Excellence vs. Mastery: A Tale of Two Leaders

Imagine two successful leaders. Let’s call one leader S, and the other C. At this time, S is trapped in excellence, while C is in mastery. If excellence and mastery are like apples and oranges, these two will have very little in common. But not so fast; they’re both fruits, both grow on trees, and both start out life similarly. So it is with our two leaders. They share much in common, up to a point. But after that point, S became ensnared in the Excellence Trap, while C evolved to Leadership Mastery.

After the break, an article length case study follows that outlines in detail what the Excellence Trap and Leadership Mastery can look like in the real life of two CEO’s. Both pursued excellence. One became ensnared in the excellence trap, while the other achieved Leadership Mastery.

Let’s take a closer look at S. At some point, both of our future leaders became aware of the attraction of excellence and chose to pursue it. In S’s case, he was raised in an environment that valued and promoted excellence. His parents and older siblings were achievement oriented. Both parents enjoyed good careers. Dad coached sports and had a leadership position in a Fortune 500 corporation. Mom was active in church and theater and ran the local branch of a major charity. The house was decorated with its share of trophies and ribbons. Good grades were a priority, and the kids usually delivered at report card time. S took music lessons and was required to practice; while they weren’t the very best at their instrument, they did themselves proud at the periodic student recitals. Schedules were full. College was part of the plan. On occasions when they failed to win the game, or totally blew a test, it stung a bit, particularly because they knew they could have done better had they practiced or studied harder.


As he grew into his teenage years, S wasn’t necessarily a super achiever, but he did think it was important to do things well, to work hard, and to make a good showing. In some areas, he particularly excelled. He became very good at organizing events, and became captain of a varsity team, winning the regional championship in senior year. Like most people, sometimes he goofed off or underperformed, but he understood that achievement, excelling, excellence, is a laudable way of life and a reasonable expectation. He signed up for more than they needed to, rarely shrank from a challenge, Accordingly, he attended a prestigious, competitive college, where he graduated with honors. He traveled overseas after school, completed a great internship, put in a few years with a terrific company, and then went on to earn his MBA from an elite institution. S graduated school having come into his own and ready make a name for himself. Since then, he has managed his career development with great acumen, balancing commitment with a nose for opportunity and a desire to face new challenges. After several years building up an admirable track record, S is now the CEO of a leading corporation in a dynamic, sexy, and fast paced industry.

Now to C. While C’s early story is different, the excellent outcome is similar, but only to a point. Unlike S, C came to value and pursue excellence a bit later, after he had a first hand look at mediocrity and failure in his early years. His parents were content to live in the day to day. Cautious people of little experience of the wider world, they kept their heads down but their paycheck steady. Vacations were simple affairs and close to home. Books were few and ideas were not much discussed. Most socializing was with people they had known for years. C’s childhood friends were mostly from among the average to below average performers in school. Later most drifted into dull jobs, dead end careers, and in a few cases, trouble.

About halfway through high school, when a friend’s older sibling lost his small business, and another got busted for a petty crime, C began to recoil from the prospect of a life of mediocrity and failure. As he now saw it, not only were mediocrity and failure painful for people, insofar as they limited opportunities, narrowed experiences, and constrained resources, but they also limited one’s sense of pride and of a life well-lived. C increasingly saw his parents as well-meaning and harmless, but also rather dull and lifeless. His friends were wasting time with the same old pointless activities. And his future looked like more of the same. So at seventeen, while a junior in high school, C retooled his social circle, hit the books harder, explored the world around him as much as he could (if only online), and started dreaming bigger. And because he made a conscious choice to develop himself, his progress was as much tied to character development as it was to building his knowledge and capabilities.

It paid off. Like S, C went to a good school, and kept busy with a job, and with a range of extra-curricular activities. These years were invigorating and challenging, because C had to always keep his eye on the prize: a successful life, however he might come to define that after graduation. He got a good job out of B-school and started working his way up the ranks, like S, making wise decisions, delivering beyond expectations, and seeking opportunities to grow and stretch.

