by Dan Coughlin, author of The Management 500
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Shift your focus for the moment away from the recession and other bad news. In your mind, put a spotlight on the greatest performers you’ve ever known. Visualize them. Take it all in. Step back and look with a panoramic view at how they got to where they were able to deliver an amazing performance. It doesn’t matter their age level or type of activity or industry or title. Just step back in awe and let their performance teach you the lessons for your lifetime.
This is one of my favorite activities. I just love, and have always loved, studying extraordinary performers. I’ve done it since I was eight years old. I’m not nearly as interested in what life is like at the top of the mountain, but rather what happened on the way up the mountain. One of the reasons I do this is because for truly great performers there is no mountaintop, there is only the next mountain to climb. Over the past nearly forty years I’ve landed on a few common traits of superior performers, and the most common one, the one that every single truly great performer has mastered, is patience.
Great performers are patient beyond short-term results. They are patient beyond great failures and great successes. They are patient beyond being laughed at or being given false praise. They are patient beyond being told they can’t succeed and beyond being told they are the greatest in the world. They all simply continue to move forward regardless of what other people say toward improving their performance in their desired area.
Nelle Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird
My brother, Kevin, gave me a remarkably powerful book recently called, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields. Harper Lee wrote the book, To Kill A Mockingbird, in 1960. It went on to become the best-selling piece of literature of the 20th Century and to date has sold more than thirty million copies. For this book, Nelle Lee won the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This book has been taught in countless high schools and colleges and has affected an incredible number of lives with its core message of tolerance and open-mindedness toward other people. That’s a pretty high mountaintop to reach.
However, it wasn’t until I read Mockingbird that I knew the story of her climb up the mountain. Harper Lee, who really went by Nelle Lee, left law school in late 1949 and moved to New York in 1950. She lived extremely frugally in a cold-water only apartment. She worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines by day and wrote by night. From 1950-1956 she dedicated herself to honing her craft in her humble little apartment. Then in December 1956 she received a remarkable gift. Her friends, Michael and Joy Brown, gave her a check that allowed her not to work for one year while she focused on her writing. From 1957-1959, with considerable input from her literary agent and editor, she crafted To Kill A Mockingbird.
This is the age-old story of success. Maintain focus for at least five years on one performance area, get a critically important break or two from an unexpected source, and then continue to focus on improving your performance. This simple formula for great performance has been demonstrated over and over and over, and has been written about so many times you would think every person could apply it easily. But, alas, that is not what happens.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
Last year I studied the history of auto racing. One of the most intriguing stories for me was the story of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. In 1979, at the very old age of twenty eight, he became a rookie driver in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, known as the Sprint Cup Series today. He had spent ten years looking for an opportunity to drive in the Winston Cup Series, but no major sponsor would support him. Then in 1979 Rod Osterlund believed in Earnhardt and gave him a chance and the money he needed.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. won the Rookie-of-the-Year in 1979 and followed that with the first of his seven Winston Cup Series Championships in 1980. He went from a complete unknown to one of the biggest brand names in his sport. He was patient through the very bad times and the very good times and constantly strove to raise his level of performance.
No Easy Victories
John Gardner, one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote a truly great book in 1968 called No Easy Victories. This book is remarkably relevant for many of the issues we are dealing with as a country today. He wrote, “How can we preserve our aspirations and at the same time develop the toughness of mind and spirit to face the fact that there are no easy victories?” He went on to say, “Very few have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly, by ‘doin’ what comes naturally’; and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.”
To achieve greatness as a business manager or executive requires sustained, focused effort. In the end, it’s hard work combined with extraordinary patience. Do you have it? Are you patient enough to persevere through amazing success and devastating failure? This is what it takes to perform at the very highest levels of achievement.
Learn From Great Failures
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great has a new book, How the Mighty Fall, that has an interesting premise. He studied companies that were considered truly great for a long period of time and then experienced incredible sustained failures. He wanted to find out what made successful companies fail. The first stage of failure is what he called “Hubris Born of Success.” He wrote in the BusinessWeek May 29, 2009 Issue, “Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.”
Check Yourself into a 30-Day Gratification Detox Center
I think this idea of “entitled success” can keep many individuals and groups from ever achieving great performances. I think the most pervasive and dangerous addiction in our society is not one of the big four (drugs, alcohol, sex, and gambling), but rather the belief that we are entitled to “treats.” As in, “I worked hard today, and I deserve a _____ .” You can fill that blank with a variety of answers: $5 cup of coffee, trip to Mexico, an ice cream cone, a new dress, a new sports coat, a new CD, an addition to our house, a new car” and on and on.
It seems to me that we can become so obsessed with the treat at the end of an activity that we erode our ability to remain patient until we achieve a truly great performance. Treats are fine, but they aren’t going to take you to a higher level.
I challenge you and me both to enter a 30-Day Gratification Detox Center. Start with just one day. For one day go about your normal activities and when you get to the point that you say, “Ok, now I deserve a little treat,” respond by giving yourself nothing. That’s right. Give yourself nothing. Slowly wean yourself off of the addiction that every activity, even successful activities, need to be rewarded.
You might be thinking, “Dan, this all sounds a little too puritan for my tastes. If you take out all the treats, what is left? Life would be pretty boring.” If you happen to think that, then I would say, “Well, let’s see. What is left? If you take out the ice cream, donuts, cookies and brownies, then what is left is great energy that you can use to improve your performance in the area that you want to be great at. If you took out the clothes, trips, and house additions, you would have more money to put toward improving your performance in the area you’ve chosen to be great at. If you take out the little breaks in the day to play computer games, then you would have more time to put toward improving your performance in the area you want to be great at.
Achieving an extraordinary level of performance requires patience, a lot of patience. It requires the patience to put off the rewards, or at least concentrating on the rewards, and focus on improving the actual performance you want to be great at. That means working, focusing, concentrating, searching for ways to get better, working, focusing,… It doesn’t mean work a little, get a treat, work a little, get a treat,…
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America
I’m going to close this issue with a story that I think reinforces my main point in a variety of ways. On May 24th, the day before Memorial Day, I went with my eight-year-old son, Ben, and 4,000 of his closest Boy Scout buddies to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Our job was to plant a flag one foot from each of the headstones. Essentially a fairly easy task I thought. That is until I learned there are 130,000 military men and women buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. On a very hot, muggy St. Louis day these 4,000 Boy Scouts walked in silence for 30 minutes up to the ceremony, stood in quiet attention during the ceremony, and then spent the next two hours going all over the cemetery planting flags. It was an amazing experience to see tens of thousands of identical headstones spanning more than 150 years of U.S. military members. And then to see thousands of Boy Scouts inserting their flags one at a time made the day even more impressive.
This combined effort over an extended period of time reminded me of the effort my ten-year-old daughter, Sarah, and tens of thousands of her closest Girl Scout buddies make every year in selling Girl Scout cookies. It is their sustained effort that makes the Girl Scouts of America such an extraordinary organization.
Is it possible that we adults need to learn from our children how patience can generate truly extraordinary performances?
About Dan Coughlin
Visit Dan at www.thecoughlincompany.com. Dan Coughlin works with executives and managers at large and mid-size companies to improve their business momentum. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of the new book, The Management 500: A High-Octane Formula for Business (AMACOM 2009). Dan’s clients include Coca-Cola, Abbott, Toyota, Prudential, Shell, Boeing, Marriott, McDonald’s, AT&T, and the St. Louis Cardinals. He speaks on leadership, branding, sales, and innovation.