High Performance Leadership Part 1
Cultivating Meaning and Visions of Excellenc

By Robert Schwarz, PsyD

A Brief Parable

Once upon a time there was a city. The road to the city came over a pass. On the pass there lived a wise man. One day a traveler came and saw the man and the city on the plain below. The traveler asked, “ What kind of people live in the city below?” The man responded, “Before I tell you, can you please tell me what people were like where you come from.”

The traveler replied, “Where I come from? Well, the people there were of the most terrible sort. They were lazy and uncooperative. They were negative and pessimistic. It was so bad, that I had to leave to find a better place. So what are people like in the city below?”

The wise man sighed and said, “I am sorry to inform you that you are going to find the same kind of people in the city below.” The traveler muttered, “I knew it!” He cursed his poor fortune and walked off.

Some time later, another traveler came down the road toward the city. The traveler inquired, “Excuse me Sir, What kind of people live in the city below?”

The man answered, “Before I tell you, can you please tell me what people were like where you come from.” The traveler replied, “Where I come from, people are wonderful. They are positive and helpful. Everyone always tries there best. It was such a great place that I decided to adventure off and see if I could find other amazing peoples. “

The man smiled, and said, “I am happy to inform you that you will find such people in the city below.”

One of the morals of this story is that as human being we are meaning makers. It is not the so-called reality out there that is the determining factor in the outcome of our lives or our businesses. Rather it is the meaning that we make that truly influences our destiny.

High Performance Leaders understand that the final common pathway of all of their leadership activities is to create or cultivate meaning that leads to high performance.

Creating & Implementing Vision.

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What does the ratio 1.618 have to do with creating and implementing vision. The ration of 1.618 to 1: is known as the divine proportion: Why? This number represents a ratio that is found almost everywhere in nature. It is the ratio of the length of your whole arm or leg to the length of your arm to you elbow. It is the ratio of the width to the length of most leaves. It is the ratio of the changes in the scallops of this shell. So what is the point? The point is God keeps it simple. God uses this one program everywhere. If the Almighty keeps it simple perhaps we should too. Trainers and Consultants such as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Ken Blanchard, Steven Covey and Anthony Robbins all say the same thing. High performance leaders and companies clarify 1 or 2 central values that they can use to guide everything they do.

In the beginning of the 20 th century The United states was the only country that had a privately run phone company. The reason is that the then head of Bell Theodore Vail made a crucial Value choice. His choice was to state: “Our Business Is Service”. In 1910 this was heresy. He made sure that all of the measurements and judgments for performance were based on how well the company provided service. Operations were measured on service fulfillment rather than profit performance.

Dell computers has been successful for one meta value that has two specific applications. Dell was perhaps the first company to truly apply the concept of providing customizable service via the internet. They created custom production of each computer for the customer rather than buying a box off the shelf. Then they backed up their machines with incredible service for customers. (In the last few years Dell’s customer service has slipped as has their stock price)

Excellent companies have key values and missions to direct their efforts. Sometimes these are in mission statements some times they are not.

Perhaps the clearest of these is FED-EX: That value is absolutely positively overnight. Another consultant I know tells the story of getting a call from fed-ex saying that his package missed the plane and there were two options: Option A: they would put it on the next FED-EX plane but it would then be a day late and of course they would charge to two day rate or Option B FED-EX could and put it on a commercial flight later that night (and Fed Ex would absorb the cost. The consultant said, “I thought you guys have a policy about Absolutely…. The agent cut him off and said I will take care of it sir, sorry for the inconvenience.”

We live in a complex world. Things happen so fast and there is so much choice. You would think that all this choice and opportunity would lead to increased well-being. The research shows that in fact too much choice and too much complexity creates confusion, inaction, depression and anxiety. So we need to keep it simple. The chief value of High Performance Leaders and High Performance Companies is the goal of contribution - Contribution to their companies or to their customers. In fact, I would argue that the only legitimate way to make a profit, or a salary for that matter, is the contribution of adding value to the customer.

The High Performance Leader asks: “How can I contribute. How can I be of service? How can I add value?”

You can ask this in several areas. How do I add value in terms of creating products, improving a product, improving efficiency, improving or supporting the performance others in their tasks? A High Performance Leader asks himself or herself: “What are my unique strengths that I can utilize to maximize the impact of my contribution to the performance of my company?”

For one person, this could be: My strength is long-term vision. I can see far ahead in the market so that I can direct my company toward areas where we can provide value to customers. Some one else might say, my strength is developing the next generation of managers and leaders, I will make sure that we have competent motivated High Performance Leaders 3,5 and 10 years from now. A third person says my strengths are in motivating people to do their best right now.

Take a few moments and do the following exercise: Pick your three top strengths that you feel maximizes the impact of your contribution to your company or your customers? Rate from 1-10 where 1 is not utilizing this strength at all and 10 is you are utilizing this strength to its utter maximum in every area possible. Rate how much you are utilizing this strength to contribute. Assuming that you are not at a “10 “, what can you do to get your numbers higher?

Creating Magnifying and Utilizing, Metaphors. stories and Legends

Human beings have a tremendous need to feel that we matter and that we are significant. This is a need that is beyond rationality. If you want to motivate people you need to work with the need for significance. High Performance Leaders accept this aspect of humanity and harness it.

