It’s common for leaders to speak in terms of building a “team of champions.” While I also endeavor to build a team of champions in my own organization, I don’t want people working in my company who think like champions. Rather, I want to fill my business with team members who have a challenger’s mindset. To use a martial arts term, I want the “red belt” mentality rather than the black belt mindset and here’s why: the most dangerous fighters in karate dojos are the red belts. Red is the rank prior to black, and what makes the reds such tenacious fighters is the fact that they haven’t yet reached the top and still train with intensity and urgency. Black belts, on the other hand, often let up and downshift into a maintenance mode after working so long and hard to earn their elite rank. In fact, it is common for black belts to start packing on pounds soon after reaching their goal, because they spend more time giving advice than they do fighting on the mat.
The still-hungry red belts demonstrate a stronger commitment to improve through a solid work ethic, consistent training habits, and by remaining coachable. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see reds knock out blacks during sparring sessions. They’re sharper because their killer instinct hasn’t been dulled by the belief that they’ve “arrived.” In my own experience, I lost 25 pounds in the ten weeks leading up to my red belt test because of the added hours of sparring.
While black belts can still advance with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degrees, etc. a common tendency after reaching their goal is to take a break. One friend of mine passed his black belt test and didn’t return to the mat for six months. Parallel analogies in business abound. When business “black belts” with their “champion’s mindset” get to the top of a mountain and become “number one” or have a record year, their tendency is to build a fence around the ground they’ve gained and hold it, rather than seek out higher ground that offers an even bigger prize. They stop changing, risking, deciding, recruiting, innovating, training, and holding others accountable. Prosperity drains their urgency, and they eventually find themselves in a rut.
Following are ten contrasts between a challenger’s and champion’s mindset. While there are always exceptions to the rule, the rule normally rules.
There are other differences, but these paint a clear picture of why a challenger’s mindset is necessary in any endeavor where continuing to grow is important. But, don’t misunderstand my point: I’m not saying that I don’t want champions working with me, because I do. What I don’t want are people who think like champions. My goal is to surround myself with champions who maintain the hunger of challengers. In fact, here’s a lesson I’ve taught to top performers for years:
Act like a challenger even when you’re the champ. Challengers are hungry, humble, and have something to prove. Champs can become lazy, cocky, and complacent.
Here are four suggestions for developing a challenger’s—a red belt’s—state of mind. Use them to shape your personal success philosophy so that you can positively affect and influence those you work with:
Be an example for your team and work with the hunger, discipline, humility, intensity, and teach-ability of a red belt. Set your goal to reach the top, but even once you become a Grand Master, maintain the mindset of a challenger. This disciplined state of mind separates the martial artist from a partial artist, the legitimate champion from a one-hit wonder.