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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that it was ultimately the power of thought that solidified swimmer Mark Tewksbury's gold medal win at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona – or for that matter, the Canadian synchronized swimming team's four Olympic medals. But I was, and was left remarkably inspired.

I recently met Mr. Tewksbury at a leadership workshop. He, along with coach Debbie Muir – who worked with Mark prior to his gold medal win and led the national synchronized swimming team four times to the podium – wrote The Great Traits of Champions. This is a book that identifies the fundamental traits of achievers and leaders and, ultimately, those who are going to leave legacies.

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Athletes have a tremendous amount of discipline, training and physicality that helps carry them through to championships. But what we often underestimate is the level of mental training that it takes for these athletes to achieve their goals. The mental roadblocks they work to remove are ultimately what make champions stand out from the rest.

It's really no different in life – and business. How many times have we heard "Choose your thoughts wisely" or "You are what you think" or "Focus on your successes, not your failures"? But have we actually put that advice into practice?

Ms. Muir did, as she coached the synchronized swimming team and Mr. Tewksbury, and that made all the difference. It wasn't until Mr. Tewksbury began affirmation exercises, for a consecutive 10 weeks prior to the Olympics in 1992, that he truly believed in his own strength, removed all self-doubt and self-induced limitations, and brought his beliefs to life.

What he did in 10 weeks is change the way he thought about himself in order to win the gold medal for Canada, and break a world record. Our thoughts and what we believe about ourselves can either cage or unlock our potential as individuals. But they also unlock the potential of our teams in how we lead them.

What I learned from the athlete and the coach is the importance we must put on awareness – awareness of what runs through our heads, and how we can use our thoughts to drive action, whether for ourselves or for our teams.

Leaders must create an environment where great things can happen. It's easy to fall into a pattern where you spend most of your time focused on what is not going well. Yes, time should be spent on that, too, but being consistently focused on the negative leads to a decline in the energy and productivity of our teams and the individuals on them. We need to spend more time focused on what is going right, and we must celebrate even our smallest achievements. Sound familiar?

When coaching the synchronized swimming team, Ms. Muir turned 20 seconds of synchronized brilliance into a three-minute gold medal performance. She explained how her team was struggling during practice but, during her video reviews, she found an absolutely perfect 20 seconds of their performance. Rather than improving the remaining two minutes and 40 seconds, she focused on "the 20 seconds of brilliance" and how to build on it. This type of thinking shifts our awareness, keeps us thinking positively and creates synergy for our teams to deliver at the highest level.

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Recognition is an often-forgotten trait of great leadership. Praise fuels our energy.

"You have no right to be a leader if someone who works for you doesn't know where they stand," Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, said in his gruff way.

So let's make it a habit to applaud the contribution of the individuals who have had a positive impact on the greater success of the team. Let's not spend 95 per cent of our time telling the people around us what is wrong, or what can be done better. Focus on what they are doing well, find those moments of brilliance every day, and increase them until they fill our days and the experiences of our customers.

I have already attempted to alter my own behaviour – in the office, with my kids, and on the ice. I've previously mentioned that I coach my son's hockey team. We are now spending much more time focused on what the kids do extremely well. Also, at Tangerine Bank (formerly known as ING Direct), we are prioritizing for our leaders the requirement to ensure recognition becomes as important to our success as the customer experience, hitting the numbers, and so on.

I was inspired by Mark Tewksbury and Debbie Muir. I made a few changes, for which I am already observing the benefits.

What will you do to shift the power in your thoughts?

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Peter Aceto (@PeterAceto) is president and chief executive officer at Tangerine Bank, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bank of Nova Scotia.

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