The Psychology of Great Leaders

Almost anyone can be a peak performer with discipline and practice. Different people have different skills and different abilities. But what’s impo…

“Searching for the peak performer within yourself has one basic meaning: You recognize yourself as a person who was not born as a peak performer, but as a learner. With the capacity to grow, change, and reach for the highest possibilities of human nature. You regard yourself as a person in process. Not perfect, but a person who keeps asking: What more can I be? What else can I achieve that will benefit me, my family, and my organization?”

~ Charles A. Garfield, PhD, Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business

Do you have these 10 traits of peak performers?

Peak performers are not born; they are made—self-made.

Almost anyone can be a peak performer with discipline and practice. Different people have different skills and different abilities. But what’s important is doing the best you can with your talent and resources.

Most peak performers have some readily observable traits. Here they are.

Peak performers have a strong sense of mission. Whether they are an executive, a teacher, or a preacher, peak performers have a strong sense of what they are about. Having a purpose and passion about what you are doing gives you the drive and perseverance to overcome almost any obstacle. As the Rev. Rick Warren (the best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life) says, “You can focus on your purpose or you can focus on your problems, but you cannot do both.”

Peak performers are learners. The late Warren Bennis, who wrote dozens of articles and books about leadership, including Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, stated that the No. 1 trait leaders have is that they are “learners”—and lifelong learners at that. They might not always be enrolled in some type of formal seminar or degree-granting program, but they use their organizations as a learning environment and most have their own informal agenda for broadening their knowledge base.

Peak performers readily sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. To do otherwise often results in their tomorrows being like today. They have learned to give up the distractions and time-robbers that cause us to lose our concentration on important issues. They have learned to say “no.” Too many people have difficulty doing that and, therefore, don’t focus on their goals—if they even have goals.

As a general rule of thumb, those who are employed segregate their available daily hours into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of free time. Peak performers often invest a major portion of their so-called free time to improve themselves. They don’t just pass the time or spend their time. Some people believe their free time should be used as leisure time, and that’s all right—as long as they are satisfied to work for people who invest some of their free time in improving themselves.

Peak performers mentally rehearse upcoming events. They rehearse the upcoming week at the beginning of the week and rehearse each day at the beginning of that day. Perhaps nowhere is mental rehearsal more evident than in the way peak performers prepare for and perform at meetings. They perform the way some play the game of chess. They mentally rehearse what they are going to say and anticipate the responses of others.

Peak performers are team builders. They know their success is linked to the success of those who report to them as well as how others cooperate with them. Consequently, they are masters of showing appreciation, recognizing team members, and empowering others.

Peak performers course correct. In both their professional and personal lives, peak performers understand that success necessitates learning from their mistakes.

Author Charles A. Garfield says there are three major skills required for course correction: mental agility, concentration, and learning from mistakes. He believes that mental agility is being able to recognize the point of view of others. Peak performers even probe others for clarification to assure that what they are hearing is correct.    

Concentration requires stamina and what some call hardiness. It is a truism that losing managers and losing organizations either fail to concentrate, concentrate on the wrong things, or concentrate on the right things with inferior resources.   

Mistakes are inevitable and can be an invaluable learning experience. Listening to seasoned executives can often save junior executives from making mistakes their seniors have seen or experienced. This is as true in business as it is in combat.    

Peak performers are adept at selling their ideas and championing the ideas of others. Great ideas are of little consequence if you cannot sell them to others. Equally important is the need to be supportive of the initiatives and efforts of others. The more supportive you are of others, the greater the likelihood they will be supportive of you.

Peak performers are goal-oriented. They have weekly goals and longer-term goals. To them, goals are dreams with deadlines.

In 1973, the recent graduates of Yale University were asked if they had goals and if they had written goals. Eighty-four percent said they did not have goals but felt their future was bright. Thirteen percent said they had goals but had not written them down. Only 3 percent said they had written goals. Twenty years later, in 1993, those same graduates who had participated in the original study were again interviewed. Those who said that they had goals but had not written them down were doing twice as well as those who said they did not have definite goals. But the 3 percent who said they had written goals were doing 10 times as well financially as those who said they did not have goals. Peak performers know written goals are a powerful tool.

Peak performers dream. Their dreams keep them awake, while their counterparts hide in sleep. Peak performers focus on what can be and not on what is, could have been, or should have been. They focus on improving themselves and how good they can become rather than on how unfortunate they are in their present situation.

Peak performers challenge themselves by going outside their comfort zone. Complacency is a disease, and peak performers attempt to overcome the self-doubt we all have from time to time by taking action. If you aren’t doing something that somewhat scares you and makes you a little “jelly-legged,” you may not be doing all you should to advance and grow.

One final piece of advice toward transforming yourself into a peak performer comes as a reminder that the “goodies” in life do not come to those who simply labor. They come to those who labor and make things happen—good things for yourself, for your family, and for your organization.


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