Then something happened. About ten years into his career, he started to notice a few things about his colleagues and superiors that gave him pause. For all their hard work, ambition, and success, too many of his colleagues reminded him of his old childhood friends in one crucial way: they all seemed to be doing the same things day after day, and were lacking in genuine inspiration. They were headed somewhere, but day to day they didn’t show much evidence of knowing what they were all about, and they seemed to ape certain predictable behaviors that they all associated with success: things like fortitude, hard work, long hours, high energy, taking on as much as they could, living for the payoff that would come tomorrow. They were the cream of the crop, and each had the job they wanted, one that others would envy. But they sure spent a lot of time bitching at work, jockeying for position, and going on spending or partying binges as soon as they could get away from the office. In a weird way, they struck C as better-heeled versions of his parents, on a road to nowhere except maybe a better version of the mall. Where were their great ideas? Why were they aligned more in dissatisfaction than in strategic action? Why did they slosh down coffee like it was water? Why didn’t they smile more? And most of all, why were they, for all their credential, capability, and confidence, so unable to take charge of their own unique value, or find and work from their zone? They were winners, so where was the evidence? Why didn’t they act like champions, and not as merely winners?Observing his superiors only reinforced C’s growing perception. Looking past the money and power, C saw frequent and disturbing signs of the Peter Principle, of poorly repressed hostility, substance abuse problems, outsize egos, rudderless movement, stress reactions, and families often in turmoil behind the winning smiles and thinning hair of his company’s leaders. When he discussed this with a few social acquaintances, they nodded and said it was much the same in their companies, with a few notable exceptions. They didn’t like it, but they seemed to have no ideas for how to change it. They acted as if this was just the way things are in an imperfect world.

C had no intention of leaving his career; he loved what he did and had worked too hard to chuck it all now. And he valued the opportunities it gave him and respected the commitment to success that his colleagues had. But it started to occur to C that, while failure and mediocrity has their own associated pain, successful people also seemed to suffer, and apparently unavoidably. All the bottled water, stress management, trips to the gym, creature comforts, etc. didn’t make a fundamental difference. Was it the human condition, or was there a way out? Could he be successful and not fall prey to this new, more shiny version of suffering? There had to be a better way. He knew that sacrifice was a virtue, and that occasional compromise could be a wise tactic. But what he had noticed all around him started to look like a raw deal, more like a betrayal. And just like when he was 17, C was having none of it.

S Today: The Excellence TrapFor S, business is pretty good, but a constant challenge. The senior team has been working together for two years and there are no glaring weaknesses. They are very well-compensated, and look forward to the next opportunity for performance based rewards, as well as to their maturing options. All in all they have reason to be proud. They worked hard, played by the rules, took some wise gambles that paid off handsomely, and won the admiration of many of their peers. And S sits atop it all, the “man in the chair.”Now let’s take a closer look. Interviews with key people reveal the following:

– They feel constantly pressured, sometimes beyond all reason, to deliver more with less.

– Many are planning an exit strategy, and they suspect that their own people are doing the same, or at least fantasizing about it when they should be working. Problem is, the grass doesn’t look much greener elsewhere.

– S brooks little contradiction, and can sometimes be verbally abusive. He even seems to get a kick out of it, keeping people on their toes.

– S seems to want people around who he can spontaneously brainstorm with, but most people feel intimidated and are managing their “fear factor.” They tend to feel like “yes men” trying to not seem like “yes men.”

– S carries himself with confidence and style, and exudes aura of power and command when appropriate.

– S is actually a good guy if you can get some time away from the office and get a few drinks into him. But with responsibility he’s changed. His old friends are a bit worried.

– Nobody can articulate a corporate or brand vision, beyond, “Make more money. Maker the numbers go up.”

– Recruitment has become a challenge as people hear rumors of churn and burn at the company, and the facts suggest that those who do come often do so to get experience in order to “write their own ticket” and leave.

