Winners: A book review by Bob Morris

Winners: And How They Succeed
Alastair Campbell
Pegasus Books Ltd (2015)

What we can learn from winners’ mindsets as well as from their modus operandi

Alistair Campbell carefully organized and then presents his material within four Parts. To his substantial credit, he anchors his insights in real-world human experiences in which various “winners” demonstrate, indeed personify the mindsets and modus operandi to which the title of my brief commentary refers.

Several of the winners are familiar. They include (in alpha order) Jeff Bezos, Bono, Tom Brady, Warren Buffett, Nadia Comaneci, Ariana Huffington, Michael Jordan, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Spacey, Anna Wintour, and Tiger Woods. Many of the other winners are unfamiliar, at least to me until reading about them. However different the featured winners may be in most respects, all of them share certain defining characteristics that Campbell examines.

What do these winners defeat? With rare exception, they have faced and overcome challenges that almost everyone encounters at one time or another. At least temporarily, they felt self-doubt and disappointment after setbacks, for example, but then they bounced back, guided and informed by the lessons they learned. Winners are persistent. They have courage that overcomes – rather than eliminates — fear and self-doubt.

Tiger Woods never competed against other golfers. Rather, he competed against the exceptionally high standards he set for himself. For Woods and countless other peak performers, “losing” is making anything less than a best effort. They raise the stakes over time to account for their continuous improvement.

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, we have a Farmer’s Market at which a few merchants offer fresh slices of fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts from the book to suggest the thrust and flavor of Campbell’s narrative:

o To readers of the American edition: “Your love of winners is good for the American soul, and your future. So this [book] is a celebration of winners and a study in their mindsets and modus operandi and how we can learn from them. I should warn you that it is not a book about happiness. Indeed, there are a few tortured souls in here. But that is what partly gives them their special hyper achieving qualities, which they can put to greater use in their chosen field.” (Page iii)

o On Angela Merkel: “In Great by Choice, the renowned author on management [Jim Collins] describes as ‘an entrenched myth’ the idea that successful leaders are always risk-seeking visionaries. ‘Actually, the best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future. They observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon proven foundations.’ You only need to see the way Merkel behaved during the eurozone crisis, putting the long term ahead of the short term, whatever the c criticism, and unpopularity this approach provoked, to appreciate the thoughtful concentration that goes into her decision-making.” (Page 47)

Note: Merkel attended the University of Leipzig, where she studied physics from 1973 to 1978, earning her doctorate in 1978. She then worked at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof from 1978 to 1990.

o On Carol Dweck’s concept of the growth mindset: “The fixed mindset avoids challenge, gives up, ignores criticism, feels threatened by others’ success, fails to fulfill potential. The growth mindset embraces challenge, seeks out obstacles, learns from criticism and failure and other people’s success, and is always looking for more achieve.” When talking with peak performers in sports, “the same words and phrases keep coming up: obsessive, obsessed, driven, attention to detail alongside their vision of success, but it is the obsessive focus and attention to detail alongside that vision that puts them into the super-elite league.” (Page 179)

o On Richard Branson: “Although Branson is second to none in having big, bold ideas, he is the first to admit that he needs others to turn them into reality…So his boldness in aviation came not at the beginning but at the end of a mental process. He had an intuitive idea. Then he sought to find the data that would allow him to form and impression of the way things were, pose any relevant questions, and then begin to imagine how things might be done better — how he might innovate, and build the team to do it. It was only at this point that boldness entered the equation.” (Page 230)

o On Warren Buffett: “At my age I can’t change my habits. I’m stuck. But you will have the habits twenty years from now that you decide to put into practice today. So I suggest that you look at the behavior you admire in others and make those your habits, and look at what you find reprehensible in others and decide those are the things you are not going to do. If you do that, you’ll discover that you convert all of your horsepower into output.” (Page 406)

Note: Buffett seems to be channeling two memorable quotations. First, from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And then, from Samuel Johnson: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

There are valuable lessons to be learned from those featured in this book. These are among Alastair Campbell’s concluding thoughts: “Indeed, running through this whole book, I hope, is the notion that whatever walk of life we are in, we can learn from others…I think the most consistent lesson of all from those I have met is this: however good you are, you can always do better…So here is another key lesson: either winners [begin italics] are [end italics] a great team, or they [begin italics] have [end italics] a great team. Nobody in this book – from the Queen and Mandela down – has done it alone…Winners work hard…Winners make sacrifices…Winners don’t just take focus and concentration for granted. They work at it…Winners learn from mistakes…Winners do OST [i.e. determine Objective, Strategy, Tactics]…Winners innovate….”

The list continues for another page and a half in the final chapter, “The Art of Winning.” The last point? “Winners win because they have to.”

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