In order for individuals to excel, teams to be effective and organisations to be capable, there needs to be a sustainable performance ecology. If any one of these elements is not developed, the ecology (just as in the environmental sense) is compromised. In this first article, we will be focusing on the foundation of the ecology: personal excellence.
Personal excellence is all about basic building blocks that enable an individual to excel, grow, develop in a sustainable manner over time. As such, such a concept is perhaps not well suited to most corporate contexts because most organisations value outputs, KPIs, targets over the processes that enable these outputs. People may argue that this just isn’t so, but I am yet to be invited to facilitate a strategic planning day for executives where the focus is on developing a strategy to build individual excellence, not on developing a vision/mission/plan/goal document for distribution – as if the document makes it so.
So what are these basic building blocks? Like so much in our information-saturated world today, it is nothing new, nothing mind-blowing and it’s not rocket science. In fact, it is basic psychology, basic human nature, core values. Perhaps this why we discount such things so easily: it’s not sexy, it’s not novel. It’s just bloody hard to achieve and it so much easier to be inspired by a pithy, but empty reinvention than to actually spend the time working on ourselves, our thinking, our choices.
Personal excellence is comprised of four key areas: self-control, courage, self-knowledge and self-respect. In order to achieve personal excellence, we need to expand equally in each one of these areas and keep them in balance. If we over-develop or under-develop any area, it will upset the internal ecology.
Self-control is all about self-management, order, structure, certainty and ultimately, power. Self-management is a fundamental skill for children, adolescents and adults. It features in thousands of articles, books and research studies in child development, emotional intelligence and regulation, social systems theory, adult learning theory and the list goes on. To excel or move beyond our current capabilities, strengths or weaknesses, we must set ourselves some form of target/goal/idea and then we must manage, control, regulate and structure our thinking, feeling, behaviours and choices in the pursuit of this target.
There is a fascinating tension of power in self-control: between the power to think, feel, choose and do with the power to contain, hold back, limit and weaken. Perhaps this is why so many people struggle with personal power. The tyranny of the OR in our culture is such that perhaps we struggle with entertaining two ideas in tension or conflict with each other. You can also see how important this is in terms of adolescent development as young adults struggle with personal power in relation to their own sense of self, their sense of identity within the family, their sense of identity and power in tension with their parents, their teachers, their coaches, their sense of identity with their peers and groups.
There is a beautiful word that stands out in my mind here: “containment”. I think that for may adolescents, boys in particular, their rite of passage is really on containment: learning how to control and manage (contain) their burgeoning power: physical power, intellectual power and emotional power. Without real, live role models with whom they can feel tangibly the force of their power, how can they ever learn consequence? There is no consequence to pushing a button on a gamepad and watching digital blood spray in HD.
While we need self-control to contain and direct our power, we need courage to actually take the step beyond our self. In just about every workshop I’ve run and every coachee I’ve coached, confidence is the word that always comes up, and I think this is such a shame. Personally, I believe that it has very little to do with confidence. And if it does, focusing on confidence doesn’t help. Because at the heart of the dilemma, is people needing the courage (the heart) to take a first step, any first step.
The first step is often perceived to be the hardest, most difficult, the most prone to social sanctioning and even ridicule. There is fear of the unknown here, pain, uncertainty. Having confidence (which at its root is about confiding in some one you trust) is not enough. One must act. Without action, there is no change, no chance to exercise power in the direction of a desired goal. Action and choice is the driving force that takes us from options and possibility to singularity and destination.
Self-knowledge is, not unsurprisingly, about perceiving, knowing and understanding one’s self: one’s thinking, feeling, choices, behaviours. If we do not see, know and understand who we are, how can we manage our self? If we do not know our capabilities and limits, how can we act and move forward in a meaningful, deliberate, purposeful way? And it is not enough to just know. We have to fully acknowledge who we are and what we do to ourself. For all of us, it is easier to hide from and disavow the small, petty, life-taking things that we do. If we cannot hide from such things, sometimes our intellect comes to our aid and rationalises and justifies the small, petty, life-taking things that we do. It takes a well-developed sense of self-management and courage to not hide from, or laugh off, or rationalise our weaknesses.
There is a natural tension between self-knowledge and self-management. As we endeavour to focus and control our thinking, our impulses and our choices in pursuit of a goal, there is the inevitable “why?”. Why am I doing this? Do I really want this? Is this really important? Such questions put a halt to action and erode our certainty. They cast down the sense of certainty and order that we have created. Conversely, our self-management endeavours to shake off uncertainty, our questioning, our intellectualisation by asserting its power and saying, “this is how it is.”
Finally, there is self-respect. To have respect, means that we hold ourself in some esteem. We have a deep appreciation of who we are, what our strengths are, what choices we have made and are yet to make. We admire our own sense of power, our courage and ability to act and our growing sense of identity and self. When we respect ourself, we keep our ego and power in check and at the same time, yet at the same time, we don’t beat ourselves up, we don’t tear ourselves down. If we don’t respect who we are, then we won’t have the courage to act. If we don’t respect ourself, then we cannot develop healthy respect for others and this leads to a variety of social problems, including narcissism (the age of selfies) and disconnection (inability to meet people’s eyes and interact live and in the flesh)
The interesting tension between self-respect and courage runs like this: if I respect and accept myself for who I am, then I don’t necessarily need or want to change. Of course, even more powerful than this is the courage to accept oneself as one is, wholly and whole-heartedly. But even more powerful than this is having the insight and courage to love and accept oneself as one is now, and still have the courage to want to become more and to love and respect oneself even more, particularly when that future self is beyond what is known, controllable, touchable.
These four core forces or values: self-management, courage, self-knowledge and self-respect are at the heart of personal excellence. All elite athletes are essentially and firstly, masters of personal excellence. Sport is simply the system or vehicle through which they structure their process of personal excellence. For corporate athletes, the workplace is the vehicle – albeit an unwieldy and largely unsuitable vehicle.
Why is the workplace an unsuitable vehicle? Well, that is another story for another time.