Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Four Paradoxes of Great Performance

We each long for certainty – the security of simple answers. What, for example, are the specific qualities that make us more likely to be successful?  Companies spend millions of dollars trying to define the key competencies for specific jobs.  Researchers seek to pinpoint the qualities that distinguish top performers from everyone else.

The more time I spend working with leaders at other companies, and leading a company of my own, the more convinced I’ve become that the paradoxical key to great performance – and leadership – is the capacity to embrace opposites.Stoic philosophers referred to this as the mutual entailment of the virtues.  No virtue, they argued, is a virtue by itself.  Even the noblest virtues, standing alone, have their limits.

Honesty in the absence of compassion becomes cruelty.  Tenacity unmediated by flexibility congeals into rigidity.  Courage without prudence is recklessness.

As Gregory Bateson put it: “There is always an optimal value beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what: oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy.”

Instead, operate best when we embrace our opposites in each of the four key dimensions of our lives:

1. The Physical.

At the physical level, most of us live by the myth – born in the industrial revolution – that more, bigger, faster is better. In the digital age, we increasingly pattern ourselves after our computers, operating at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.In reality human beings operate best when we pulse between spending and renewing energy.  Your heart pulses rhythmically when you’re healthy. Your brain is designed to wave between high and low frequency electrical activity.

Consider something as simple as breathing.  The more deeply you breathe in and out, the more relaxed and focused you become.  The shallower and faster you breathe, the more anxious and reactive you tend to be.

In our rush to get things done, it doesn’t occur to most of us that intermittently renewing and refueling energy prevents us from relentlessly burning down our energy as the day wears on, and makes it possible to bring more of ourselves to whatever we do.

Most of us live by the myth that more, bigger, faster is better.

2. The Emotional.

At the emotional level, most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success. Vulnerability and uncertainty are seen as signs of weakness.Confidence is undeniably one of the feelings we have when we’re performing at our best.  Overused, however, it turns into arrogance, inflation, denial, and rigidity.

The problem is that it feels dangerous to acknowledge our limitations and difficult to admit we don’t know the answer, much less that we got something wrong. Doing so is a way of staying open to learning and growing.  It’s also an invitation to others – a way of establishing trust and connection.

Humility comes from the Latin word “humilitas” which translates as grounded, or from the earth. According to Jim Collins, in Good to Great, it’s one of the two qualities, along with fierce resolve, that most commonly characterize great leaders.

Most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success.

3. The Mental.

At the mental level, we’ve long worshipped at the altar of scientific method and observable facts and admired rigorous, analytic left-hemisphere thinking. If something can’t be studied objectively and empirically, then it isn’t really real.

At the same time, we’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain, which is visual rather than verbal, and capable of big intuitive leaps and creative breakthroughs.

The ability to embrace both of these ways of thinking – to recognize that each is essential but neither is sufficient by itself – lies at the heart of whole brain thinking. The more flexibly we learn to move between them, the more capable we are of taking on the most complex problems we face.

We’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain.

4. The Spiritual.

When we talk about spiritual energy, we mean the energy derived from serving a purpose larger than yourself. Far too few of us feel this in our lives, and far too few leaders in companies recognize the galvanizing impact of creating a shared and compelling sense of purpose beyond simply being successful at the bottom line.

By contrast, we’ve found that people in professions such as health care, education, social work, and the military often run almost solely off spiritual energy.  They’re so single-mindedly focused on serving others, and so define themselves in these terms, that they fail to take care of themselves. Compassion fatigue is the term used to describe caregivers who literally burn out.

Self-care is a prerequisite to being most effective on behalf of others. At the spiritual level, sustainable great performance requires creating a healthy balance between systematically taking care of one’s own core needs, and then using that energy to better serve others.

What Do You Think?

Have you found that embracing opposites is critical to great performance?

More insights on: Achievement, Leadership

Tony Schwartz

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Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Follow him on Twitter at @TonySchwartz.
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