– As the brand matures, the company faces issues which will force it to take a close look at its heritage, its identity and its future. To do so will require looking at some taboos full in the face. But “a table full of smart, achievement-oriented, well compensated successful people can’t seem to get traction” on these key issues facing the company.- S is “smart as hell,” “passionate about the business” and delivering results. But he is perceived as driven by self-interest, and “probably driving the numbers up whatever the cost in order to land the next big job.” Apparently exit strategies go right to the corner office.

– S is a model of hard work and commitment, but people worry about burn out and suspect that things maybe aren’t so great at home.- S lives by the work hard, play hard mantra and chases trophy experiences and purchases which can be the envy of those around them.

– The company can be like a big family, but some family members fly charter and stay at extremely cool hotels.

And when we speak with S, he tells us, “I always thought that when I got to this point, with a job like mine, I’d be living large. Not so. Somewhere along the line, it should have become easier, but it didn’t. The perks are great, but the job is a bitch. I have an enviable job, or at least a job people envy. But now I feel that my days are like battles. It’s takes total commitment from everyone to achieve a marginal change in the key business metrics. We have no choice but to push, always. I know I’m very, very good at what I do, and I’m supported by excellent people, but still I often feel like we’re muddling through, just juggling, and racing from fire to fire, even while others seem to think it’s me that dazzles. Nope, I’m just always standing near a fire! The stress can be killing sometimes. Forget vision. And, remember, I’m a success.”

Looking back, S says, “I always excelled. I did the right things, for my whole life, even when I was a kid. But I’m certainly in the ‘Something has to give” phase of life, even while I still want to achieve more, do more, and have more. I guess if I’m suffering, my people must be suffering, and that means the company is suffering. It’s as if all this just passes for normal, for OK. Sometimes I think, ‘I’ve got 5 more years to go, then it’ll all be someone else’s problem.’ And that’s not what I signed up for. But, as I said, what’s the alternative? It’s not as if the competition is going to send me a masseuse.”

C Today: Leadership Mastery

Today C is one of the nation’s most admired CEO’s. Under his/her leadership, the business is consistently a top performer measured against all key measures of success. They have an enviable pool of applicants, recruit the very best talent, and have enviably low turnover rates; people stay longer and the teams work together like champions. A conversation with C’s people is revealing:

– C inspires a degree of awe in people. He’s described as “always engaged but apparently never tired,” as “like a geyser of ideas” and as having “this uncanny ability to be right, to see opportunity and know how to respond to it.”

– C adds value “just by showing up.”

– C is “the best boss I’ve ever had. I’d follow the guy anywhere.”

– C’s vision is clear and well-articulated but, “more than that, while we know what we need to know to implement his vision, we feel really encouraged to bring our own vision and ideas to bear on the business at all times. This is true at all levels. So it’s like a turbo-alignment around here. No one knows what everyone is doing, but everyone trusts what others are doing. There’s very little politics. Those people don’t last.”

– C is “a great role model. He’s someone who has found a purpose and lives it day to day. He’s demands full engagement and results, but he makes it look so easy and worthwhile. It’s very inspiring.”

– C “takes delight in changing the game. It’s not enough to win it; it’s more fun to change it. It makes innovation a way of life, not a source of pressure. We just make more, especially money.”

When we speak with C, he tells us, “I never feel like I ‘work.’ I get more energized and engaged as the day goes on, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time…But every day, before checking my calendar, and before giving any consideration to goals, deliverables, and various imperatives, I answer one question, ‘what do I need to do to be at my best, to be absolutely dialed-in to what makes me tick, and use it to effect outcomes? And what do my people need to do the same?’  Everything else is secondary, and everything is on the table. If I lose that, I’m just a highly paid worker bee, maybe a bit more capable than the others worker bees around me. And this job carries too much responsibility, and offers too much possibility, for that to be enough. So I insist that I come from my zone at all times, and I make doing so a strategic priority. I also encourage my people to do this for their self and for their people.”


Clearly, C has reached Leadership Mastery. He developed the Virtues of Excellence as a young man, but then experienced, observed, and recognized the Corruptions and Costs of Excellence. He lived life past the Falling Point and said “Enough!” That was the beginning of his transition to Leadership Mastery.

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