Posts by: Denis McLaughlin

Denis McLaughlin is the author of the best-selling book The Leadership GPS, which reached Number 1 in Amazon’s Job Markets and Advice, and Top 25 in Team Management and Leadership. Featured in John Maxwell’s “What I am reading, Spring 2013 edition,” The Leadership GPS was highlighted by Kirkus Reviews as “An engaging, unusual business book full of practical advice,” and “Its leadership lessons are on point and lavishly illustrated with stories of great leaders past and present, from Michelangelo to Steve Jobs.” Of the author, Kirkus Reviews says that “McLaughlin’s storytelling format brings each stage of leadership to life.” Denis has held executive leadership positions at several leading banks over the last twenty-five years. Along with his executive responsibilities, he also speaks, teaches, and mentors on leadership both in the workplace and externally. Denis was trained and mentored by some of the most well-known leadership experts today including John Maxwell – International leadership authority, Paul Martinelli – President of The John Maxwell Team, and Bob Burg – Best-selling author and expert on influence and success.

When it all becomes clear

We all have a moment, or moments, when something we knew only by rote memorization becomes something more.  We move from repeating what the answer is, to understanding why the answer is.  This is when the light bulb is turned on and what was once hidden becomes visible.  When that happens, it expands your ability to use your understanding of why, to make the what happen.

Quantum Mechanics in Chemistry

The eminent scientist Linus Pauling earned his Ph.D. in 1925 and the following year he accepted a fellowship to study under several leading physicists who were pioneering Quantum Mechanics – Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and Arnold Sommerfeld.  Here, according to Sam Kean in his book The Disappearing Spoon, “Pauling figured out how quantum mechanics governs the chemical bonds between atoms.”  It was for this that one of Pauling’s colleagues noted that, “Chemistry could now be understood rather than being memorized.”

From this point forward, the ability to use the chemical properties improved dramatically.  Pauling himself worked on projects that produced synthetic antibodies and substitutes for blood plasma and many others on his way to receiving two Nobel prizes.

It wasn’t knowing only that chemicals reacted in a certain way, it was using Quantum Mechanics to explain why they reacted this way at the molecular level that allowed this to happen.

Human Flight

In 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institute.  He explained how he had studied the work of early aeronautical scientists and asked for all papers that the Smithsonian had published on human flight, “I wish to avail myself of all that is already known…” Wilbur and his brother Orville studied all the scientific books that they received, as well as one book titled Empire of the Air, by Louis Pierre Moullard which discussed the possibility of achieving human flight by studying the birds in flight.   The Wright Brothers observed the flight of birds looking for information on how they accomplished this feat.  “Learning the secret of flight from a bird, was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.” – Orville Wright

Wilbur then began communicating with and questioning the most well-known aeronautical engineers of the time including Octave Chanute, who gave the brothers the idea to perform their experiments on the coasts of the Carolinas (where their famous Kitty Hawk flight took place).  In a letter Wilbur wrote to Chanute, he outlined what he and Orville now understood about flight, “What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.”  And in a speech to the Western Society of Engineers, Wilbur shared that, “The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight.  We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it.”

We all know the rest of the story here.  The Wright Brothers did indeed build a plane and learn how to fly that plane which started the aeronautical revolution that let Elon Musk launch the latest Space X rocket last month.

It wasn’t knowing only that birds can, it was discovering why birds fly that allowed this to happen.


The takeaway for us is the knowledge of why things happen is out there for the asking.  Don’t settle for learning that something happens in a certain way, discover why it happens in a certain way and you will achieve great things – When it all becomes clear.

“Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years, just so we could discover them!” – Orville Wright

Don’t take the simple answer, take the simplest answer.

