“Accusing the times is but excusing ourselves.” — Thomas Fuller, 17th century English historical and religious writer

The late 19th century Irish playwright, critic, and social reformer, George Bernard Shaw, had a lot of useful things to say about personal effectiveness. A few of his comments have hung on my mirror or been posted in my day planner over the years. This one speaks to a core management-leadership choice we all have; “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”

Leaders are “unreasonable” enough to believe they can make a difference. Like thermostats, they try and set the temperature of their environment. Thermostat leaders work to define and create what could be, rather than just reflecting what is. Now if the furnace or air conditioner isn’t working or all the windows have been left open, a thermostat might not be able to change the room’s temperature. But it still tries.

The most useful and inspiring of Shaw’s comments on self-leadership to me was, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” Thermometer managers blame their circumstances for poor results. Their list of excuses include (but aren’t limited to); the economy, declining work ethic, competition, their business partner, their spouse, an uneven playing field, government, politicians, the bureaucracy, their organization’s culture, unreasonable customers, their boss, head office, the field, unions, management, shareholders, and so on.

Sure those circumstances are real. And, yes, they can have a negative impact on performance. But I have yet to find an industry, where there isn’t at least one leader who’s refused to be boxed in by the circumstances that had everyone else drifting down the “me-too” road. Or somewhere in every hopeless bureaucracy, there’s always a few leaders with little or no formal power who improve themselves and parts of the organization despite the odds stacked against them.

One of my favorite posters is an aerial view of a group of people trying to find their way through a neatly trimmed cedar hedge maze. And going right through the middle of the maze is a leader with a chain saw. As a gardener, the destruction makes me grimace. But the image of refusing to stumble around on the conventional path and play by the rules, is a powerful one.

A key rallying cry in The Achieve Group’s (my first consulting company) early years was “changing the rules of the game in the consulting and training business.” I tried very hard to provide thermostat leadership to myself and to fellow Achievers. During our most difficult times it was a real struggle to keep remembering that the hands we used to point our fingers at the economy, time of year, or each other, had three times as many fingers pointing back at the source of our circumstances.

To prove this point, I once charted our ten-year sales growth. The dips and surges correlated to things we had or hadn’t done with new products, marketing, internal training, repositioning the business, and so on. There was little correlation to the economy, competition, and other external factors. Of course, if we believed and behaved as if those factors determined our fate (thermometer management), they would have.