Integrity Matters
December 6, 2006

Greatness requires much hard work over many years

Question: (E-267)

Dear Jim:

Is the pursuit of excellence about integrity? And if I am not great, does that mean I lack integrity?


Greatness and integrity are reflected in how individuals operate. Not everyone is wired for super stardom and greatness, but all people can exude integrity and excellence by consistently matching their words with their deeds. For those with tremendous talent, the pursuit of excellence is about relentless improvement. Greatness is achieved through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. An article in the Oct. 30 issue of Fortune magazine, "Secrets of Greatness," asserted that talent has little to do with greatness. Talent is an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well; it is not simply intelligence, motivation or personality traits. Most accomplished people need 10 years of hard work before becoming world class, and it can take 20 to 30 years in such fields as music and literature.

Deliberate practice is intentional, focused and measured continuously. Elite performers practice, on the average, about the same amount every day, including weekends. In a study of 20-year-old violinists, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next best averaged 7,500 hours, and the next 5,000. It's the same story in surgery, insurance sales and virtually all sports. More deliberate practice equals better performance.

Vladimir Horowitz is credited with having said: "If I do not practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three day, the world knows it."

High-performing business leaders deliberately practice presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements, making judgments and decisions with incomplete information, writing reports, interacting with people and soliciting information. Chairing a board meeting requires an in-depth understanding of the enterprise's strategy and a coherent view of the coming market changes. What is done at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.

Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business. Yet only the most effective leaders seek it rather than wait for it, half hoping it won't come. Without accurate feedback, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, "It's as if you're bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don't know how successful you are, two things happen: One, you don't get any better, and two, you stop caring."

Perseverance and intentional-practice create opportunities for excellence. Integrity, along side greatness, incorporates self-discipline, sacrifice and dedication.

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