If you want the right answer to a given question or hypothesis, it is may not be the first one you come upon.  It is likely not one which is just simple, but it should be the simplest.  This means that in order to select the right answer you may need to look more than once to see all the potential answers clearly so that the simplest can be chosen.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein 

The most well-known version of taking the simplest answer is called Occam’s razor.  Named after William of Occam, a 14th century philosopher, it states generally that within a number of explanations for a set of facts, the one that is the simplest is preferred.  Occam’s razor is also known as “lex parsimoniae,” Latin for the Law of Parsimony. This idea is not just a philosophical notion.  In science, the Parsimony Principle says choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence. In statistical modeling, a Parsimonious Model is said to use the simplest model with the least assumptions and variables but with the greatest explanatory power.

Finding the simplest answer among the possible answers is good advice for every choice we make.  Here are three simple steps to find the simplest answer:

Expand your choices. When facing the need to make a decision, ensure that the relevant facts are known.  Don’t make decisions based on limited knowledge which will lead to the simple answer.  Instead, dig deeper to see what may not be immediately evident.  Challenge the limited assumptions.  Ask questions like, “If this assumption isn’t right, what else could be driving this outcome?”

Ask the experts.  It’s likely that there is someone who has at least attempted to solve the same question, if not one that is similar.  If you can, ask them personally to share their views.  If not personally, then read or listen to, what they have said on the topic.

Examine your choices. Now that there are multiple possible answers, they need to be analyzed to further understand the impact of each one being the right.   Challenge the many assumptions, “If this is true in this situation, what does that mean in another situation?”  Or, “If this is true at this point, what must also be true to support it?”

From these questions, the assumptions needed to support each answer will be known and can be compared.

Extract your one choice.  At this point, there are several potential answers with multiple assumptions for each.  Challenge the many answers, “What do I have to believe in order for this answer to be the one I choose?”

From this exercise you will settle in on the one that has the simplest assumptions.   And that is your answer.


When is the right time to have a vision?

Success is accelerated in every situation when you’re operating with a vision of where you want to go.

Let’s talk about setting a vision and achieving that vision:

Setting the vision.  Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are heading in a direction.  When you arrive, is it where you want to be? This is why you have a vision  – Decide where you want to go before you start.

“You have to know where you are going. If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll never know if you’ve arrived.”– Denis G. McLaughlin

How do you know what direction to head in?   No one can tell you what direction to head in – that decision is yours to make.  Whether you are thinking of your personal life, your professional career, your team or your company this is on you.  Jack Welch held nothing back when he said this about vision, “Good leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.

You are the leader of your success.  You are the leader of your team and company’s success.  This is why you must have a vision for what success looks like.

Achieving the vision.  Setting the vision is an important step, but it is only one step.  Once you decide what success looks like and have a clear picture in your mind, and on the minds of everyone involved with the vision, you need a plan for how to achieve this vision.

“Achieving your vision will be the culmination of many small achievements.” – Denis G. McLaughlin

The best way to build your plan is from the vision backward.  Start with what you want to accomplish and settle on the big successes that need to occur in order for that to happen.  Then move to closer to today and more granular goals.  Finally boil it down to what you should be doing on Monday morning. Then do it.

Recognize that the farther away from today you get, the more likely that your plan will change.  That’s ok.  Stay focused on the vision and adjust and adapt your plan based on the current circumstances.

“One of the best paradoxes of leadership is a leader’s need to be both stubborn and open-minded. A leader must insist on sticking to the vision and stay on course to the destination. But he must be open-minded during the process.” –  Simon Sinek

Let success be your calling card

If you want to make a difference in the world, you will need to set yourself apart, and be known and admired by the people you intend to help.  The best way to do that is to let success be your calling card.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, calling cards were routinely used in social settings. These could be used for an introduction, or to communicate congratulations or condolences. There was strict etiquette on their use and format.  Cards were delivered to the recipient by placing the card on a tray at the entrance of the home. The purpose of the card could be indicated by folding the card at a corner and by writing certain initials on the card. These could also indicate the type of response that was requested.

At this time calling cards were very specific and meant to provide clarity for the recipient to introduce the deliverer, communicate the purpose of the visit, and set any expectations for a response. Today we might use the personal greeting card or the business card, but we are more likely to use email, text, or other electronic forms of calling cards. While these are important methods to connect with people, they do not alone set apart the sender

If you want to make a difference in the world, you will need to set yourself apart, and be known and admired by the people you intend to help.  The best way to do that is to let success be your calling card.

