N is for Having The Nous And Nerve Needed To Achieve Success

There are many views about how people with natural talent can develop.  One view is that they need to add the nous and nerve needed to achieve success.

Natural talent can take people so far, but then some individuals stop developing. A person may have been the star performer at a certain age, for example, but then find it difficult to deal with disappointments.

Some people have the hunger to improve, however, and learn from the setbacks. They want to keep developing and become the best they can be. They have what Carol Dweck called a Growth Mindset.

A similar rule applies in teams. Sometimes you hear managers and coaches say: “We want people with experience.” But the key is what people learn from their experiences.

Some people have lots of experience but make the same mistakes. Other people have the nous to learn from events. They translate the knowledge into wisdom and improve their performances.

There are many definitions for the word nous. These range from its origins in Greek Philosophy – where it referred to the soul’s ability to see truth – to its more common usage in everyday life. Today it is sometimes defined in terms of having common sense, good judgement and practical intelligence.

The definition we are using here combines elements of the original Greek approach together with the savvy required to achieve success. It is:

The ability to see to the heart of the matter, make good decisions and get things done

Individuals may have nous in one area but not in others. They may show good judgement in their professional field but show little in their personal lives. They may be brilliant at helping their clients but hopeless at managing their bosses.

Nous can help a person to make good decisions, but they may need to add another dimension. They may need the nerve required to follow these strategies successfully. Sometimes this calls for clear thinking before embarking on a project.

Great workers, for example, do their due diligence and clarify the strategies most likely to achieve success. They also clarify the pluses minuses involved. They then commit to pursuing their chosen route.

They perform superb work, but this does not mean they follow the strategies blindly. They keep doing reality checks. They keep focusing on: a) What is working and how to do more of these things; b) What can be done better and how.

Great workers hold their nerve. They keep doing the right things in the rights way. They also, when appropriate, find creative solutions to challenges on the way towards achieving their picture of success.

Looking back, can you think of a person who showed both nous and nerve? This could be somebody you have known or have heard about.

What did the person do to show nous? How did they get to the heart of the matter, make good decisions and get things done? What did they do to keep their nerve? How did they keep following their principles, especially when things got tough?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to write the name of such a person and do the following things.

Describe the specific things they did to show nous and keep their nerve on the way towards achieving success.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of them taking these steps.

Nous And Nerve
In Individuals

Some individuals demonstrate nous and nerve when doing satisfying work. They may do this when working as an artist, athlete, business leader, coach, educator, entrepreneur or in another field. They may follow their vocation, pursue a mission or serve something greater than themselves.

The Ashoka Organization supports social entrepreneurs who demonstrate these qualities. Such people aim to improve the quality of life for people on the planet. They may focus on education, medical care, agriculture, housing, broadcasting or any field of human need.

Ashoka Fellows have the passion and practical skills to translate their vision into reality. Bill Drayton, the organisation’s founder, explains this in the following way.

What differentiates Ashoka Fellows from mere idealists is that, for these rare men and women, an idea can bring satisfaction only when it is realised.

Possessing the same unstoppable drive of a Steve Jobs, they define new issues and create new approaches. Their innovations then set new yardsticks of performance for helping society.

By the end of their 5-year fellowship, between fifty and sixty per cent of the Fellows have changed national policy in the countries where they have been working, and ninety percent have seen independent institutions copy their innovations.

Below is a video that describes some of the work done by Ashoka’s Fellows. You can discover more via the following link.


Great workers maintain their nerve. They keep following the principles they believe in, even when times get tough. Some say that this is courageous, but such workers often see it as the result of clear thinking. Here is why they take this approach.

People often similar paths when working in teams. Let’s explore how this works in practice.

Nous And Nerve
In Teams

There are many models for building fine teams. This section starts by looking at the super team approach. We will then explore what such teams look for when recruiting people who can help them to achieve success.

Super teams start by communicating the team’s purpose, principles and picture of success. They then create a positive environment in which motivated people can achieve peak performance.

Such teams are made up of people who want to be positive, professional and peak performers. They choose to opt in and make clear contracts about their best contributions towards delivering the goals.

Super teams co-ordinate people’s strengths to perform superb work. They overcome setbacks and find solutions to challenges. People do whatever is required to achieve the picture of success.

Such teams are made up of people who have similarity of spirit and diversity of strengths. Diversity of spirit is a recipe for disaster. They want people who are characters rather than clones, however, and who use their strengths to achieve the team’s goals.

