In Pur­suit of Per­sonal Ex­cel­lence

Insurance - - MANAGEMENT - by Dr Norman Chorn

What’s Dif­fer­ent?

Are the rich dif­fer­ent? Do they be­have dif­fer­ently? I’m not sug­gest­ing that the rich are in any way su­pe­rior to those with­out vast sums of money, but I have been won­der­ing about the dif­fer­ences be­tween those who pur­sue (and of­ten achieve) ex­cel­lence in their lives and those not mo­ti­vated by that ideal.

We’ve all read the per­sonal devel­op­ment ma­te­rial that em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of stretch goals, self-dis­ci­pline, con­fi­dence and the like. I don’t doubt the im­por­tance and rel­e­vance of th­ese fac­tors, but I wanted to ex­plore some of the things that per­haps go un­no­ticed in those who pur­sue per­sonal ex­cel­lence. Do they do dif­fer­ent things? Do they do things dif­fer­ently?

I be­gan by re­view­ing my notes and tran­scripts of in­ter­views with the lead­ers I had met in the course

In a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Scott Fitzger­ald and Ernest Hem­ing­way, Fitzger­ald is re­puted to have said “The rich are dif­fer­ent to you and me”, to which Hem­ing­way replied, “Yes, they have more money”. Not­with­stand­ing the lit­er­ary dis­pute as to whether this con­ver­sa­tion ac­tu­ally took place, Fitzger­ald was al­lud­ing to the fact that the rich seemed to be­have dif­fer­ently in their ev­ery­day lives.

of our cor­po­rate re­silience re­search1,2. In do­ing so, I iden­ti­fied a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing be­hav­iours dis­played by th­ese lead­ers as they pur­sued their own goals of ex­cel­lence. I went back to sev­eral of th­ese lead­ers and at­tempted to un­der­stand fur­ther some of the rea­sons and motivations be­hind th­ese be­hav­iours. Some of th­ese were ob­vi­ous, while oth­ers ap­peared some­what counter-in­tu­itive ini­tially. Th­ese are some of the be­hav­iours that really stood out amongst the group of lead­ers who were pur­su­ing their own per­sonal ex­cel­lence:

Seek Help from Friends and Col­leagues

It is re­mark­able how of­ten th­ese lead­ers ask for help from friends and col­leagues. They un­der­stand that peo­ple en­joy help­ing oth­ers where this help is val­ued and the need for as­sis­tance is gen­uine. It is a

sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship where both par­ties de­rive some­thing from the in­ter­ac­tion. The leader gets the ben­e­fit of ad­di­tional ex­per­tise, and the helper gets the self-sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing they’ve added value in a re­la­tion­ship. But there was an­other di­men­sion that at­tracted my at­ten­tion. In their pur­suit of per­sonal ex­cel­lence, th­ese lead­ers are com­fort­able be­ing seen to ask for help. They recog­nise that, as lead­ers, they are not ex­pected to al­ways know the an­swers or be the best at ev­ery­thing. This is not a com­mon trait in many or­gan­i­sa­tions. The tra­di­tional view is that seek­ing as­sis­tance is a sign of weak­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Ob­vi­ously the leader has to bring some­thing to the party, i.e. they must be ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a real con­tri­bu­tion to the think­ing and prac­tice within their or­gan­i­sa­tion, but it seems in­creas­ingly un­rea­son­able that the leader is the font of all knowl­edge in com­plex sit­u­a­tions.

Hang Out with Ex­cep­tional Peo­ple

Those lead­ers pur­su­ing their own per­sonal ex­cel­lence seem to spend a good pro­por­tion of their time with other ex­cep­tional peo­ple. It is said that you are the av­er­age of the five peo­ple you spend most of your time with. Whether this is true or not, it seems as if we are in­flu­enced by those we in­ter­act and speak with the most.

In about half of the cases, th­ese ex­cep­tional peo­ple are not per­sonal friends or ac­quain­tances. They are au­thors or suc­cess­ful peo­ple in their own fields. In th­ese cases, the lead­ers make a con­scious ef­fort to read their books, at­tend their lec­tures or study their lives in what­ever way pos­si­ble.

