Real Leaders

Escape Excellence: How to Have Sustainable Peak Performance and Lower Costs

Ever since the highly influential book, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, was published nearly thirty years ago, leaders have been, well, in search of excellence, seeking to drive excellent performance into their organizations through this and subsequent waves of business and organizational movements such TQM, Six Sigma, reengineering, moving from good to great, applying emotional intelligence and more.

But as we’ll see, excellence itself should be considered a trap that actually undermines the very performance it seeks to accomplish. It can even leave us fallen at the 15 yard line with a season-ending injury, a shell of our former selves, never tasting ultimate victory. The problem with excellence is that it is unsustainable, and this limitation lies in its very core.

More than that, it’s self-undermining. As we’ll see, excellence is something we go through, not a final resting place. In the end, settling for excellence actually prevents us from performing at the highest levels and wondering what went wrong.

It makes us good, but holds us back from great. The good news is that we’ve diagnosed this excellence trap and its accompanying malaise closely, analyzing its drivers and costs, and created a way forward to enduring success.

The Excellence Trap

Here’s how excellence traps us and undermines us: on the one hand, in order to be good, or very good, or excellent at something, we have to bring five things to the task: Effort, Proficiency, Expertise, Commitment, and Acumen. I call these the drivers, or even the virtues, of excellence. There’s no way around them, and they are powerful and necessary qualities to have and to maximize on our road to achievement. Excellent performers in every walk of life, from CEO’s to trumpet players to plumbers, achieve their aims as a result of applying these five drivers.

So far, so good. But the problem starts when we experience how each of these drivers are in fact finite. They are in limited supply. They are not self-sustaining or renewable. They deplete. As a result, excellence is merely a stage we must pass through. Every master performer, from sports to the arts and beyond, knows this. Consider:

1. EFFORT Effort is work – pure calories in action. It’s required to achieve anything; no pain, no gain. Without effort, we remain dreamers. But effort is confined to our finite, physical capacities, so it is not self- sustaining and therefore can’t endure endlessly. Eventually, without rest, we tire and sustain injury.

2. PROFICIENCY Proficiency is an acquired capability, a specific technique or skill required to do a task well. We develop and hone these skills in order to become excellent. But, while proficiency tells us what we need to do, as a cost of entry to excellence, it neither identifies nor leverages what we uniquely can do. Proficiency lacks direction, purpose and voice.

3. EXPERTISE Expertise is specialized, accrued knowledge and know-how. It can differentiate us, but it doesn’t see to the heart or to the horizon of things. Expertise has no vision.

4. COMMITMENT Commitment is willpower, and the readiness to sacrifice in order to reach a desired outcome. Commitment stays the course, but it can become rigid and inflexible. Often it is the mental partner of effort, failing to see itself wearing out and becoming frayed and stiff, especially as circumstances change.

5. ACUMEN Acumen is the strategic ability to make good choices in a complex, changing and competitive environment. But it does not tell us which goals to pursue or why they are important. Acumen is merely tactical.

The Costs of Excellence

Unfortunately, and ironically, when we experience these five drivers which make us excellent in the first place starting to flag, it is extremely common to push harder on them, demanding more of them. But if they are depleting, then we will injure ourselves. We are using them past their ability to help us, beyond their areas of effectiveness.

When we do this, we pass the point of diminishing returns and actually start to do damage and incur costs. And then this puts downward pressure on us that can lead to mediocrity, pain, joylessness, burn out and losing our edge. When the excellence drivers run out, a sickness is released. This hard use after a sell-by date is the largest hidden cost in business, for individuals and teams, and therefore for the business itself.

In the world of athletics or the arts, it is responsible for things like injury, choking, stunning defeats, writers block, and loss of ideas and inspiration. In business, we see it in tired people, infrequent or small  innovation, dead wood, turf wars, incrementalism, misalignment, poor morale, increased sick time, increased attrition, and a general malaise that hurts the bottom line – and all for reasons few understand. But once we are armed with this knowledge, if we look closely at individuals and teams, or entire organizations that appear off their mark, even for all their talent, good intentions and hard work, it doesn’t take long to diagnose the effects of the excellence trap.