Introduction. We have all been at events where someone is brought up on stage with words that include “here is someone who needs no introduction.”  That only happens when your success precedes the introduction and people already know you from your accomplishments.  You should strive for success which gives you that kind of name recognition. When your name is seen in an email, you want people to open it up just because it’s you.  This can be right where you are at work, in the community, and for some on the broader stage of recognition.  This will happen when you consistently achieve success.

Communication.  Name recognition is powerful, but even better is to communicate what you have successfully accomplished. Then not only do the very people want to help know your name, but they admire and respect you for your achievements.  They want to be connected with you and be part of your success.  

Expectation.  This is where it all comes together. It’s time to set expectations for what it takes to achieve what you have.  This is how you make a difference in the world, by helping others make full use of their abilities and achieve their success.  Through mentoring, coaching, training, speaking, and others means you have at your disposal, you share your story of success with everyone you can.

If you want to make a difference in the world, you will need to set yourself apart, and be known and admired by the people you intend to help.  The best way to do that is to let success be your calling card.

Why don’t we ask?

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  The same holds true for receiving what you need.  You will not receive what you don’t persistently ask for.

What is stopping us from obtaining the very things that will make us successful? 

We might get advice that will be different than what we want to hear. “There is nothing which we receive with so much reluctance as advice.” – Joseph Addison

We believe we already know all we need to know. “Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new.” – Og Mandino

There are many ways to ask. The most obvious is literally just asking someone who you believe has what you need.  But have you considered that if the goal of asking is to obtain what you need, then we could define asking in much broader terms.  If you need information then asking is reading a book.  If you need experience then asking is trying something new.  If you need to be more physically fit then asking is starting an exercise regimen. The act of asking is merely that which will bring you what you need.    

Don’t skimp – Ask for everything. You might as well ask for it all.  What is the ultimate you would like to receive? Ask for that.  You may not get everything you ask for, but why start with anything less than everything? Define all you need, then using our new definition of asking, find an action that can potentially deliver it.  Read books written by the best in the industry. Take on roles that will stretch you to your maximum.  Plan an exercise program that becomes part of your daily life, not just a short-term effort.

Asking is the beginning of receiving.  Make sure you don’t go to the ocean with a spoon. At least take a bucket so the kids won’t laugh at you.” – Jim Rohn

Be persistent – keep asking.  You may not receive everything you need.  In fact, you may not receive anything you need – when you first ask.  That doesn’t matter.  If what you need is important to you, then ask again.  Ask differently.  But don’t give up.

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.  My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur

The power of thinking

It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know that drives success.
Thinking, more than skill, drives what you can accomplish. Certainly, talent gives a person an advantage.  But that is just the start of the equation.  Talent alone will not drive consistent results.  That comes from knowing how to use the talent that you have.

There are only five golf players who have won all four of the modern majors during their career, called a career grand slam.  Gary Player is one of those.  Along with success in playing the game, he designed 325 golf courses around the world, and authored 36 books on golf.  His thought on what it takes to be successful in golf is summed up this way, “We create success or failure on the course primarily by our thoughts.”

Two of the other four players to win the career grand slam are Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. They share similar views on the importance of thinking over only skill.

“A lot of guys can go out and hit a golf ball, but they have no idea how to manage what they do with the ball.  I’ve won as many tournaments hitting the ball badly as I have hitting the ball well.” – Jack Nicklaus

“Golf is 20 percent talent and 80 percent management.” – Ben Hogan

It’s not just what you learn, it’s how you make it part of what you do that matters.  Reading a book, attending a conference, completing a course are all great ways to learn new material.  Unless you take away specific action items that you implement right away, these were just enjoyable past times.

Those that are the most successful decide on a small number of changes or enhancements to make in their process while the learning is fresh in their mind.

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” – John Locke

Be willing to change your thinking.  Not all learning is planned.  Sometimes you will learn the most during a time when things are not going right and your prior thoughts did not bring you success.  While your main focus will be on getting back on track, never waste an opportunity to gather new information and make it part of how you proceed the next time.

