High Performance Leadership part 2 - Overcoming Mediocrity


Robert Schwarz,PsyD

I have good news and bad news about mediocrity. The bad news is that mediocrity is everywhere. One could easily argue that it is the norm. The good news is that mediocrity is everywhere and is the norm. Why can this be good news for High Performance Leaders (HPLs)? First, since the bar is so low, it is relatively easy to excel. Depending on the situation, simple common sense and courtesy will put you at the level of excellence. You do not need to do fancy tricks or supernatural feats of magic. Focusing on the basics doing them well and consistently with a modicum of humanity will often put you in the upper levels of performance.

True tales from the crypt of mediocrity: I was visiting a friend in New York on the upper west. We were returning to his apartment. We found a parking space on the street. We double-checked it to make sure that it was legal. We come back to the car in an hour. It had been ticketed that it was in a bus zone. The nearest bus zone was 200 feet way. There were no makings or signs that would inform us not to park there. It turns out that there was a missing sign. This sign had been down forever.

We actually found the police officer that gave us the ticket. He said there was nothing that he could do. We should be glad the car was not towed. This was true because later that weekend we actually saw a car get towed from that very same location. So every day, unsuspecting people were being ticketed or towed.

I went on line and contested the ticket provided all of the details. My friend corroborated the story. I was found guilty anyway. The next time I was in New York I actually went to the traffic court to contest this. I was told there was nothing I could do about. And so the story would continue. It was never resolved. They did finally put up a sign that would inform people not to park there. I never paid the ticket.

What allows this type of behavior? It certainly is not an attitude of service. It is the prevailing attitude of TNMJ: That's Not My Job. TNMJ has become the scourge of American organizations. It is strongly supported by its close cousins:

TATB - They are to Blame and INMIT - It's not Me it's them

Themassive increase of lawsuits in this country is based partly on the attitude of “they, the big bad corporations are to blame”. McDonalds should have foreseen that someone was going to hold coffee in their lap. I recently got something shipped to me and it had a kind of bubble wrap. On the bubble wrap was a label: “Do not use as a flotation device”.

Unfortunately it does not stop there. At any level of an organization up to and including CEOs people will look at a problem situation and say: “We can’t solve this, we can not act because…. The problem is upper management… The problem is middle management….the problem is marketing… the problem is government regulations. Sometimes it is not even a person: We can’t solve this because our computer system does not allow that.

This tendency toward INMIT strikes even the best of us at some point. It must be constantly guarded against.

How do you do not sink into the pit of mediocrity?

Step 1: Radical Responsibility: (Not blaming “them”).

In terms of leaderships the first rule is:

“Failure is always the result of the leaders rather than the led.”

The HPL chooses to ask the question: "How am I at the center or source of whatever happens around me?" The HPL realizes that it is not the so-called facts that define a situation or dictate the response. It is the meaning one makes out of the situation. Meaning is always created from our own point of view.

Take 9/11. The facts are the facts. But how you respond is based on your insides. If you are an angry person, you will get angry. If you are a scared person, you will feel scared. If you are a person who looks for the silver lining in things, you see it as a chance for Americans to come together and show their courage and compassion.

Radical Responsibility is a practice of focusing ones attention on the self as the major source of variability in dealing with life’s issues:

You are the source of your responses.

You are the source of (interpersonal) patterns in your life.

You are the source of your beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions.

You are the source of the solution (of the customer’s problem)

I have to tell you that it is not easy to choose to include yourself in the equation of why things are not working out the way you want. It is tempting to focus our attention on challenges and difficulties out there, with them. These factors may be part of the problem, but the HPL wonders: "How has my action or inaction contributed to this problem? How has my attitude contributed to this problem? How have my assumptions contributed to this problem?"

Another difficulty with Radical Responsibility is that it is such a rare commodity. And if you want to see where it is virtually absent, turn on the TV and watch our political leaders from each party. When was the last time to saw a political leader actually say, “Yes, I made a mistake.” Or, “You are right Mr. reporter my party does have a tendency to be too________”; or “Yes, Mr. and Mrs. America it was my policies that helped to create the economic problems we are having.”? Hell will freeze over sooner.

Radical Responsibility does not mean walking around feeling guilty, worried, or tense because you are to blame for whatever goes wrong or if things do not go right enough. These kinds of thoughts and feelings either prevent people from taking responsibility or immobilize them.

There is a specific psychology of Radical Responsibility (another name for this is integrity) that is part of high performance leadership that consists of 4 components:

The first could be called courage: In this case, the courage to ask the question “How am I at the source of this?” This is no easy question, and most people are to scared, too ashamed, or too proud to turn the focus of attention upon themselves. It is not always an all or nothing characteristic. You may be willing to look yourself in some areas but not in others. Courage is a prerequisite skill to high performance leadership. Without it you cannot correct your mistake and change course.

