Success derives from the broader context that surrounds the players in a team. Individual players must cross a threshold of talent, whether that talent is a genius for comedy, natural athletic ability, or mental dexterity. But continuing success is not a matter of raw talent. Winning on the playing field is influenced heavily by what goes on off the field—the nature of the system to attract people, develop people, build bonds among team members, gather external support, and do all the other behind-the-scenes work, before and after each game, before and after each season. Powerful historical, economic, and organizational forces accumulate to shape the likelihood of winning the game.
Confidence is not just in people’s heads. There are certainly differences between individuals in character, mood, and interpretation of situations. The heroes of the Continental blackout victory seem to be positive, upbeat, optimistic people. But confidence is not an artificial mental construct, solely dependent on what people decide to believe; it reflects reasonable reactions to circumstances. People are caught in cycles, and they interpret events based on what they see happening, on how they are treated by others around them. Winning and losing are not just functions of the talents of the people individually, and they cannot be predicted by adding up individuals’ IQs or grade-point averages or years of advanced schooling. The momentum of the systems people are in shapes a culture that shapes perceptions that shapes the confidence to invest—or not.
One of my favorite corporate expressions describes people with high potential who are destined to gain the top positions. They are called “water walkers.” I first heard this expression years ago in the leadership development group of one of the world’s largest companies. Every company seemed to have its own term for high-potential employees, but “water walkers” resonated with me. Water walkers are the ones assumed to have extraordinary talent, enabling them to perform miracles (like walking on water). They are sure bets for success, so other people fall in line behind them, hoping to follow in their footsteps.
The identification of water walkers is well understood in many realms; Bill Clinton, for example, was described early in his career as a future American president. The characteristics and achievements of water walkers are the subject of long conversations, as other people seek to emulate them and companies seek to duplicate them. It is assumed that their talent alone is responsible for success.
However, I remember, at one meeting in New York, a discussion about whether some of the big corporation’s emerging leaders had become too arrogant. Suddenly there was a profound insight from a senior executive: “The problem with water walkers,” he said, “is that they forget that there are stones holding them up when they walk across the water.”
Every water walker needs a few stones. Rocks give people a solid place to stand. When supported by a firm foundation, people can indeed keep moving on a positive path, heading from victory to victory. When people can rely on themselves and one another to be accountable, to collaborate, and to take initiative, they can perform extraordinary feats. These lessons are relevant for leading teams, businesses, countries, and life.