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Are You A High-Performer – Or Just An Overachiever? 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

Overachievers make for worrisome business leaders, and they’re doubly dangerous as CEOs. Why? Because their desire to achieve blinds them from the vital need to perform.

To better understand this important distinction, it's worth looking at the roots of the two terms:

Achieve‘ comes from an old French word meaning ‘bring to a head’ – and that’s exactly what overachievers do: they bring things to a head. Sometimes it’s pretty to watch, sometimes not, but one way or other, Goshdarnit, they’re going to Get. It. Done. Whatever the cost.

Perform‘, although it also originates from a French word, is something else entirely. It means in essence to complete something through alteration.

The art of performance is not just to bring something to a head (achievement), but to complete it, to make it whole, to transform it for the better.

Performing – making something complete through transformation – is considerably more nuanced than mere achievement.

You can bring something to a head (if you want to) by sheer brute force, but it takes subtlety, patience and precision to perform, to transform something into what it truly can be. 

"Overachievers bring things to a head, but it takes subtlety, patience, and precision to perform, to transform something into what it truly can be." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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None of this is to say that overachievers cannot make great leaders. They can, but it’s very difficult, mostly because what they are doing (achieving, achieving, achieving) looks like leading, even though it isn’t that at all.

An overachiever can ram through a new marketing strategy. They can wear down a recalcitrant team member. They will outlast a recession, explode past their competition, annihilate technical constraints.

This all looks good from a distance, but up close, internally, it’s tearing muscle from bone, weakening the organization with every steel-jawed brutalist act of over-achievement.

In the next post I’ll share the three ways in which performers differ most clearly from achievers, but for today, ask yourself this: “Am I trying to achieve, or perform?”

What about you - how do you deal with underperforming over-achievers?

Let me know in the comments below!


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  1. Another great additional thought to the fundamental differences between management and leadership. We all realize that the two are not mutually exclusive, nor do all of us have the same mix of talents, desires, drive, and abilities. Continuing to build our understanding of the unique nature of leadership qualities assists in molding our attitudes and expectations for ourselves, while moderating how we develop the leadership strengths in those we influence. Thank you for the reminder and fresh perspective.

  2. I've always liked Garner's (formerly Corporate Executive Board) definition of a high achiever. According to Gartner, ta high achiever is a person who demonstrates ability and engagement. When you add aspiration to that mix, now you have a high potential.

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