The second skill can be called “Neutrality”. In this case, neutrality refers to the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, rather than one single perspective. If you are not neutral you will have a particular point of view and will have difficulty seeing things from another perspective. These other perspectives can include: other people, customers, vendors, the competition, the regulatory board, etc. It can include long term and short term. The ability to see a situation from multiple perspective affords an HPL a better chance to see an accurate picture of what is happening and where things are actually going at the moment. Nowhere is this more important than in times of change or trouble. You need to be able to dispassionately see how things are, even if it is not pretty. If you are “upset” with “them”, you are probably not in the place of courage or neutrality.

The third skill is positive vision. Once you can see how things are, you need to be able to see how they can be better. Positive vision is particularly important in times of difficulty and challenge in order to balance the ability of seeing the problems as they are; otherwise the leader is at risk for losing heart or simply hunkering down and not seeing a creative solution.

The fourth skill is the willingness to act. This skill may seem self-evident to those who have it. But in fact, there are many people who know what to do, but cannot actually act on it for one reason or another it. There are any number of possibilities: The task may seem too big. The person may be too perfectionistic. The person may be afraid of failing. Sometimes there are too many unknowns and action is required without knowing the exact outcome because failure to act will definitely lead to disaster.

It should be noted that these mental sets are useful in every area of life, personal and business. The best way to develop them is to practice them everywhere all the time. You can practice them in terms of personal leadership, personal relationships as well as leading larger groups or businesses. The more you embody these precepts the more effective your leadership becomes. In other words, you want to be as congruent as possible with these ideals, especially if your goal is to cultivate a high performance team or organization.

Step 2: Congruence:

It is said that a woman walked three days to see Mahatma Gandhi. When she came to see him she asked if he would help her child stop eating sugar. He told her he would but she would have to come back in 3 weeks. So she walked home for three days and then three weeks later she walked three days back gain with her child to see Gandhi. She brought in the boy. Gandhi looked earnestly at the boy and very gently and firmly said, “I want you to stop eating sugar.”. The boy agreed.

Now the woman was a bit perplexed. She was happy that Gandhi helped, but she could not stop herself from asking. Pardon me, why did you make me go home and come back three weeks later so that we had to walk an extra 6 days to get this help? Gandhi replied, “Before I could help your son I had to stop eating sugar myself.”

Congruence as applied to human behavior means that all of your communications (verbal and nonverbal), actions and thoughts are in agreement and alignment. The previous story depicts the power of complete congruence. To put it more simply: High performance leaders walk their talk.

One of the problems in American corporations is a tendency for the CEO to be come isolated, to surround himself with people who won’t argue with him. He hears only what he wants to hear within the company. When that happens you are on the way to developing corporate cancer. --Ed Carlson CEO United Airlines

For instance, you want people to be fully involved and fully committed. The question you need to ask is how involved are you? Are you ensconced in the corner office or are you out and about with the troops? Committed and involved people feel free to disagree. Do you allow the creative tension of dissent? To what extent do you get real feedback from the line people or your customers directly?

Congruence is a measurable commodity that is at the heart of moving from a good idea to implementation. Here are a couple of measures that are relevant. The rating scale is from 1=almost never to 10=almost always. You can rate yourself or your team or company

Text Box:

Step 3: Focus your attention on the right things.

You cannot focus your attention on everything. Here are two particularly useful attentional focuses that engender High Performance Leadership

  1. Focus on taking action.
  2. Focus on building on strengths or positives. Focus on doing what you do best. Focus on helping others do what they do best. (as opposed to trying to fix weakness). Peter Drucker said “Feed opportunities and starve problems”

Focus on taking action. This is a finding that keeps showing up in the literature. For instance, Jack Canfield compared successful people to less successful people and found the major difference was successful people take action.

Peters and Wasserman stated “We have come to believe that they key success factor in business is simply getting one’s arms around almost any practical problem and knocking it off –NOW.”

There are a number of reasons this so important. Let me underscore one of them here. Beliefs and attitudes are shaped by behavior and action. Successful action breeds a positive attitude for taking more successful action. Taking action that brings one more in alignment with ones values and goals feels great!! It creates compelling internal motivation. This internal compelling motivation is the chief antidote to the #1 ally of mediocrity: a tendency to either not act or simply act in the same old non-functional way.

I have this one particular memory from about 15 years ago. It is forever associated in my mind with the attitude of taking action and excellence. I was at the Hyatt hotel in Hilton Head, South Carolina. I saw this young man from the hotel walking very quickly down the hall. He had a walkie-talkie in his hand. He was saying,” Listen we have a problem in the ballroom - scratch that - We have an opportunity to excel!

Overcoming mediocrity and excelling always involves taking action and usually in overcoming some problem. The attitude that this young man demonstrated was that every problem is an opportunity to excel. So the next question is: What action should you take? One good answer is “Small” practical action that is in alignment with your values and goals.

In New York City, one of the central strategies in lowering crime a few years back was to focus on cleaning up graffiti. This caused a chain reaction of events that was quite helpful.

Edi Rama, Mayor of Tirana, Albania has been elected World Mayor 2004. One of the key reasons he won was based on how he revitalized this city from the run down drab communist city that it use to be. Rama wanted to bring life back to the city. He looked around and realized that because of the strong influence ofAlbanian communism most of the city was in uniform gray. So they created a program of painting buildings bright colors of green and blue. As a result people started planting more gardens, outdoor cafes began to open up. The city started to become more livable. More businesses began to open up, the economy improved. It is of interest to note that Rama was a trained artist. He certainly followed the dictum of asking what can I uniquely contribute.

