important for leaders. They shape the emotional tone of the culture around them. When they are excited about the game, their excitement becomes contagious.
I’m not talking about "rah-rah excitement" necessarily. Many leaders are not cut out for that style of communication. But if leaders truly enjoy the game, the joy will show through in their manner, their actions, their dedication, and their words. And when joy shows through, quiet enthusiasm can be just as contagious as the more extroverted variety.
The joy of the game also helps leaders maintain resilience, the ability to bounce back quickly, whatever the setback. When things go awry, when the unthinkable occurs, people aren’t always sure how to react. They look to their leader for cues. They watch how the leader copes with this demoralizing development. If the leader acknowledges disappointment, but rapidly puts it aside and presses on with determination, the group typically follows suit.
How, then, do leaders tap into such depth of resilience, especially at pivotal moments when survival is in the balance? From my observation, they do so most readily when they possess a deep and abiding joy of the game. The joy of the game keeps them going while they fashion new strategies to achieve their ultimate goal.
Through our entire conversation you’ve been drawing on the metaphor of success as a game. Why this metaphor?
Metaphors provide a simple structure for understanding a subject. They let us see things in a new light. In this regard, the metaphor of "success as a game" is particularly productive, whether our comparison is to an athletic game, a card game, or a game of Monopoly.
To begin with, pursuing success has all the elements of a game. It’s competitive. It plays out within a framework of rules, ethics, and etiquette. It has specific measures of achievement. And like a game, it ought to be fun.
Second, pursuing success makes the same demands on you personally that a game requires. You must hone your skills constantly. You must deliver peak performance at "show time." You must approach the game with a strategy, a game plan. And you must be adaptable, ready to adjust adroitly to any unexpected turn.
Now, if we are going to think of success as a game, we need to think of it as a serious game. The pitfall in my metaphor is that it might seem to treat success frivolously. After all, in the grander scheme of things we don’t take games — even professional athletics or Olympic competition — all that seriously. We may get "worked up" about them from time to time. But life is filled with far more important things than mere games.
Still, some games are far more serious than others. For professional athletes, the game is serious business. For the Pentagon, war games are serious business. Likewise, success, even when viewed as a game, is serious business.
Because no metaphor is perfect, I’m willing to live with flaws in this one, because the game metaphor is really quite useful. Since games are so familiar to all of us, we have a sixth sense of what it takes to master a game and excel at it. As it turns out, the same elements that go into championship mastery of a game can serve as a template for creating professional success.
How do you define success?
To me success means achieving or exceeding desired outcomes while remaining true to core values and while finding joy in the game. If we violate core values, we may achieve the desired outcome, but the result is only achievement, not true success. Why? Because achievement at the expense of core values leaves us feeling empty. It feels like something less than genuine success. To experience the full, rich reward of success, both performance and integrity are necessary.
Similarly, when there is no joy in the game, attaining our goal brings celebration, but not necessarily fulfillment. The celebration may momentarily mask our lack of fulfillment. But celebration is no substitute for joy. Once the celebration wears off, the absence of joy creates a gnawing sense that something vital was missing from the endeavor.
So, what should someone do who is playing the game well, but without much joy?
That’s a very common situation. Just this morning I sat with a man who is at the top of his game professionally speaking, routinely earning a seven-digit income. But he talked endlessly about the drudgery of going to work. He clearly is in the wrong game.
Before we change games, however, we should first look for ways to experience joy in the game we are already playing. I begin this process with clients by asking whether they have had joy in the game in the past. In other words, has the joy of the game simply been lost? Or has it never existed at all?
Where joy was once present, we perform a contrast analysis. How are things different now from the days when joy was present? Has the environment changed? Has the depth of challenge changed? Do current patterns of responsibility provide inadequate opportunity for the activities that once brought joy? What is different? After we thoroughly explore this line of inquiry, we then ask whether it’s possible to reincorporate any of these joy-giving qualities into the game at present. Often it is.
The strategy, I should add, is not necessarily a mere return to the activities that once brought joy. Instead, it may mean finding new activities that afford a benefit — emotionally, psychologically, or motivationally — that is similar to the benefit that the former activities produced. Let me illustrate.
One executive lamented that he was too senior now to do the things that once brought him joy. "Give me an example," I asked. He related how he had found great joy in his early career by making presentations and delivering trainings to up-and-coming employees. But neither his current responsibilities nor his schedule allowed such pursuits anymore.
However, after we plumbed deeper into his past experience, we discovered that it was not presentations and trainings per se that had brought him joy. Rather, it was the "aha moment" when lights turned on in the minds of his audience. So, we started looking for ways in which he could provide "aha moments" to people in his current role. He found it by creating a mentoring group that meets twice a month over a brown-bag lunch, a time-slot that lets him slipstream this new commitment into a hectic schedule.