How to Get to the Top…and Stay There

I have always been intrigued by what sets top performers and leaders aside from those who don’t make it to the top. More recently, I’ve become especially interested in what enables them to stay at the top when they get there. Sustainability and longevity as a leader, in particular, has never been in more jeopardy.

Tony Weller | Getty Images

Recent headlines demonstrate just how demanding being at the top is. The most senior leaders at organizations such as Barnes and Noble , Pfizer and Lloyds have stepped down due to reported fatigue, exhaustion and stress.

However, there are many examples of people who have reached the top and stayed there for a long time. Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan and Jeff Immelt at GE immediately come to mind as leaders who have come through thick and thin and demonstrated sustainability and longevity.

So what can be learned from those top leaders, athletes and performers in any domain who are able to deliver success time and time again, rather than succumbing to the demands of being highly visible and accountable?

Having observed top performers at very close quarters in a variety of arenas over several years, I have come to realize that they possess a form of wisdom, know-how or intelligence. It is very evident among the world’s best athletes and I have also witnessed it among the best leaders and performers in work and military settings. Since this intelligence is about delivering superior performance on a consistent basis, it seemed natural to call it 'Superior Performance Intelligence' (SPI).

I have conducted a study of SPI with top performers and leaders from the worlds of business, sports, military, performing arts and medicine which will be published in the scientific literature later this year. The study identified SPI as, "A common critical awareness and know-how that top performers, from business leaders to cardiologists to athletes to performing artists to military leaders to entrepreneurs, possess to apply their minds, skills, techniques, strategies and tactics to the same high standard every time they perform".

SPI has three core know-hows:

  1. Knowing how to maximize your potential, comprising three dimensions which reflect a self-knowledge and ability to self-regulate to realize your capability and potential: ‘Knowing yourself’, ‘Stretching yourself’ and ‘Sustaining yourself’.
  2. Knowing how to work with your environment, comprising three dimensions which involve knowing how to shape and use the performance environment to your advantage: ‘Knowing your environment’, ‘Shaping your environment’ and ‘Being in tune with your environment’.
  3. Knowing how to deliver top performance, comprising three dimensions around the process of performing to high levels on a consistent basis: ‘Planning and preparing’, ‘Delivering’, and ‘Evaluating’.

Being smart in all of the know-hows is crucial in sustaining success, as reinforced by a CEO I’ve worked closely with. Her smartness in 'knowing how to maximize your potential' was evident in a self-knowledge and ability to self-regulate which enabled her to thrive on the visibility of being under the spotlight.

She was also hungry to develop a deep awareness of the key principles of 'knowing how to deliver top performance' on a sustainable basis. And she recognized that she could not do it on her own. 'Knowing how to work with your environment' was a high priority and she ensured that she found different ways of soliciting feedback on her people’s morale and engagement.

A gap or weakness in any of the know-hows will jeopardize longevity at the top. For example, the CEO of a company which had been acquired by a much larger organization had consistently hit the numbers and so was good at 'knowing how to deliver top performance'. And he had risen quickly through the organization, demonstrating strength in 'knowing how to maximize your potential'.

However, he was poor at 'knowing how to work with your environment'. His suspicions about the acquiring company’s plans led to constant confrontation and working against the 'new environment' rather than with it. He role-modeled a 'victim mentality' which soured relations between his own people and the acquiring company. This gap in his SPI had serious consequences — he was sacked!

So leaders wanting to get to the top and stay there will have to do more than work hard and long. And it will be much more than being in the right place at the right time. A big factor will be developing the know-how or intelligence identified here.