After all, everyone is working as hard as they can to be excellent. Ironically, the medicine usually prescribed (to be more excellent or to do more of what made us excellent) – the rush for more energy, proficiency, expertise, commitment and acumen, after they have depleted or outlived their usefulness – is just to invite more of what is hurting us. This is like flushing out the system with water when the water itself is stagnant, funky, and germ infested.

The more we rely upon what made us excellent after reaching the falling point, the more effort becomes entropy, proficiency becomes technocracy, expertise becomes rigidity, commitment becomes fixation, and acumen becomes cunning. And that’s not pretty. It’s costly and painful.

Yet paradoxically, without help, it is often the best people and companies that will suffer from the excellence trap the most, because they are the first to deplete, to empty the storehouse of what made them excellent in the first place. But a company full of cunning, rigid, egoistic, tired, risk averse, turf conscious people hellbent on outcomes is no fun, and extraordinarily inefficient.

So something new is needed, something beyond excellence, and something truly sustainable in relation to performance. Fortunately areas like athletics, the arts, and others have always known a better way. Let’s learn from them.

The Mastery Solution

Let’s call the thing beyond excellence Mastery. It is what great athletes, performers, improv comics, martial artists, composers, visionaries, sages, and the greatest leaders have been steeped and coached in, but it has remained all but unknown to business. It promises self-sustaining peak performance, with greater outcomes and lower costs.

There are two things that are crucial to know about this kind of mastery right away. The first is that mastery is qualitatively different from excellence; it is not a higher level of excellence, the most excellent excellence – it is different in kind, not in degree. Here I differ emphatically with Malcolm Gladwell’s dubious claim that mastery is a function of, on average, 10,000 hours of effort.

Nonsense. 10,000 hours work only gets you mere proficiency, even if it is very advanced proficiency. Every master knows this. (Think of the vapid virtuoso, the stunning technician with no taste, voice or vision, and nothing to say). And second, mastery requires that we replace the five drivers of excellence with five new specific drivers of mastery, making five shifts to attain this. (Note: as we transition to mastery we’re leaving talk of achievement behind, and replacing it with attainment.)


Energy is the stuff of life itself. It’s dynamic and self-sustaining. As physics tells us, you can transform energy, but you can’t destroy it. It never goes away. Energy is also the capacity for work. And it is fundamentally generative, so it demands to be expressed in action. Energy can’t be suppressed; it can’t sit still. Important: we don’t create it, we simply leverage it. We don’t spend it, we release it. We tap into it. Masters know this. That’s why they are fundamentally relaxed and at peace, never choking, even when the heat is on and they are pushed to the limit.


Expression, specifically self-expression, is energy in action. It is the state of real un-inhibition that has the ability to drive change. Expression doesn’t require self-motivation or have concern for outcomes; it simply puts it out there.

PERSPECTIVE Perspective provides an authoritative interpretation of the here and now, as well as what is to come. It sees deeply into the nature of people and circumstances with honesty, integrity, insight, and fearlessness. It knows the score, the real story. Perspective makes us truly visionary. Many people in excellence try to have a vision and lead from it. But a vision without perspective is merely an ego-fantasy. It does more harm than good. Masters have perspective.

INTENTION Intention has the power to make vision real. It is what happens when we get free from distraction and decide to come from our core. Intention says “yes,” with confidence and purity of purpose. True intention is different from will. Will is about ego and power, and it’s prevalent in the Excellence Trap. Not so with Intention. True intention is rare, so it both inspires people and attracts the necessary resources to make vision real.

WISDOM Wisdom is the sum of our Energy, Expression, Perspective, and Intention. It’s all about knowing what is true, right, or lasting based upon experience and understanding, discernment and insight. Wisdom is self-validating: it evolves us from being merely correct to being right. Wisdom is also directly linked to our legacy: it lives beyond us and abides in everyone and everything that we touch. Wisdom inspires loyalty and is the ultimate source of authority.

The Failed Alternatives

Before moving on to the how-to of mastery, let’s look at five strategies that are deployed in failed attempts to deal with the costs of excellence. Rather than fix the problem, these only dig the hole deeper and increase costs. Sadly, most people will use one or more of them eventually in an attempt to climb out of the excellence trap. See if they look familiar and ring true. They are:

DENIAL Denial says “tune out.” It ignores the solid reality of the limits, corruptions, and costs incurred inside the excellence trap and and seeks merely to tread water. This is the strategy of the weak.