“Difficult times disrupt your conventional ways of thinking and push you to forge better habits of thought.” – Robin S. Sharma

Fix your sight on greatness

What is the ultimate success you could ever think of accomplishing?  In this success are you the best there ever was?  Knowing your ultimate success and setting your sight on being the best, that is how you will discover your greatness. 

Greatness is not something that can be achieved in a day, the steps to greatness are daily achievements. 

Daily Sacrifice. What are you willing to not do?  It takes sacrifice to achieve greatness.  If you try to be a little of everything than you won’t be a lot of anything.  There is a limited amount of time and you have to invest it in those things that matter most. Don’t chase after anything just because it looks good, save your efforts for those things that will make you great.  Great speakers don’t stay out late the night before an early morning presentation, they get a good night sleep. Great athletes don’t binge watch the latest television shows before a big game, they practice.  Great leaders don’t fill their to do list with endless projects, they prioritize. What should your daily sacrifice be?

“You can only become great at that thing you’re willing to sacrifice for.”  – Maya Angelou

Daily Effort. What are you willing to do?  Show up every day. Do the best you can at that moment with the task at hand using the tools and skills you have.  Consistent effort in everything, no matter what.   Do you want to earn your Bachelor’s degree, or Master’s degree?  Go to class, do the homework, study for the tests.  Do you want to play professional sports?  Give it your all in practice, workout, study the game. Do you want to be an executive leader? Stay current on the latest trends, set clear goals, invest in the development of your team. It’s what you do every day that matters.

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” –  Dwayne Johnson

Daily Impact.  What impact are you willing to have? Our days are filled with opportunities to make a difference.  It doesn’t have to be a monumental action. A smile, an encouraging word, a helping hand might be just what is needed.  Recognize that what you do every day is an example to anyone watching.  Are you demonstrating the actions that lead to greatness?  Your success is not yours alone.  Do you use your success to help others succeed?

“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.” –  Bob Marley

Success is a process – what will you do next?

Success is an elusive goal that’s fleeting and requires constant focus and effort.  Have we ever really “made it?”  By accomplishing the goals you set for yourself, you were successful.  But notice the word “were.” Success is a process of achievement that we must strive for on every effort.

In the book Grit – The Power of Passion of Perseverance Angela Duckworth discusses her research and findings on the psychology of human accomplishment.  In the formula below, Duckworth points out that while “talent” is important, “effort” appears twice in the equation. 

Talent + Effort = Skill.  Skill + Effort = Accomplishment.” – Angela Duckworth 

The process of success is made of three steps:  Do what you can – Learn more – Do the next thing. 

Do what you can.  Why aren’t we willing to do something if we can’t do everything?  It’s as if we believe that nothing worthwhile can come from what we offer unless we can’t offer the best there is.  Part of that is true but with a qualifier.  There is great value in what can offer, if it is the best we can do at the moment.

Don’t compare your best with that of anyone else, use your talent and skill to do the best you can right where you are. Recognizing when we do that, we will continue to improve and out best will get better. 

“Leave your ego at the door every morning, and just do some truly great work. Few things will make you feel better than a job brilliantly done.” – Robin S. Sharma

Learn more.  With every action, there is an opportunity to learn and improve in preparation for the next action.  No matter the result, whether it worked just as planned or not, take away something that you will do better the next time.

Invest in your growth: read a book, listen to a podcast, ask questions, practice, and keep a look out for ideas you can use.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” – Benjamin Franklin

Do the next thing.   Now that you have done your best and learned some more, it’s time to do your new best.  Strive to apply all that your talent, skill, and effort has brought to this effort, and the next, and the next… 

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” – Marie Curie

Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it.

If you get something you only wish for, will you be ready for it when it happens?  In the area of wishing, Jim Rohn says it best, “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” Great success doesn’t come easy, it comes from great effort. 


If you want to achieve your goals – don’t wish for it, plan for it, prepare for it, and work for it. 

