The Traits of Achievement


A provocative opinion piece in the NY Times, “What Drives Success?” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, suggested this Sunday that cultural traits can provide the impetus for success:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

Reading this, I thought of how this “Triple Package” of traits connects to some of the concepts that Jim Collins articulates in Good to Great (which I’ve discussed here before) for the most successful organizations.

In the framework of concepts that Collin’s lays out in his book,”Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and “A Culture of Discipline” especially resonate with the logic that the authors of the NY Times article present, though I will argue that the term “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld choose may not be the most useful.

Let’s look a little closer at how these traits of successful organizations and cultures align.

Insecurity and the Brutal Facts

According to Collins, one of the central traits of remarkably successful organizations that have gone from good to great is that they are willing to “confront the brutal facts.” In other words, these organizations create an environment where the truth is able to be heard, even when it might not be something that leaders want to hear. There are mechanisms in place for people to provide honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

This openness to unpleasant news bears some linkage to the trait of insecurity in an individual or culture. When you are insecure, you are sensitive to feedback even from strangers in the street. You dissect run-of-the-mill conversations to determine why your comments didn’t seem to land the way you imagined it would.

Insecurity, as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest, can be pathological in the absence of the other traits of success: “Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough.” But when complemented by other qualities, this sense of never being good enough can turn into a driver of achievement. Insecure cultures, like organizations, tend not to be complacent.

Insecurity, the Superiority Complex, and the Stockdale Paradox

One of the ways that Jim Collins explains how “Level 5 Leaders” manifest the capacity for “confronting the brutal facts” is what he terms the “Stockdale Paradox.” Named after an Admiral who was tortured “over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973,” the paradox delineates that even as you confront the brutal facts of your reality, you must also be able to “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

This paradoxical faith, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, parallels the notion of a “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld refer to. However, I don’t feel that the latter terminology is the most productive. When considered from the vantage of Admiral Jim Stockdale, it wasn’t necessarily a feeling of being better than others that enabled him to survive and thrive in horrific circumstances—it was that he had an unwavering faith that he would prevail. This may seem like equivocation, but I feel there is a subtle distinction between an unearned sense of superiority and a disciplined determination and will. Someone who believes they are superior or exceptional are not likely to confront the brutal facts of their reality for any sustained period of time. Yet someone who believes they will prevail against all odds—even as they confront the brutal reality of their existence—can continue to endure far beyond even their own expectations.

The Hedgehog Concept and the Superiority Complex

Another concept Collins explores in Good to Great that aligns with this unfortunately named “superiority complex” is the “Hedgehog Concept.” A common quality of successful organizations that Collins studied was that they had a strong and clear understanding of what they were best at, and they took action based on this understanding with a relentless focus.

This is again why I think using a term like “superiority complex” is unfortunate. There are certainly people who are masters of their craft who act like they have a superiority complex. Yet if they are truly masters, they most likely have a fairly accurate picture of their weaknesses and strengths in their particular domain. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect“:

“Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation (Bold added).

Again, we can see the focus on confronting the brutal facts of reality. Someone who does have a superior skill or expertise in a domain has gained that superiority through a relentless focus on their weaknesses.

Similarly, in the top functioning organizations, a Hedgehog Concept is brought into fruition via a commitment to hard work and investment based on the understanding of what it can be best at. Collins writes that “The Hedgehog Concept requires a severe standard of excellence. It’s not just about building on strength and competence, but about understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it.”

Impulse Control and A Culture of Discipline

A final correlation between Chua and Rubenfeld’s explication of “What Drives Success?” and Collins’ Good to Great is the skill of “impulse control” and “a culture of discipline.” I’m not going to spend much time on this, as I think this one is more self-evident, especially given the increased focus in education and other realms on self-control and grit. Suffice it to say that what ties together a relentless focus on excellence and an uncompromising openness to negative feedback is discipline.

As Collins’ neatly frames it, “A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action.”

So what drives success?

It’s interesting to compare Chua and Rubenfeld’s cultural traits of success against Collins’ framework of organizational success, because it enables us to recognize that both any given group of people or organization will rise or fall based upon the culture that is established via thoughts and action. Furthermore, the traits and patterns of successful groups and organizations can be studied and emulated.

So the question for your homework this week is: how does a school establish a culture steeped in such traits of success?

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