BRAVADO Bravado says “tough it out.” It lives with the problem rather than decisively solving it. Unlike Denial, it accepts the reality of the challenge; it just ignores its real impact. This is the strategy of the brutally foolish.

RESIGNATION Resignation sees “no way out.” It accepts defeat and diverts attention away from tangible results to focus instead on future fantasies and exit strategies. This is the strategy of the defeated dreamer.

ESCAPISM Escapism wants to “drop out.” It leaves the game rather than working to change it. This is the strategy of the quitter.

BALANCE Balance is a “cop out.” Balance is the mother of all failed strategies, but it remains very popular. If you are “seeking balance,” stop now! You have been sold a bill of goods. Balance juggles everything and accomplishes nothing. It seeks to manage the situation rather than change the game. This is the strategy of the duped. There is a way out, but these are not it.

The How-To Paradox

The only way forward is to change the game, to leave behind excellence and what brought us to it, replacing excellence with mastery and a new set of drivers. However, there is a paradox. Consider: if we attempt to shift from excellence to mastery using the methods we know, specifically those of excellence, we won’t get there. Because, again, they are different in kind. We’ll fail, grow frustrated, add insult and injury, and give up.

And we would be perfectly rational to do so. So not only do we need new drivers to achieve mastery, we need a new way to make the shifts to what drives mastery in the first place! Not to worry, there is a way, also known to the great masters and top performers outside of business. The paradox is that in order to make these shifts, we must set the shifts themselves aside; we don’t work on them directly.

Instead, we work on something else and find that the shifts then occur of their own accord, as an outcome. We find our way to our ultimate destination via an indirect path. This is confusing to excellence, but crystal clear to mastery.

The Indirect Path

Put simply, we experience the five shifts to mastery when we get out of our own way, acting with self knowledge, spontaneity, confidence, fearlessness, and integrity. We do this by identifying and working from our core, or what we call our Dynamic Essence (essence because it is distilled; dynamic because it always wants to be in action). It changes everything, bringing us to mastery. While it is the topic for a much longer piece, in our work we work to discover and release this dynamic essence through a structured inquiry that is applied to leaders, teams, entire cultures, and, with a few modifications, even brands. This inquiry is built around six core drivers that together add up to the whole: the entire person, team, organization, culture or the brand. These drivers are:

STORY Story reveals the narrative we tell ourselves and others, the interpretive frame that we live inside.

VALUE Value reveals what we give priority and precedence to, what is vitally important to us and at stake for us, both ethically and economically.

FLOW Flow reveals when time stands still and we operate effortlessly and joyfully.

PEAK Peak reveals what has been best and highest for us.

PURPOSE Purpose reveals what our passion, work, and attention have all been for.

CONNECTION Connection reveals how we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us.   With insights into each of these, we identify and release our dynamic essence, our strongest asset. Then we live from it, at first consciously, but increasingly unconsciously; at first with trepidation, but increasingly fearlessly. And when that happens, lo and behold, we leave the depleted drivers of excellence behind, with all their hidden yet painful costs, and make the five shifts to mastery.

The good news is that it is not an either-or game; every degree of change yields rewards. We can do it a bit at a time, until we can be called masterful. We have now applied in business, and in our personal lives, what the great masters have always known: how to perform at the heights, consistently, safely, and sustainably. This is mastery, reached by the unique mastery path. And it changes everything.  

Benefits and Rewards

As we saw, excellence only takes us so far, and eventually turns and bites us. Not so mastery. Masterful people and organizations don’t burn out, they don’t choke, they don’t suffer avoidable injury, they don’t incur hidden costs, they are not the victims of circumstance, they don’t peak, they don’t panic or sweat. Instead, they stay in peak performance mode, with joy, integrity, and grace. They operate with lower costs. They deliver and keep delivering, and in new ways.

They attract the best people, they make their own luck, they have self-sustaining capacity, they read the currents and ride the wave. They are often inexplicable to others trapped in excellence. They win deep admiration and trust, becoming the go-to person in a crisis. They never become irrelevant. They smile a lot, as if they know a secret or the joke. They deepen. They lead. They win. They contribute. They leave a legacy.

And like a pure vibrating musical note in absence of friction to slow it down, they resonate broadly, they sustain. They neither stop nor are stopped, until their own good end. And they get there only by leaving excellence behind.


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