4 Paradoxes of Great Performance. A Myth: More, Bigger, Faster is Better. There is always an optimal value beyond which anything is toxic…

The 99% blog posted “The Four Paradoxes of Great Performance” this week.  This may be one of the most insightful posts that I have read on what drives great performances in today’s high speed, global, information age – – and in a time and place where we are all asked to do more – – and more faster – – and more with less. I was so impressed by his thinking, that I have excerpted most of the post below. While the rationale for the “what” and the “why” is quite compelling, I’ve yet to solve the “HOW” in a disciplined and habitual manner and still remain effective. (Post for another day.)  And understanding that our teams need to operate in an environment where the 4 dimensions can be present, is a critical success factor in ensuring that great performances flourish under our watch as leaders.  (Yet another reason why there are truly so few great leaders and managers that exist among us.)

Tony Schwartz, the author, is the President and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of “Be Excellent at Anything.”  Schwartz feels that the key quality that distinguishes the best performers from everyone else is “to embrace opposites.”  “Honesty in the absence of compassion becomes cruelty.  Tenacity unmediated by flexibility congeals into rigidity.  Courage without prudence is recklessness.  As Gregory Bateson put it:  ‘There is always an optimal value beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what: oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy.'”  Schwartz explains that we operate best when we embrace our opposites in each of these four key dimensions:

  • The Physical.  Most of us live by the myth – born in the industrial revolution – that more, bigger, faster is better. In the digital age, we increasingly pattern ourselves after our computers, operating at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.  In reality human beings operate best when we pulse between spending and renewing energy…Consider something as simple as breathing.  The more deeply you breathe in and out, the more relaxed and focused you become.  The shallower and faster you breathe, the more anxious and reactive you tend to be.  In our rush to get things done, it doesn’t occur to most of us that intermittently renewing and refueling energy prevents us from relentlessly burning down our energy as the day wears on, and makes it possible to bring more of ourselves to whatever we do.  Most of us live by the myth that more, bigger, faster is better.
  • The Emotional.  At the emotional level, most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success. Vulnerability and uncertainty are seen as signs of weakness.  Confidence is undeniably one of the feelings we have when we’re performing at our best.  Overused, however, it turns into arrogance, inflation, denial, and rigidity. The problem is that it feels dangerous to acknowledge our limitations and difficult to admit we don’t know the answer, much less that we got something wrong. Doing so is a way of staying open to learning and growing.  It’s also an invitation to others – a way of establishing trust and connection.  Humility comes from the Latin word “humilitas” which translates as grounded, or from the earth. According to Jim Collins, in Good to Great, it’s one of the two qualities, along with fierce resolve, that most commonly characterize great leaders.  Most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success.
  • The Mental.  At the mental level, we’ve long worshipped at the altar of scientific method and observable facts and admired rigorous, analytic left-hemisphere thinking. If something can’t be studied objectively and empirically, then it isn’t really real. At the same time, we’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain, which is visual rather than verbal, and capable of big intuitive leaps and creative breakthroughs.  The ability to embrace both of these ways of thinking – to recognize that each is essential but neither is sufficient by itself – lies at the heart of whole brain thinking. The more flexibly we learn to move between them, the more capable we are of taking on the most complex problems we face.  We’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain.
  • The Spiritual.  When we talk about spiritual energy, we mean the energy derived from serving a purpose larger than yourself. Far too few of us feel this in our lives, and far too few leaders in companies recognize the galvanizing impact of creating a shared and compelling sense of purpose beyond simply being successful at the bottom line. By contrast, we’ve found that people in professions such as health care, education, social work, and the military often run almost solely off spiritual energy.  They’re so single-mindedly focused on serving others, and so define themselves in these terms, that they fail to take care of themselves. Compassion fatigue is the term used to describe caregivers who literally burn out.  Self-care is a prerequisite to being most effective on behalf of others. At the spiritual level, sustainable great performance requires creating a healthy balance between systematically taking care of one’s own core needs, and then using that energy to better serve others.

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