I’ve spent the last 40 years of my career coaching – and studying – some of the most successful people in the world. I’ve trained 17 #1 athletes in their respective sport, numerous CEOs, NAVY seals and hostage rescue teams, and more than 400,000 leaders through the company I built and sold. I’ve worked with people who have failed, who have succeeded. More importantly, I’ve seen them struggle on the way to success, and helped them make a few life altering changes that transformed their lives.
Over the years, I’ve been asked one question more often than I can count on my work with these elite performers. And that is, “What’s their secret to success?”
I’ve always loved that question, or a version of it. Studying what makes an elite performer – whether in sport or in business – has been most of my life’s work. I’ve published 17 books and contributed to many original pieces of research related to performance psychology. But what each athlete and each CEO was looking for from me, wasn’t “how do I succeed?” but rather “how do I succeed for the long term?” If you think about it, no athlete’s ultimate goal is to just win a match – it’s to win the title. No CEO’s goal is to have one profitable year, it’s to succeed in that role for years to come and make an impact. That nuance – from thinking about success to sustainable success is a big part of what takes people from good to great, and is often how I challenge those who ask me the question to think about it, too.
So, what makes a top performer?
What makes a successful leader? What does it take to win? And above all, how do you sustain that performance? After 40 years, I’ve learned it is one thing: character. Discovering the importance of character in leadership and top performance was… an accident. My academic and professional interest was in the Ideal Performance State™: that delicate balance that allows a person to perform at the highest level they are capable of, under stress. What does that ideal state look like? How do you get there? How do you sustain it?
But over the years, over countless encounters with some of the most talented people in the world, and over countless clinical studies on achieving and sustaining high performance, character proved itself to be the nucleus of it all.
Have you ever wondered why some of the wealthiest people in the world can seem unhappy? Or how many of them turn to philanthropy for their second acts? The reason for that is that first and foremost, we are social beings, and we are wired to connect with others. When we lose sight of that – when we think achievement equals more success, more money, more fame – and we keep trying to fill the void with more work thinking it will bring happiness and fulfillment, we find ourselves spiraling with no end in sight (other than burnout). Connecting with others is what makes a meaningful life, regardless of achievement.
Before I go further, let me address the elephant on the page, which is that people with poor character succeed all the time. That is (in a sense) correct. You can take shortcuts. You can cheat your way to the top. You can fudge a little here or there, and not get caught. This happens all the time. But poor character reveals itself over time, and more often than not will lead to something catastrophic. That is because no one has poor character traits “some of the time” or “at work but not at home.” They are there – and with repeated use, they become the new normal, until one day it affects them in irreversible ways.
I like to challenge the very definition of success. Is it financial gain or a promotion? Fame or recognition? I argue that success isn’t exclusively about what you achieve, but also how you achieve it. You can make a $15M profit for your company (what you achieve) by scamming your way there (how you achieve it). Some people would indeed define that as successful, even with cheating and unethical practices. I wouldn’t. I’m not even really sure they would, when they are thinking about their life in their last moments on this earth.
Many of you know about the speed-skater Dan Jansen who because of his repeated failures was destined to become one of the greatest chokers in sports history only to later win the gold medal and break an Olympic record. (In the same event, he came in 26th two years earlier.) Dan and I worked hard on several things together. One of the biggest was his definition of success. It’s not uncommon for incredibly ambitious people to tie their worth and identity to a specific accomplishment – a promotion, or a win. But ahead of the gold medal around his neck, he explored what success really meant. To separate success in achievement and success in life, Dan found peace. And it became much more about the journey, what he learned, who he interacted with, and how he acted that transformed everything. This was character training in practice. “There’s more to life than skating around in circles,” his father once told him. I still think that is the perfect analogy. His legacy will be so much more than his historic win.
The Role of Legacy
Legacy can sound self-absorbed. But legacy isn’t only about what people will think of you when you’re gone. Your legacy is the sum total of the impact your life made on others. Have you ever recalled someone from your past in terms of what they achieved? (“She was so wealthy.”) Or who they were as people? (“She so warm and easy to talk to.”) Certainly, wealth and fame will be remembered, but they will be secondary. Secondary to how you made people feel. How you showed up (or didn’t) when you needed to. How you behaved when the going got tough, and how you treated people especially then. So, we think of legacy in terms of the impact you want to leave for others when you’re gone. How you affected and enriched their lives. The way in which you connect to others – with honesty, integrity, empathy, humility. Those traits are in fact character traits. They are the how.
I worked with a particular highly-recognizable CEO in business for a few years, to try and understand where the misalignment in his life was that was leading to his lack of personal fulfillment. He led a global company, and a strong corporate culture was very important to him. He traveled almost constantly to rally his workforce and make them feel heard, to visit with them and meet with them, and be more than just a figure sitting out in Headquarters. It was easy to see how much energy he was putting into his role as a team leader, and it was certainly appreciated by his many staff around the world. When we dove deep, talking about his legacy, I asked him what he would want to hear, should he have the impossible opportunity to listen in on speeches given at his funeral. He didn’t miss a beat when he told me he just wanted his family to remember him as loving, caring, nurturing, supportive… present. There was no mention of what his colleagues would say about his corporate success. The shift was immediate. Once he started to think about his purpose and his subsequent legacy in these terms, it was clear that his family was the most important thing to him. He resigned soon thereafter, and to this day continues to believe that was the right decision for him.
Character has always been important, but it is more important in leadership today than it has perhaps ever been. Leaders are facing gut-wrenching choices and unprecedented pressure from boards and consumers alike. Shareholders can be short-term focused, and competition in the marketplace is as fierce as ever. Over the last few years, many media outlets have been covering the increase in CEO dismissals for ethical lapses, the increase in CEO turnover, and the rise in leadership failure within the first year and a half of a CEO assuming their new role.
Character is being challenged left and right, and it is often under the most difficult conditions that character strength and weakness come to light. Anyone can make a decision when the consequences are few, but it takes a special kind of strength to do the right thing the right way when all eyes are on you and the pressure’s on. That strength is character strength.
Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss, candidly and publicly talks about the importance of character very often, believing (and proving) that he and his company would deliver great results not just because of what they did, but because of how they did it: not being afraid to speak up on tough issues or voice unpopular opinions, making the hard decision instead of the easy decision, and taking a bigger role in leaving the world a little bit better than they found it. That will, more than his financial success, be his legacy.
Character is the foundation of exceptional leadership and extraordinary sustained success. Leading with Character, the name of my new book and its accompanying journal, explores this notion in depth. It establishes the true meaning of legacy, connecting it to ethical and moral character. Using concrete habit-forming tools, it will help leaders in identifying the flaws in their ethical/moral operating systems and motivate them to both confront their weaknesses and then take decisive action to address them. It will also help leaders recognize the critical role character health plays in sustained individual and corporate performance.
After 40 years and 16 books published, this is by far the work I am most proud of. I believe Leading with Character will have the greatest impact on the current and next generation of leaders, and my hope is that it helps reset how we define success as a society.