· 2 min read · Features

The mindset of sustainable high performers


I often ponder what makes consistently high-performing leaders unique. How did they become special and how did they separate themselves from others on the performance spectrum?

One conclusion is that they often have a chequered past. Not in a criminal sense, but a life full of interesting experiences from a broad background, punctuated by setbacks, 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, and so on. This chequered past almost always contains a list of odd roles, which on the surface appear to have nothing to do with their current position. 

They rarely 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 proudly.

As my wise fire chief Alan Brunacini used to tell me with a smile when I shared my frustration with 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?” The point was well received. His creativity, passion, spirit and leadership brilliance was the product of his struggles, bad luck and the (figurative) beatings he endured. 

Some of the most effective leaders I’ve worked with in the past decade are not the ones who’ve walked the narrow line of being popular or trying to win approval. Their path was one of taking stands, stretching themselves and dealing with difficulties.

Does this mean that the path to greatness is merely one of suffering and pain? Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve seen time and time again that it’s what high-performing people do with these experiences that sets them apart.

These leaders are habitual reflectors, re-framers and learners. They separate their personal frustration and pain from the experience. They not only appreciate 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 authentic development and growth. 

There are so many great teachers to learn from, but often your own experiences and life lessons and how you developed from them is the best teacher. I always encourage the executives I coach to do a biographical sketch of their life that captures these things. These are the attributes that make you unique and, if built upon, can make you great.

Food for thought. Who knows, maybe one day a wide-eyed intern will be asking you 'how did you get here?'

Scott Peltin is the founder of Tignum, a company dedicated to helping businesses improve and sustain high performance. He is also a business author and fire fighter for 25 years