Plan for it.  “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” – Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is known for his success in multiple styles of art. His paintings covered a blue period, rose period, African influence, cubism, surrealism, and realism.  His is also known for being able to create art in any style that was popular for a time.  Over 78 years he created 13,500 paintings among many other prints, illustrations and sculptures and his artwork sold for higher prices than any artist of his time.

Picasso was not chasing or inventing the most popular styles just to stay relevant, this was how he expressed himself, “Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should,” Picasso said.  He was able to re-invent himself over and over as a result of his plan for continuous learning, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Prepare for it  “It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.” – Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history winning three gold medals, a silver medal and two bronze medals in the long jump and heptathlon events.  She was voted the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.

While watching the 1976 Summer Olympics, Joyner-Kersee, then 14 years old, saw sprinter Evelyn Ashford and thought, “I want to be the Olympics. I didn’t know if that was going to happen. But I dedicated myself to see if it could be possible.”

She went on to win the National Junior Pentathlon championship four years in a row and excelled at many sports in high school including, track, basketball and volleyball.  In her junior year, she set the State high-school record for the women’s long jump.  While in college, Joyner-Kersee focused her training on preparing for the Olympic heptathlon event.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee gave this advice on preparing to achieve success: “Set short term realistic goals. Be consistent. Believe what is possible is probable. Never give up on yourself. Be receptive and open to people being honest with you.”

Work for it.  “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pele

Pele scored 1,281goals over a career that spanned 1,363 games.  He was member of the Brazilian international team that won three World Cups. He was voted the Football Player of the Century in 1999 by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics and was elected as the Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and Reuters News Agency.

At the age of 16 he began his professional career on the Santos FC and became the top scorer in the league.  He was called up to the Brazilian national team that year and scored his first international goal making him the youngest player to score a goal in an international match.

Pele was raised to play soccer.  He was taught by his father and they could not afford a proper soccer ball so he played with a sock stuffed with newspaper to hone his skills.  While other children were on the playground he was working on his future at a very young age.  Pele said of his young work ethic, “I was ready to give up things kids my age were normally doing. Instead, I spent a lot of time practicing and improving my skills.”

Pack your strengths

No matter where you go, or what you do, remember to pack your strengths. There are things you do well, and there are things in which you excel – these are your strengths. Consider this scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

“’Play to your strengths.’ ‘I haven’t got any,’ said Harry, before he could stop himself. ‘Excuse me,’ growled Moody, ‘you’ve got strengths if I say you’ve got them. Think now. What are you best at?'”

Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest sprinter. He holds the record in the 100 meter and 200 meter races. When asked how he was able to win both of these races in three different Olympics, his response was “There are better starters than me but I’m a strong finisher.” Bolt knows his strengths and excels by using them.

A recent NY Times article discussed Usain Bolt’s remarkable speed and shared the results of a SMU study on the biomechanics of his sprinting. Here are a few of the facts reviewed:

Bolt is 6 feet 5 inches tall and can cover 100 meters in 41 strides were other sprinters need up to 48 strides. He is able to conserve energy with fewer strides which allows him to maintain a faster pace over the last 30 meters when all sprinters, including Bolt, are slowing down. This explains his comment on being a strong finisher.

The next fact is one that requires more discussion. According to the SMU study, “His right leg appears to strike the track with about 13 percent more peak force than his left leg. And with each stride, his left leg remains on the ground about 14 percent longer than his right leg. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, based on limited science, that an uneven stride tends to slow a runner down.”

How could the world’s fastest sprinter run in a method that is counter to that which drives top speed? In his autobiography, Usain Bolt shares that childhood scoliosis caused his right leg to be an inch shorter than his left. The scientists at SMU propose that Bolt developed his sprinting style – his strength – to compensate for the difference in leg length.

In the end, Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest sprinter because he uses his height, endurance and ability to adjust his stride to run faster than everyone he competes against.

Here are the three lessons we learn from Usain Bolt: Know how you excel, Practice how you excel, Repeat how you excel. This will lead you to your greatness.

No matter where you go, or what you do, remember to pack your strengths.

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