Are You a High-Performer--or Just an Overachiever?
BY Les McKeown
There's a difference. A big difference. High-performers grow a business into what it needs to be.
Overachievers make for worrisome business leaders, and they’re doubly dangerous as CEOs. Why? Because their desire to achieve blinds them from the vital need to perform.
'Achieve' comes from an old French word meaning 'bring to a head.' And that’s exactly what overachievers do: they bring things to a head. Sometimes it’s pretty to watch, sometimes not, but one way or another, they’re going to Get. It. Done. Whatever the cost.
'Perform', although it also originates from a French word, is something else entirely. It means in essence to complete something through alteration. The art of performance is not just to bring something to a head (achievement), but to complete it, to make it whole, to transform it for the better.
Performing -- making something complete through transformation -- is considerably more nuanced than mere achievement. You can bring something to a head (if you want to) by sheer brute force, but it takes subtlety, patience and precision to perform, to transform something into what it truly can be.
None of this is to say that overachievers cannot make great CEOs. They can, but it’s very difficult, mostly because what they are doing (achieving, achieving, achieving) looks like CEO-ing, even though it isn’t that at all.
An overachiever can ram through a new marketing strategy. They can wear down a recalcitrant team member. They will outlast a recession, explode past their competition, annihilate technical constraints. This all looks good from a distance, but up close, internally, it’s tearing muscle from bone, weakening the business.
Performance-based leaders, on the other hand, deliver results while building up the business, not weakening it. Like the overachiever, they make things happen, but at the same time, they make their organization better, fitter, more growth-oriented, rather than weakening it.
Here are the three main reasons why performance-based leaders deliver better quality, more long-lasting results than achievement-based leaders:
1. Benign Neglect. Sometimes the best solution to a problem comes only after letting the problem ripen on the vine awhile.
Performance-based leaders can (and do) do this regularly, but for the overachiever, the idea of putting something on the back burner and letting it stew for a while is akin to Chinese water torture. The achievement-based leader is constantly in motion, rarely reflecting, rarely observing - always looking for something to do. Which, as we've already seen, is not a great leadership strategy.
2. Collateral Damage. Achievement-based leaders (overachievers) look for the winning (i.e., 'best’ or 'right’) solution. Performance-based leaders look for the optimal solution.
The difference between the two is usually one of collateral damage: the high achiever's winning solution will often involve hurting others in the process. The high performer's optimal solution accepts there is a playoff between obtaining a result and its effect on other people, and seeks to balance the two.
Does this mean that performance-based leaders are wusses? Nope. It means they’re normal, adult humans -- as are most achievement-based leaders -- but with a different set of governing principles.
3. Self Doubt. Counterintuitive and weird, but true: Achievement-based leaders suffer from self-doubt much more than performance-based leaders.
I’m not 100 percent sure why this is, but it has proven itself to be true over and over again in my observation and experience. I think it’s partially linked to the second point above - that achievement-based leaders know at some level that they’re often prizing achievement above other people’s needs or expectations. I think it’s also because they’re typically highly self-competitive, and so are frequently second-guessing themselves.
Whatever the cause, it means that overachievers regularly switch from strategy to strategy as they second-guess themselves, losing confidence as they do so (although overachievers rarely display any lack of confidence in public).
High-performance leaders tend to stay the course much more consistently, leading others through ups and downs but keeping their original goal in sight.
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