It re­minds me of New­ton’s fa­mous quote where he re­ferred to his progress be­ing due to the fact that he had “stood on the shoul­ders of giants” in his pur­suit of sci­en­tific ex­cel­lence. There seems lit­tle doubt that th­ese lead­ers, each on the pur­suit of their own per­sonal ex­cel­lence, seeks out the wis­dom of oth­ers from which to lever­age and im­prove their own po­si­tions.

Share Vi­sions and Prin­ci­ples Gen­er­ously

In my dis­cus­sions with th­ese lead­ers, it be­came ob­vi­ous that they be­lieve in shar­ing their vi­sions and views on the world gen­er­ously, with­out nec­es­sar­ily be­ing self-cen­tred. They are ex­plicit about what they stand for, and don’t mind be­ing open about their in­ten­tions.

I won­dered how this open­ness might thwart their vi­sions by giv­ing their op­po­nents un­due warn­ing and op­por­tu­nity to re­sist. But it seems that al­most all of them agree that more can be achieved by open­ness and bold ac­tion. It seems as if more dam­age is done by be­ing vague and in­de­ci­sive than by be­ing ex­plicit and bold, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing pe­ri­ods of change.

De­spite this will­ing­ness to share openly, th­ese lead­ers also be­lieve in not talk­ing too much. They will say just enough to be per­fectly un­der­stood – and then move to favour ac­tion over talk and long ar­gu­ment.

Not Per­fec­tion­ism

Per­fec­tion­ism is of­ten viewed as be­ing an el­e­ment of ex­cel­lence. This is dis­puted by many of the lead­ers I spoke with. They view it as a real brake on progress and a cause of bot­tle­necks in many sit­u­a­tions. In a way, per­fec­tion­ism may be in­ter­preted as a fear of hav­ing one’s work judged and re­ceiv­ing feed­back – hence the need to con­tin­u­ally avoid re­leas­ing it. In ad­di­tion, the no­tion of “com­plet­ing some­thing to per­fec­tion” con­notes that there is no more to be achieved or learned. Th­ese lead­ers ap­pear to favour the view that the pur­suit of ex­cel­lence is an on­go­ing dy­namism – some­thing that keeps mov­ing as we learn and de­velop our ca­pa­bil­i­ties fur­ther.

Skill is Not Enough

Many of th­ese lead­ers are highly skilled in their own fields. Some are tal­ented engi­neers; oth­ers have real skills in ar­eas such as con­sumer in­sight, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and fi­nan­cial anal­y­sis. But they all seem to spend sig­nif­i­cant amounts of time en­gag­ing in and prac­tic­ing their skill.

In his book on out­stand­ing hu­man per­for­mance, Mal­colm Glad­well out­lines the path­way to per­sonal ex­cel­lence achieved by many fa­mous artists, sci­en­tists and lead­ers. He demon­strates that a sig­nif­i­cant amount of prac­tice is of­ten the key dif­fer­ence be­tween those who sim­ply show prom­ise and those who achieve ex­cel­lence in their cho­sen field.

By ex­am­in­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple as di­verse as the Bea­tles and Bill Gates, he ar­gues that ap­prox­i­mately 10,000 hours of prac­tice is what’s re­quired to achieve ex­cel­lence. Sim­ply hav­ing the skill or tal­ent is not enough.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Th­ese lead­ers demon­strate a strong will­ing­ness to get their hands dirty – to do what it takes when the sit­u­a­tion de­mands it. So, there are no “ivory tower” be­hav­iours in pur­su­ing per­sonal ex­cel­lence. But, they recog­nise that spend­ing all their times “in the weeds” is not ben­e­fi­cial ei­ther. “Find­ing the right bal­ance to achieve the best use of my time”, is how sev­eral of th­ese lead­ers ex­press it. Closely re­lated to the will­ing­ness to get your hands dirty is the will­ing­ness to be a fol­lower when the sit­u­a­tion de­mands it. Del­e­gat­ing and em­pow­er­ing oth­ers means that you of­ten have to step aside and al­low them to lead – even though you may per­son­ally pre­fer an alternative ap­proach to the one they have cho­sen. Fail­ing to do so will dam­age any at­tempt to em­power, de­cen­tralise or del­e­gate.