One of the most important aspects in motivating people is that they perceive themselves to be doing well. In other words nothing succeeds like the perception of success. This was demonstrated in a study where adults were given 10 puzzles to solve. They worked on the puzzles and turned in their answers. Half the group were told they had done well 7 out of 10 correct. The other half were told they did poorly 7 out of 10 wrong. These findings were fictitious.

They were then given another 10 puzzles The group that were told they had done well in the first round actually improved their performance in the second round. The group that were told they did worse actually did worse.

High performance leaders: create, utilize and magnify metaphors, stories and legends to create meaning that compels themselves and others toward high performance

At Frito-Lay they create a metaphor around the idea “We will deliver the potato chips 99.5% of the time”. What does this mean in day-to-day terms. It means that Frito-Lay will spend $100 to send a truck to restock a store with $35 worth of chips and pretzels. On a dollar and cents level this is not good business. But look at what Frito-Lay really gets for the money. The driver and sales force have a story of significance. “We deliver no matter what.” Each person can feel proud of this. Frito-Lay is getting a highly motivated work force on the cheap from this policy. Once accepted, metaphors and stories automatically become implemented in a self-motivating way that allows room for creative problem solving.

I know a microbiologist who worked for pharmaceutical company. On more than a few occasions she saved her company from a running a foul of the FDA when some people wanted her to let materials go that did not really pass inspection. Her story was that her job was not about making sure that there was a minimal level of microbes in the coatings used for pills. Her story was that she was saving lives of people who might be at risk due to compromised immune systems.

There is a famous FedEx story about a truck driver who arrived at one of the company's pick-up boxes, only to find that he had been give the wrong key and couldn't open the box to get at the parcels. He could have skipped that stop, or called his supervisor and made it into someone else's problem (and almost ensuring that the packages would not be delivered the next day), but instead he focused on the organization's credo and acted within its value system. Somehow, he pried the entire delivery box off its base and loaded it into his truck.

When he arrived back at his distribution station, a team of employees, alerted to the problem by phone, immediately fell upon the box with evers and hammers. They had it opened shortly thereafter, and every package made its intended flight. The driver became a local hero.

Creating a vision at the top is one thing. How do you make sure that it is implemented throughout the company? How do you make sure the vision is meaningful in production, marketing, customer service and shipping?

In their work on excellence Peters and Wasserman state:

“We were struck by the wealth of non monetary incentives used by excellent companies. The volume of contrived opportunities for showering pins, buttons, badges and medals on people is taggering…They actively seek out and pursue endless excuses to give out rewards”

I spent some time talking with a new superintendent of school system about how she was attempting to increase the level of excellence throughout the school system. One of her initial goals was to discover the stories, heroes and legends that already exist in the various schools and departments that are in alignment with her goals. Part of the plan was to cultivate and build upon, sharpen the resources that are already there. One aspect of a High Performance Leader is to be the shaper of meaning. Another step is to use a variation on the Ken Blanchard’s one minute compliment, I call the “one minute hero” and that is: catch people doing something right that can be turned into an exemplar of the company’s mission.

One Minute Heroes can be created in numerous fashions. Here are a few examples

A reference experience is the experience one uses to define a concept.

A new hospital administrator was happy to have settled a problem in a team meeting, when someone said,” What would Nurse Bryan do? The whole team started talking again, and eventually came up with a higher goal. Nurse Bryan. Had not worked in the hospital in 10 years. She had never been a supervisor. However, she would always ask the question, “ Is this the best we can do for this patient? Patients on Nurse Bryant’s loors did better and recovered quicker. Over the years, Her question became known as the “Nurse Bryan Rule”

To custom create myths and legends, metaphors and heroes in your organization answer these questions.

  1. What are the core mission values of your company?
  2. What are the stories, myths, metaphors, legends heroes of your company? What do these stories say about the core values of your company?
  3. Do these metaphors & heroes further the mission and values of your company? To what extent are there ceremonies and structures that celebrate and build on these myths.
  4. Are there actions, events and people who are not currently exemplars that should be?

After analyzing the results of these questions, you will either be in a position to clarify and strengthen the positive stories in your organization or you will discover that you have negative myths that must be overcome. Either way you are well on your way to implementing the company mission through the organization.


(In the next article we will talk more about how to overcome mediocrity and to implement High Performance attitude and behaviors throughout the organization)

Dr Robert Schwarz is a consultant coach and speaker. He is passionate about improving the performance of individuals and companies. His mission is develop individuals and advance organizations to maximize sustainable performance and well-being. CEOs, managers, business owners and line workers who are inspired perform better. Organizations and individuals that perform up to their true potential in providing value and service to others are more fulfilled and more profitable.

With 25 years of experience as a businessman, psychologist, consultant and coach working with thousands of people, Bob brings a wealth of experience in improving human performance. His trainings are full of energy, humor and thought provoking content for immediate use and long-term sustainable growth.

He presents trainings internationally on topics including, leadership, creativity and gender communication differences, customer service, advanced approaches to stress management and work life balance to government agencies, businesses, and associations. He has also written two professional books on treating trauma as well as numerous articles.