I am addicted to acronyms. Grocery and to-do lists would be unthinkable for me without them. They serve as mnemonic devices to help me keep track of what needs to be done. On occasion, I even elevate them to the status of mantras to sharpen my focus on accomplishing a particular goal or developing a worthy habit. This type of acronym is more useful if it shares something in common with a word or phrase that already has meaning to me. Such is the case with a simple mantra that I rely on each day: ACE, my acronym for attitude, character, and effort. Adopting the ACE mantra can help leaders stay focused and build trust and commitment across their company through consistency.
In almost every context, “ace” is a word that relates to achieving excellence or being very fortunate. An exceptional aviator is called an ace. In baseball, a team’s best pitcher is referred to as their ace. And in tennis, an ace is a serve that was so good the other player couldn’t return it. Good students strive to ace their exams and report cards. For card players, an ace is typically the most versatile and useful card you can be dealt.
As players in the game of life, as well as leaders in the workplace, we are most effective when we focus our energy on what’s within our control. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to become upset or anxious about things we can’t control. At school, we may become stressed out about a difficult course or a challenging assignment. At work, we may become annoyed about a boss who lacks empathy or an assigned task that is ill-defined and needs to be done quickly. With family, we may become frustrated with a family member who doesn’t seem to understand our concerns. In every such situation, repeating the ACE mantra to myself helps me to worry less about things that I can’t control and focus instead on what I can control. Because in these situations, what do we have control over? Our attitude, character, and effort.
I tend to have a glass-half-empty disposition (maybe it’s due partly to that “professional skepticism” we’re supposed to have as accountants), so this one is challenging for me. Nevertheless, having the right attitude goes well beyond being an optimist—it helps to be a proactive realist. Hoping things will turn out for the best isn’t enough. We need to be solution-oriented rather than problem-oriented. When we find ourselves in a challenging situation, it’s always unproductive to bemoan our circumstances. Once something bad has happened to us, it doesn’t do any good to wish it hadn’t happened. Instead, the important questions to ask are “How can I make things better?” and “What can I learn from this situation?” True leaders are committed to continuous improvement and regularly engage in reflection and self-examination.
There’s a philosophical belief called amor fati (Latin for “love of one’s fate”) that says the key to happiness is to embrace one’s circumstances. Some may think that this attitude is one of resignation, but that’s an oversimplification. The truth is we need to accept that what happened to us is beyond our control—we can’t go back and make events not happen. With that acceptance, we can focus our energy on what we can change and improve. We may not always be able to control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.
Our character can be our best asset or biggest liability. Each of us has at least two characters: who we are at present and who we aspire to be. Having the courage to do our duty is at the core of character. For most of us, our duty—i.e., the right thing to do—in a particular situation often isn’t that difficult to figure out. Unfortunately, where we frequently fall short is in the area of courage, a trait that effective leaders must embody.
It’s a good idea to regularly reflect on the consequences of our actions, particularly as leaders. Who will benefit from or be harmed by our actions? Are we sacrificing long-term success for short-term wins? If we make a mistake (and we will), then we need to acknowledge it, take responsibility, and move forward strengthened by the new knowledge gained from the experience. This may sound like engaging in self-judgment, but it’s a far more useful exercise than wasting our time judging others since we can be much more effective in changing our own behavior than the behavior of others. Our character becomes stronger and more resilient when we recognize our shortcomings, challenge ourselves to think of the type of person we would like to become, and constantly work toward narrowing that gap.
There will always be others who may have more natural talent or be in better circumstances than us. Our starting points in life aren’t equal. But what we do between the beginning and the end is up to each of us. So what’s the key to achieving our goals? Effort and persistence.
Much has been written about how grit or persistent effort is the secret behind success. Is that really a surprise? Or do we just find it easier to believe that others are more fortunate to have what it takes while we aren’t so lucky? Achieving excellence in most endeavors requires hard work. That’s the bad news. The good news is that working hard—putting forth our best effort—is totally within our control. Can I do more? Should I be doing something else? These are questions I always find worth asking. If we don’t let ourselves be outworked, then we will become difference makers, which is ultimately a game changer for our careers.
This is the easy-to-remember ACE mantra. When we find ourselves frustrated with a problem or situation, it’s often because we’re spending too much time thinking about things beyond our control. That’s wasted energy. There’s no return on investment. ACE can help us redirect our attitude, take stock of our character, and apply our best effort to be a little better each day. Leaders who keep ACE top of mind can reap the benefits of compound interest and serve as a good example for the rest of their company.
IMA LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.