Leverage your skills properly and you can positively influence your business - and your world.

Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, discovered the power of the lever – applying leverage multiplies the power exerted. This power is also available to you. Leverage can give you the ability to act, or to influence people, events, decisions, etc.

It requires the use of a small initial investment, but the return compared to the investment is usually substantial. Leverage means utilizing the strengths of other things, processes, and people to do a lot more than you could do alone. Leverage helps you get the most out of yourself. Leverage multiplies your power.

Consider the image of Archimedes standing on a long board, moving the whole planet on his magical fulcrum. The fact is you can move your world too, by using the power of the lever.

In my last two columns, I wrote that companies should take responsibility for the emotional needs of their employees. Doing so, even in bad and stressful times that may require mandated downsizing, can be profitable for a company in the long-term.

However, the employee has responsibilities as well. Whether you are an employee or you own the company, you owe it to yourself and your company to get the most out of everything you do. It’s about optimizing your productivity, producing more, getting more, or obtaining an advantage.

How does one optimize? Leverage. Leverage can make the difference between who gets laid off in a company downsizing and who doesn’t. A friend confided in me that her company has just announced a hiring freeze. Her concern: that it will expand into layoffs. Since she is the most recently hired, she feels she will be the first to go. So she has decided to create leverage by being the only one in her office to learn and master a difficult technology. She said, “They won’t be able to let me go, because I will be the only one that can use that software.”

That’s why “the most important skills to constantly develop, maintain and enhance are your own capabilities… It’s the single greatest investment you can make because it leverages everything else,” according to Stephen R. Covey.

Let me tell you a great example of leverage. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my dad, Sam Allman, Jr., joined the Navy as soon as he was old enough. Following boot camp, his 35-man unit was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay. Shortly before they were scheduled to sail out to help fight the Japanese in the Pacific theater, during a line-up, it was asked who could use the typewriter? My dad was the only one who stepped forward. He took typing in high school. He was taken from his unit and given another assignment.

The USS Liscome Bay sailed on its maiden voyage October 21, 1943, with my dad’s boot camp unit, but without him. In her first and last battle mission, at 0510, November 24, 1943, near the Gilbert Islands, a lookout shouted: “Here comes a torpedo!” At 0533, the USS Liscome Bay listed to starboard and sank, carrying an admiral, captain, 53 officers, and 591 enlisted men. Two hundred and seventy-two of her crew were rescued.

If my dad had not acquired the skill of typing, the odds are I wouldn’t be here, nor any of my siblings. Learning to type gave my dad leverage. Ironically, he never used those skills in the Navy.

Make creating leverage a habit by changing your mindset. According to Carol S. Dweck, a Stanford University professor, it’s amazing how many reject the opportunity to learn. In her new book, Mindset, she divides people into two mindsets, learning and fixed. Her research shows that those with the learning mindset outperform and have leverage over those with the fixed mindset.

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.”

We are all born with a deep drive inside to learn. As infants we stretched our skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks, like learning to walk and talk. We never decided it was too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, and they get up. They barge forward.

What puts an end to exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart or failing.

People with a learning mindset don’t just want challenge – they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch. Clearly people with the learning mindset thrive when they are stretching themselves. When do people with a fixed mindset thrive? When things are safely within their grasp. If things are too challenging – when they’re not feeling smart or talented – they lose interest. The idea of trying and still failing – of leaving yourself without excuses – is the worst fear within the fixed mindset.

At Surfaces 2010, I was overwhelmed with all there was to learn. Besides the seminars, there were new products, new technologies, and new innovations. The opportunity for learning and creating leverage was everywhere. I wonder how many took advantage of it. Or maybe most people were just looking for new product.

So what mindset do you have? Are you learning and stretching? Or are you playing it safe? Are you putting just enough effort into your job, just to keep it? Or are you making yourself so valuable to your employer that you have a leveraged advantage over your coworkers? What new skills have you learned lately? What new skills should you learn? What can you do that will differentiate yourself from your competitors or co-workers? What can you do to protect yourself from a downsizing?  

Of course, the answer is leverage. You can move your world with a place to stand and a lever long enough.