The Key to Success That No One Talks About

04/16/2011 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's that weird thing that no one can seem to put their finger on, but it's why some people succeed where others fail.

Traditional wisdom says that success or failure is largely determined by your skills and knowledge. However, there's a third element of success that's more intangible. Sometimes we call it attitude or motivation, but that's only part of it. The real name for that intangible thing is "ethos."

Ethos is the mindset, attitudes and beliefs that you bring to your work and life. Webster's dictionary defines "ethos" as "the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature or guiding belief of a person, group or institution." These internal, largely unconscious beliefs have a dramatic impact on the way we interact with others.

For example, if someone believes that customers (or children, or men, or women, or old people) are annoying, unenlightened individuals who make things difficult, that mindset is going to inform the way they behave with every single customer (child, man, woman, or old person) they encounter.

You can teach people proper procedures and train them on new behaviors, but their mindset is going to come through loud and clear every time. Ethos is kind of like DNA: you can't see it, but it affects everything else. However, unlike DNA, individual and organizational ethos can be changed.

The problem is that most organizations try to change people's behavior without addressing the ethos behind it. When was the last time you heard a CEO say, "Come on people, let's elevate our ethos." Instead, corporations spend tons of time and money on all kinds of skills training; they hold regular rah-rah meetings, and they crank out enough product and procedures manuals to fill a factory. And still, the jerk bosses, cranky co-workers, poor service reps and ineffective behaviors remain because no one addressed the underlying mindsets that caused the behavior in the first place.

How many times have you seen a manager go to leadership training, only to march straight back to their cube and bark at their staff? The "Effective Communicating 101" manual may be parked on their desk, but if they believe their employees are lazy, that's the mindset that will inform their actions.

Skills and knowledge will only take you so far; if you want to be more successful or help your team -- at home or work -- be more successful, you have to elevate the ethos. That means examining the beliefs that are causing the behaviors in the first place. What do people in your organization really think about their customers and colleagues? What does management believe about labor? What do you believe about your spouse, your co-workers or your boss?

Try this exercise: write down three things you believe about your boss, co-workers or spouse. How does this mindset inform the way you interact with them?

If you're the leader, your ethos sets the tone for the team -- which is good news, because when you decide to adopt a different belief system, you increase the likelihood that your team will follow.

One of our clients began changing their corporate ethos when the CEO declared, "We're a company who loves our customers." When you say it enough times and you create a system to support it, it eventually becomes part of your corporate DNA.

Skills, knowledge and ethos -- improve the first two, and you'll be pretty good, but tackling the third will put you on the road toward greatness.

Lisa Earle McLeod is keynote speaker, author, columnist and business strategist and the President of McLeod & More, Inc., an international training and consulting firm. Her newest book, "The Triangle of Truth," was named by The Washington Post as a Top 5 Business Book for Leaders, calling it "the ultimate guide for solving problems and managing conflict." Visit for a short video intro.