How to Take a REAL Path to Greatness

Key Point: I was at an event recently that involved a group of highly successful people updating each other professionally and personally. Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that every person and family has its strengths and shortcomings, success and failures. I also acknowledge that highly accomplished people deserve notice and credit. But I know that their accomplishments only paint part of the picture. This wasn’t the first time these people were together, but as people went around updating each other, it was all “roses.” My thought was, “Too bad, I’m not learning much about what’s REALLY going on and who these people REALLY are.” And guess what? I gave my own version of “fluff.” Too bad for them and me. Without being vulnerable and taking risks, not much growth happens. Now I’m not suggesting being authentic always requires declaring an “addiction” or some “story” that’s best left to a more intimate group. But we are smart enough to know that some things are going well and other things aren’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable takes strength, confidence and a level of trusting transparency. It takes courage to be vulnerable. And my contention is that great leaders and coaches have the courage to be so. What does the research say?

The diagram you see above is a 2×2 matrix that provides four options for performance. You’ll see that in the column on the left, you have the opportunity to do the wrong thing well or the wrong thing poorly. And in the right hand column, you also have the choice to do the right thing well or poorly. Most people assume that the top right quadrant is the place to be, since doing the right thing well seems like it’ll lead to significant achievement. After all, it’s a great feeling to master some skill and perform it the correct way at the right time and in the appropriate context. The challenge is getting to the point where you can do the right thing well. How do you get to this quadrant?

The above matrix belongs to Thomas J. DeLong, the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at Harvard Business School and the author of Flying Without a Net. DeLong’s view suggests the only way to get there is through the bottom right quadrant. The only way you can do something really well is to do something poorly first. Unfortunately, most of us are reluctant to try something new for fear we’ll look dumb, incompetent, and so on. As a result, we avoid taking risks, stretching ourselves, and being innovative. High-need-for-achievement professionals, no matter their titles or experiences, often fail to question their willingness to do the right thing poorly. The belief that perfection is the only acceptable outcome gets in the way.

Character Move:

Answer the following questions (As suggested by DeLong):

  1. How many significant behavioral or work changes have you made in the past few years? How many times were you brave enough to do something where you might look stupid or unsure about what you were doing?
  2. If you made a list of risks that you have taken in your work and your life, how many items would there be on this list? How many risks on your list have taken place recently?
  3. When you contemplate making a significant change in your job or career, what anxieties or concerns prevent you from following through? If you do make a change, what consequences do you fear most?
  4. Can you think of fresh instances when you’ve been completely honest and transparent with your colleagues, even if this stance didn’t place you in the most flattering light? Can you recall even one recent instance where you told your boss a hard truth? Were completely honest with a direct report? Or admitted your lack of knowledge or a mistake to a group of people?
  5. DeLong’s point is that without being brave enough to take a risk, you won’t get to this lower right quadrant. Once there, you must embrace vulnerability as you learn new skills and acquire new knowledge and sometimes have to say, “I don’t know.” But the reward for doing so, is taking the final leg of the journey to the upper right quadrant where you do the right thing well and follow your unique path to greatness.

Path to greatness in The Triangle,



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