In Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, I described “virtuosos” as those people who distinguish themselves and exemplify E5: excellence, expertise, experience, enterprise, and ethics. Of these five, excellence poses the most challenges for understanding it and attaining it.
What makes us excellent? First, we must be aware of what we’re good at and love doing it. It all starts with talent-the natural ability or aptitude to do something well. People who possess talent often initially take it for granted, even asking themselves: “Can’t everyone do this?” Eventually they realize they can deliver consistent stellar performance every time they attempt the activity, and not everyone else can. Further, once they have identified the strength, they don’t abandon it. Instead, their passion spurs them to find ways to use it in ever-evolving new ways.
After they recognize their talent, they acquire knowledge-the content and context for using it. They learn, either by themselves or from others, what they need to know to grow their innate abilities. They acquire these new skills quickly and adeptly because the process is both painless and enjoyable
Then, they organize their lives so they can apply their excellence -they hone the skills and practice what they’re already good at. Athletes know this, but those of us in business often overlook it. Sports greats work with coaches and constantly strive to improve already nearly perfect performance. Also, athletic coaches don’t waste their time attempting to develop talent where it doesn’t exist. Instead, they concentrate their coaching efforts on those who have exhibited the raw ability to become excellent.
The best seller lists indicate we’re starting to realize the importance of excellence with the continued success of books like Now Discover Your Strengths and Strength Finders. Even though we don’t consistently apply the knowledge in these books, we seem to understand, at least intellectually, that we will excel only by leveraging strengths, not by mitigating weaknesses. Of course, we should try to minimize weaknesses-but only to the point that they no longer undermine our strengths. In other words, working on a weakness will help us prevent failures, but it won’t ensure excellence.
This commitment to leveraging strengths won’t happen automatically, however, because our understanding of the concepts tends to be more intellectual than applicable. Too frequently we engage in a language of pathology and weakness, not health and forte. For instance, Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and the author of Authentic Happiness found more than 40,000 studies on depression but only 40 on joy, happiness, or fulfillment. Fear, depression, and anxiety can mask talent and retard the development of excellence, but overcoming them won’t create it. To attain excellence, we need to shift our focus.
Excellence forms the very foundation of virtuosos-those people who force others to take them seriously. They don’t raise the bar-they set it for everyone else. They serve as gold standards of what people should strive to be and attain. If you were to scour the world, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who do their jobs better. You wouldn’t hesitate to hire them again, and you’d be crushed if you found out they were leaving. They embody the essence of excellence.