Golden Geese: Keep the Eggs Coming

Steven Berglas

Successful people crash and burn after achieving stellar success far more often than they find ways to sustain, replicate or improve on their achievements. To ensure that your climb up the ladder of success will not end in a tragic fall, you might want to study what hubris is and what great thinkers have written about it, and learn how to inoculate yourself against falling victim to it.

In ancient Rome victorious generals were honored for their heroics with a parade. The honoree rode in the lead chariot followed closely by a slave who walked behind him holding a wreath over his head while whispering to the hero, "Remember. . . thou art only a man." The ancient Romans and Greeks understood hubris, the arrogance born of success.

Worry About Hubris

Unfortunately, self-medication is tricky at best, and usually disastrous. This is one reason why those who employ super-achievers should worry about hubris: It is far simpler and infinitely more effective for someone managing a star to treat them, than leaving a star to his own devices. The wisest CEOs I know accept this contention because they have embraced what quality guru Joseph Juran dubbed the Pareto Principle in honor of the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who observed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. According to Juran, 20 percent of your talent will account for 80 percent of your success. In bottom line terms, your top talent are worth every cent you pay them—and more.

Some CEOs sense this. During the past year’s economic implosion I have received twice as many calls to conduct "hubris prevention interventions" for top-talent than I did in 2008. Why? Top talent is extraordinarily rare, and virtually impossible to grow—these folks are born not made. Even if an A-player is acting out in the most arrogant and egregious manner, it’s more cost effective to coach him than to replace him.

Three Recommendations

You can save top talent from destroying themselves in three ways:

1.Pamper your pets in public, not private. I read the Bible primarily for management advice. Consider this brilliant Proverb: Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. I never miss a chance to warn CEOs, "Give talent almost anything they want, but never behind closed doors." Two idiosyncrasies of geese capable of laying golden eggs make this intervention crucial to ensuring their productivity:

First, in a functional sense, hubris is flaunting your prowess in front of others. No one cares if a superstar whoops it up in the privacy of his home, but when in the presence of colleagues he must be decorous. It’s one thing to know you are exempt from the rules; quite another to rub that fact in the face of a rule-follower. CEOs should laud their A-players to the sky at a group meeting, and then ask the star’s colleagues to shout "amen." Sanity, let alone innate modesty, will demand that the A-player say something like, "Gosh, guys . . . couldn’t have done it without you." But if you tell an A-player that he walks on water in an isolated face-to-face meeting, he may tell you that in the future he could dance across the liquid if you remove a certain C-player who irks him from his team. That might be appropriate for you to consider, but it is often not dictated by the facts, and it is never a call that someone should make for you. If, however, you hear top talent make that sort of demand, you are left between a rock and a hard place. To preclude this from happening, be as congratulatory as you want toward top talent provided you preempt them from demanding the authority to make personnel decisions.

Second, top talent will be bossy toward others whether you like it or not. In most instances, this is a blessing since they demand a no-holds-barred commitment to success from those around them. It is also easy for anyone working with top talent to accept their being bossy if it is understood that their power is contextual: When involved in a project, they have the right to call the shots. What concerns co-workers of Golden Geese is not knowing if their boss has ceded authority to an arrogant A-player, or if that person is just being arrogant because he can get away with it. If you are seen "conferencing" with an A-player in private, the ambiguity of "what went on" can engender out-of control fear within the rank-and-file that something is amiss. So spoil your talent, but only when everyone can hear how much special treatment they are receiving.

2. Work golden geese like rented mules. After his first season of playing pro basketball for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan, arguably the best hoopster of all time, returned home to North Carolina, played in schoolyard games with his buddies, and promptly broke his ankle. Bulls’ management reacted by trying to limit if and when their franchise player could play extracurricular hoops. Jordan retaliated by demanding that a right to play clause be inserted in his contract. Because of who he was and what he could do on the hardwood, Jordan prevailed.

Why do all top talent take busman’s holidays during "down time"? They love the challenge of competing, literally get adrenaline highs from doing so, and feel deprived of joi de vivre when sitting idle. If you have no challenging tasks for them, create some, ship them (on loan) to other departments, or lose them. Achieving is in the DNA of superstars, and if you do not provide opportunities for them to shine, over and over, they’ll implode—just as dramatically and irrevocably as Supernovas.

3. Affording challenging opportunities is not the same as demanding more. Challenges contain elements of novelty within them. After winning three championships in a row, Michael Jordan briefly tried his hand at Major League Baseball. He dominated the NBA, and it was briefly the "same old; same old." Every star wants the thrill of conquering what is unknown, so build chances for them to experience this.

Do not confuse a directive to "do that again, only this time a little better" with something that will energize your golden geese. That sort of "incentive" typically engenders a desire to push back or say, "Screw you." If it doesn’t and the A-player says, "Sure, boss," he’s likely to damage himself in the process. Trying too hard to excel under conditions where one is pressured to do so in order to maintain self-esteem—what a compliant A-player would feel trying to get it perfect after being 99 percent on target in the past—precipitates a phenomenon called "choking under pressure." The manifestation of talent requires an A-player to be relaxed, to do certain things unconsciously when focusing on others. Demanding more of top talent disrupts their balance: They try too hard to succeed, step on their own toes, and when they sense this, they scramble to recover, which normally makes matters worse.

Set "demands" paradoxically by telling top talent, "You’ve hit your peak; there’s no sense trying for more. . ." If you do this, they’ll once again push back, but this time because they want to, in order to prove you wrong and prove that they are omnipotent. That is the sort of drive you want to engender, not the sort that scares them into fearing, "Is there a gun somewhere in the Wild West faster than me?"

Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player most lauded for the combination of skill and character, was not only devoid of hubris, he was downright humble despite possessing a surfeit of unquestionable greatness in every aspect of the game. When the Yankee Clipper hit a home run, he would intentionally look down at the ground, away from the pitcher whom he vanquished, so as not to embarrass him. He also holds a record that may never be broken: The longest consecutive hitting streak—56 games. His teammates loved him, and his managers didn’t need to direct him—he was a natural.

If you view your top talent as if they were DiMaggio—humble, team oriented, self starting—even if they are not, odds are they will perform better than if you ham-handedly intervene to get them to continue to produce. This, of course, is the lesson of the farmer who had the goose that laid the golden egg: Let nature take its course, or you kill the blessing you’ve got.

Adapted from an article in Leadership Excellence 5/2009 @