Super teams hire people who are prepared to follow the principles. They then put people in places where they can play to their strengths and do their best work. They believe that this approach is more likely to enable both the individual and the team to achieve success.

Such teams have a backbone of people who have both the nous and nerve needed to achieve success. Many sports coaches, for example, believe in recruiting senior players who act as leaders and embody the desired culture.

Imagine you lead a team that attracts people who want to follow the principles. It will also be important to get people who have the nous and nerve needed to help to achieve the goals.

How to identify such people? Recruitment is one of the most important but difficult challenges. One approach is to clarify whether people have the strengths and successful patterns required to contribute to delivering success.

Imagine that you are going to interview a person who wants to join the team. You will have already sent them a pack explaining the team’s purpose and principles. The pack will also have contained many specific examples that highlight how people in the team have translated the principles into action.

During the interview you can invite the person to share when they have followed some of the principles in their own way. You can do this in a positive way and encourage them to describe the examples in depth. You may want to say something along the following lines

The Principles

Before the interview we sent you a pack that explained the team’s purpose and principles. As you know, the key principles we want people to follow are these.  

We want people …

1) To …

For example: To … 

2) To … 

For example: To … 

3) To …

For example: To …

Looking back, can you think of a time when you followed some of these principles in your own way? This could have been in your personal or professional life.  

If so, can you describe the situation in which you followed some of these principles? We will then ask a few questions to look at how you translated these into action.

It’s okay to take a little time to reflect. Then, when you feel ready, it would be good to hear about your example.

As ever, it is vital to ask follow-up questions. This will enable you and the person to go deeper to look at what they actually did – in behaviour terms – to follow the principles.

The main aim is to clarify whether the person has followed some of the principles in the past. You can then build on these patterns in the future.

A secondary aim is to ensure that the person is clear on the professional principles they will be expected to follow. This helps to protect and maintain the culture.

It will then be time to explore whether the person has some of the required personal and professional qualities. The questions you ask will be governed by two factors: 

The required personal and professional qualities. 

The specific activities in which the person will be required to demonstrate these qualities. 

Imagine that you want a person to be calm in a crisis, make good decisions and then solve the problem. You may want them to apply these qualities when working with customers, leading a team, solving a technical problem or doing another activity.

The following set of questions explore when a person has demonstrated nous and nerve. You can adapt these questions, however, to explore when a person has demonstrated the qualities you are looking for in a particular field. Bearing this in mind, you may say something along the following lines.

The Personal And
Professional Qualities

We are looking for people who have nous and keep their nerve. Looking back, can you think of a situation in which you showed some of these qualities? Take your time to reflect before answering the question.

We define nous as being able to see to the heart of the matter. It is then to make good decisions and get things done. We define nerve as having the courage to follow your principles, even though things may get tough.  

You may have demonstrated some of these qualities in a personal or professional situation. You may have been made redundant, had a setback or needed to find a solution to a personal challenge. You may have been in a professional situation where you had to deal with a crisis, solve a customer’s problem or give tough news to somebody.

Looking back, can you think of a such a situation? If so, can you describe a bit more about the situation you found yourself in? Then, if you can, describe what you did to try to deal with the challenge and achieve success.

It is okay to take time to think. We like it when people are prepared to reflect rather than try to impress with quick answers.

When you are ready let us know if you can think of such a situation. We will then ask you a few questions to make sure we get the full picture.

Imagine that the interview goes well and you decide to hire the person. This may be dependent, of course, on them doing well during their probation period.

You can ensure that they spend the first month with somebody who can act as a positive model. It will then be time to meet with them to clarify:

The specific ways they are beginning to follow the principles.

The specific ways they are beginning to demonstrate the required personal and professional qualities.

Imagine that the person is showing promising signs. You can then meet with them every month to help them: a) To build on their strengths; b) To manage the consequences of any weaknesses; c) To make their best contribution towards achieving the picture of success.

Imagine that the person is not following the principles. Sometimes it is better to accept that it is not the right fit. You can then, in a moral way, help the person to move on.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation when you may want to demonstrate nous and nerve? You may be dealing with a crisis, building your own business, leading a team or tackling a challenge.

Looking at the situation, what can you do to get to the heart of the matter? How can you make good decisions? How can you keep following your principles? How can you maintain your nerve? How can you achieve your picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to demonstrate nous and nerve on the way towards achieving success.

Describe the specific things you can do then to demonstrate these qualities.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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