Taking action within an organization

If you look at what high performance companies do and high performance leaders do you will find that there are three ways you can spread this idea through an organization:

1) Pick a small thing that everyone can do (paint the city colors, packages on time)

2) Pick small things that you can do every day or week that have a big impact on an increasing number of people.

Peter Drucker tells a story of a man who became the CEO of a company. He had been in the 2 nd spot for 20 years. And had not really expected to become president. As I discussed earlier, he asked himself what can I contribute that if done really well would make a difference to the company. He decided that he would make sure to develop the leaders and managers of tomorrow.

So 3 times a week on his way back from lunch he would pick 8-10 files of younger men and women. Back in his office he would then open a file and scan it. He would then call the man’s superior. He would say Mr. Jones this is the President In NYC. You have a young man on your staff Cliff Daily. It says here that 6 months ago you recommended him for a job where he would get merchandising experience. Is that correct? It is? Well why haven’t you done anything about it. Then he would hang up.

Then he would pick up the next folder and would call the supervisor of that man. He would say “ Mr. Thompson this is the president in New York, I understand that you recommended Bob Smith for a job where he can learn something about marketing. I see you have followed through. I want to tell you how pleased I am to see that you are working at developing our young people”

Try and imagine the first day of this process. Who knows what this man was thinking. Since he did engage in this behavior he was probably thinking. “Well today is the first day and I am only going to influence a few people today. But after 4 weeks of this, I will have made about 100 calls. That means I have influenced directly 100 managers and 100 of the people they manage.” You can also imagine that somewhere in the first 2 months of this, people everywhere in the company had to be wondering which phone call they would be getting. According to Drucker, 15 yrs later people in that company were attributing a great deal of the subsequent success of that company to this man. On one particular day, one particular man engaged in one particular action and created a legend.

Focus on expanding positives. One of the big differences between high performance managers and leaders is that they do not fall for the trap that is certainly endemic to the field of psychology. Namely looking more at weaknesses and pathology rather than strengths and resources.

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman detailed the outcome of a gallop research project where they interviewed 80,000 managers from 400 companies. The goal was to find out what great managers do differently. They came up with some interesting findings. Remember earlier we talked about where you focus your attention influences the outcomes of the endeavor. This project was looking for the characteristics and actions of excellence. One of their findings was that great managers tend to focus 80% of their time and energy on the top 20% of their people who give the best performance. Here are some thoughts based on their work

Investing in your best is the only way to reach excellence

The language of average is pervasive. To some extent this is necessary. You need to know what the average or typical customer wants and needs. You need to know the average time it takes to complete a test. Quotas need to be based on some type of average. But you do not want to get stuck in average thinking.

One symptom of being stuck in average thinking is spending extra time helping the people who are below average come up to average. In fact you are much more likely to get better performance out of people who are already above average. By focusing on excellence you raise the bar for everyone.Perhaps the most classic story is when Roger Banister broke the 4 minute mile. No once could run faster than a 4-minute mile. Once he did it many could do it. You cannot escape the bell shaped curve. But, by focusing on excellence you can shift the entire curve toward better performance.

Investing in your best is the only way to learn

It is important to realize that the description of a problem does not necessarily tell you much about what a solution looks like. For instance, A baseball player got into a slump and so he started watching tapes of his swing to see what he was doing wrong. Not only did this strategy not help, it made things worse. Finally, his coach fund out what he was doing. The coach told him to start looking at videos of when he was batting well. Within a week his slump was over.

If you want to solve a problem in your organization, instead of looking at what people are doing wrong, Interview your best people about what they do to be successful, ask them what they would do or what they do when confronted with this problem situation. You are far more likely to find a solution to the problem.


1) Mediority is every where supported by the attitudes
TNMJ -- That's Not My Job.
TATB --They are to Blame and
INMIT --It's not me it's them

2) The Best antidote is Radical Responsibility especially when that radical responsibility is in the service of contributing to the performance of the company and value to the customer

Radical Responsibility is a practice of focusing ones attention on the self as the major source of variability in dealing with life’s issues:

You are the source of your responses.
You are the source of (interpersonal) patterns in your life.
You are the source of your beliefs. Attitudes, and assumptions.
You are the source of the solution (of the customer’s problem)

There are 4 compnents of the psychology of radical responsibility (AKA integrity)

The first could be called courage: In this case, the courage to ask the question “How am I at the source of this?”
The second skill can be called “Neutrality”. In this case refers to the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, rather than one single perspective.
The third skill is positive vision. Once you can see how things are, you need to be able to see how they can be better.
The fourth skill is the willingness to act .

3) You need to be Radically responsible for being congruent in terms of
Practicing what you preach
Provide resources time money personnel for high performance
Provide culture that supports people excelling
Making sure hidden assumptions & attention are aligned with goals

4) Focus your attention on:

A) Taking practical action steps now - that further your core values and goals

B) Building on strength and the positive

(In the next article we will talk more about how 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.