Ra­tio­nal Op­ti­mism

Pur­su­ing per­sonal ex­cel­lence re­quires a ra­tio­nal op­ti­mism, a be­lief that you can and will make progress by purs­ing a sen­si­ble ap­proach. Th­ese lead­ers are all op­ti­mists and hold an op­ti­mistic view of life. But they recog­nise that op­ti­mism is NOT nec­es­sar­ily the op­po­site of pes­simism. It is not the ide­al­is­tic be­lief (or hope) that things will get bet­ter sim­ply be­cause you want them to.

In­stead, ra­tio­nal op­ti­mism is a balanced un­der­stand­ing of the whole sys­tem of which you are part. It is recog­ni­tion of both strength and weak­ness; an in­ter­est in build­ing the best as well as re­pair­ing the worst; and a con­cern for find­ing self ful­fil­ment as well as heal­ing sick­ness. Th­ese ra­tio­nal op­ti­mists are real­ists, but their defin­ing point of dif­fer­ence is that they will never give up on them­selves.

At a more prac­ti­cal level, th­ese lead­ers try to avoid spend­ing too much time with neg­a­tive peo­ple and scep­tics. Or if they have to, they try to limit the im­pact of th­ese peo­ple on their out­look and en­thu­si­asm.

Stress and De-Stress

The lead­ers all seem to have their own strate­gies for build­ing and main­tain­ing their per­sonal re­silience – an im­por­tant at­tribute in the re­lent­less pur­suit of ex­cel­lence. De­spite their per­sonal dif­fer­ences and pref­er­ences, there seems to be an over­all pat­tern.

In much the same way as ath­letes de­velop (re­silience in) their mus­cles, th­ese lead­ers have a regime that al­ter­nates be­tween pe­ri­ods of stress and pe­ri­ods of de-stress.

In much the same way as mus­cles are devel­oped, we know that hu­man ca­pa­bil­i­ties have to be sub­jected to a de­gree of stress or stretch in or­der to grow. No real devel­op­ment is pos­si­ble un­less the ca­pa­bil­ity is tested to the limit for pe­ri­ods of time.

But equally im­por­tant are the phases of rest and de-stress that punc­tu­ate the pe­ri­ods of high stress. This al­lows for the re­cu­per­a­tion and re­gen­er­a­tion of strength.

But not just any rest. Th­ese lead­ers all con­fess to hav­ing their own favourite ac­tiv­ity that pro­vides them the op­por­tu­nity to de-stress. For some, it is a pas­time such as mu­sic or read­ing, while oth­ers pre­fer cy­cling and other phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. In each case, it is an ac­tiv­ity that gen­er­ates its own hap­pi­ness and plea­sure. And in each case, they have learned to re­treat to this pas­time with­out feel­ings of guilt be­cause they un­der­stand its re­cu­per­a­tive ben­e­fits.

To­wards Ex­cel­lence

It seems as if those pur­su­ing per­sonal ex­cel­lence do go about some things dif­fer­ently. In some cases, th­ese be­hav­iours are planned and quite de­lib­er­ate, while in oth­ers they are im­plicit and not done con­sciously.

The good news is that many of th­ese be­hav­iours can be learned and cul­ti­vated as we pur­sue our own path­way to­wards per­sonal ex­cel­lence. i

Dr Norman Chorn founded the Cen­tre for Strat­egy Devel­op­ment to fo­cus on strat­egy and or­gan­i­sa­tion devel­op­ment. He is a strat­egy and or­gan­i­sa­tion devel­op­ment prac­ti­tioner with more than 20 years ex­pe­ri­ence in Aus­tralia, UK, New Zealand and South Africa. His work has three pri­mary ar­eas of fo­cus: cre­at­ing strat­egy for com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage, de­vel­op­ing ef­fec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions and struc­tures, and de­vel­op­ing lead­er­ship skills with par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence to strate­gic lead­er­ship. Cen­tre for Strat­egy Devel­op­ment web­site:

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