As I work with high performing leaders I am always trying to study what makes them unique, how did they become special, and how did they separate themselves from others on the performance spectrum? One conclusion I have made is that they often have a checkered past. Not a checkered past like being a criminal but a checkered past that it is full of interesting experiences from a broad background. Their past is full of experiences where they have had to deal with set backs, bad luck, tough no-win situations, and even failures. These may include jobs they didn’t get, getting fired, being caught up in a political drama that challenged their integrity, or other similar things. This checkered past almost always also contains a list of odd jobs they have held, which on the surface appear to have nothing to do with the position they currently hold.
When I work with these high performers on their high performance mindset and their personal sustainable high performance, one thing that often fascinates me is that they never talk about how unlucky they were, how unfairly they were treated, or even how they are the product of hard knocks. Instead, they wear their past like a PhD shingle. As my wise fire chief, Alan Brunacini, used to tell me with a smile when I was sharing my frustration with the cultural resistance to new ideas, “I understand your frustration but do you want me to show you the whip marks on my back from having new ideas?” Then he would pretend to turn and pull his shirt up to show me. The point was well received. His creativity, passion, spirit, and leadership brilliance was the product of his struggles, his bad luck, and the beatings (figurative not literal) he endured.
The great leaders I have met are not the ones who have walked the narrow line of being popular or of trying to get everyone’s approval. Their path was one of taking stands, stretching themselves, and dealing with some difficulties. This would appear then that the path to greatness is merely just a path of suffering and pain. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I have learned is that it is what high performing people do with these experiences which sets them apart. These high performing leaders are habitual reflectors, reframers, and learners. They separate their personal frustration and pain from the experience. They not only dig into the lessons learned but they dig into the character, drive, and intangibles that these lessons created. This isn’t just about positivity or looking at the bright side, this is real authentic learning and growth.
There are so many great teachers to learn from but often your own experiences, the lessons you learned, the character you developed, and the meaning you derived from them is the best teacher. I always encourage the executives I coach to do a biographical sketch of their life and to capture these things. These are the attributes that make you unique and if built upon can make you great. Who knows, maybe one day, some snotty nose intern just may be asking you, “How did you get here?”
As always, I’d love to hear what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder & Chief Performance Officer