Mark Sanborn: Riding the Waves of Life

6 Minute Read

For author and leadership expert Mark Sanborn, things were going swimmingly. He was healthy, happy and successful. Then came the big recession of 2008, and Mark was hit, as he says, with a “triple whammy." His business dropped by 20%, his investments tanked, and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. But Mark didn’t give up. He continued on. In the end, he not only got his life back together, he produced another best-seller: Up, Down or Sideways: How to Succeed When Times Are Good, Bad or In-Between.

Recently, Mark spoke to EntreLeadership Podcast host Chris LoCurto about how he survived the tough times and how you can too. He also took time to answer questions from some of our listeners. Here are a few of their queries, starting with a question from Chris.

Chris: In Up, Down or Sideways, you write about how to interact with the waves of change. Can you tell us why you chose a surfing allegory?

Mark: Great surfers realize they don’t control the waves they surf on. Mother Nature does. So they learn to interact with the waves to create the outcome they desire. I think life is the same. It throws us curveballs. Sometimes the waves are pleasant, and sometimes they are devastating. Most of the time, they are somewhere in between.

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I love the surfer concept because we just don’t look at life that way. Instead, we’re always asking ourselves, How do I change that wave? How do I make it fit what I want to do? It’s a ridiculous way to do things. Instead, learn the wave and understand it. You’re not going to know every direction it’s going to go or how it’s going to end up. But try to find the best way to utilize the wave to your advantage so that life comes out in a better way.

Chris: That’s a really powerful concept. Can you give us an example of it?

Mark: I come from a family that had a history of one kind of cancer, so I did everything I could to prevent getting that kind of cancer. I was monitored for years. And then boom, I got a different kind. There was nothing I could have done differently to have avoided it. When something like this happens, the question isn’t Oh it’s me, why or what did I do? The question is What do I do now or going forward?

I love the idea of “good-shoulds” that you mention in Up, Down or Sideways. How do you separate or tell the difference between all the “shoulds” to make sure you’re paying attention to the right ones? —Carole

Mark: Good-shoulds benefit you. They are the things your mother and father taught you as a kid to make you a successful human being. Look both ways before crossing the street, brush your teeth every day, or say thank you are all great examples.

The key to understanding a good-should is to look at the principle. Each is based on a timeless truth. Why? Because the truth never changes. The only thing that changes is the application of truth. For instance, communication principles haven’t changed but the Internet is new and email is even newer.

So I would be aware of anything that’s too gimmicky, faddish or trendy. Look for the underlying principle. If it’s not something that’s been true across time and just altered in context, then it’s probably not a good-should.

Have you ever had to deal with bad times you caused yourself, and how did you walk out of it? —Aaron

Mark: I have a lot of self-inflicted wounds from stupid choices and dumb behavior. You know, we’re all human. The beginning point is to take responsibility. I always say as a leader, “You only get full credit when you take full blame.” I think a lot of leaders like to take credit for the good things, but then explain away the bad things as being circumstances or someone else’s fault. It’s about accepting responsibility.

I really don’t want to sound trite, but it’s also about changing what you can and accepting what you can’t. First, you have to deal with the emotional grieving process. Then, in short order, you have to start looking for the answer to the question What can I do now?

The other question I would ask myself is, What have I learned from this experience? The only thing worse than making a bad mistake that puts you in a bad place is to make the bad mistake twice. I think a lot of times, we waste a good crisis or a tough time by never extracting anything from them.

I’m in the process of searching for job opportunities that will allow me to grow as a leader. What can I do to differentiate myself from other job seekers and develop my leadership abilities? —Scrop

Mark: I’ve sat across the desk from many job applicants in interviews, and I’m always bewildered by how little they know about me, my business or the position. If you want to demonstrate your potential ability as a leader, then do what all good leaders do and prepare thoroughly. Study the living daylights out of that company, the person and the position. Now 20 years ago, it would have been easier said than done. But today, there is a ton of information out there. The first step is to prepare thoroughly by studying the organization. The second step is to ask yourself, What opportunities might I suggest based on what I’ve learned?

Once you have your suggestions, simply admit to the person who is interviewing you, “Look, I’m from the outside looking in. But as I think about your business, here are some ideas that I have.” You might even say, “Maybe you’re doing these things, maybe you’ve done these things, maybe you don’t ever want to try these things. But because I don’t have access to the inner workings of your company, here are what strikes me as some great opportunities.”

Your ideas will do more than anything to demonstrate your ability as a leader to think ahead and come up with a solution—not just the problem.

For even more of the conversation with Mark and Chris, check out the latest EntreLeadership Podcast, which also includes a lesson from Dave. On this episode, Dave teaches how his Momentum Theorem applies to business.

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