Superstar Talent: Can't Live With or Without Them

Steven Berglas

My career has been devoted to studying the effects that success has on those who achieve it, and serving now as a leadership coach, to those who can’t handle its problematic consequences. In the 30 years I’ve devoted to these endeavors, I never met a person who was universally acknowledged to be Talent (with a capital T)—for example, Derek Jeter (sports); Wynton Marsalis (music); and Richard Branson (business)—who wasn’t worth his or her weight in gold to whatever organization he or she was affiliated with. Make that platinum.

While my perspective is shared by many CEOs who move mountains to acquire great Talent, some question its validity: "Give me folks with good character rather than talent any day," they say. This knock on Talent is often undeserved, because no authentic Talent, A Player, or Superstar, morphs, over time, into the character-disordered megalomaniacs that give Talent a bad name. Those folks—Prima Donnas—are not Talent. Once you learn the difference, the problematic aspects of working with Superstars are diminished.


Talent is born, not bred. Prima Donnas, on the other hand are "bred" by being damaged at such an early age that it appears as if they are born to achieve and aggravate simultaneously. They are not. As far as the field of psychiatry can tell, Prima Donnas are kids possessed of one or more rare attributes that as a result of a major trauma or traumas become the basis of compulsive achievement-seeking strategies.

Often a Prima Donna is born when a dad berates his young son for what he deems to be substandard performances. Vowing to never again suffer the verbal excoriations his forebear meted out, Junior works night and day to excel. The good news is that he often attains his goal. (Those reared by hypercritical fathers who can’t excel often end-up in jail.) However, the psychic toll Junior pays to prevent getting verbally eviscerated never goes away. These kids overcompensate so drastically to ward off their father’s punishment that they become a psychological Humpty Dumpty: Demanding, self-centered, narcissistic, pains-in-the-butt (achievers you can’t live with). "Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful," said John Wooden.

Talent. In my lexicon, Talent are people who possess exceptional attributes. They are Franchise Players that sports teams pay tens of millions of dollars a year to employ. Operationally, Talent are the elite members of the group singled out by the Pareto Principle—the 80/20 Rule—as getting results. They are the top echelon of the 20 percent, seen as responsible for 80 percent of a company’s favorable results.

In business parlance (thanks to Jack Welch’s recognition of their worth), Talent are often called A Players. Welch says of them: "The A’s are the people who energize not only themselves, but everyone who comes into contact with them. They make business productive and fun at the same time." Simply put, A Players have a synergistic effect—one reason why you can’t live without them.

Prima Donnas. The reason why most people believe that Talent often imposes intolerable burdens on team efforts is because they can easily be mistaken for Prima Donnas. Early in their careers, both Talent and Prima Donnas deliver the goods with no ill effects on those around them. Before too long, however, Prima Donnas reveal their true colors. These folks are insecure over-achievers who see life as one zero-sum game after another, with
everyone in their environment posing a threat and representing a potential obstacle to their coveted achievement.

Before their insecurities dominate their life, Prima Donna can put points on the board. But, since a pathological need to achieve is the engine driving their train—not the joy that comes with doing well that motivates Talent—the moment Prima Donnas cross one goal line, they start searching for a new one. Often, the goals they choose are at variance with those their teammates (and bosses) have set, but they could care less. They are compelled to look good, and damn anyone who gets in their way.

The compulsion that drives Prima Donnas to look good is the fear that if they don’t succeed constantly, aspects of their self-image that should remain hidden—a negativity, born of their history—will be seen by the world, which will then reject them. This compulsion to prevail makes Prima Donnas look like Talent striving for achievement, but this is not the case. Prima Donnas often get results similar to those obtained by Talent but at a price: When they succeed they are driven to cause others pain, while demanding to be extolled for their achievements and value.

Three Discriminative Tests

Since both Talent and Prima Donnas are quick starters, deliver stellar results early in their careers, and are indefatigable in their pursuit of success, it is hard to differentiate the folks guaranteed to give you headaches from those who will be a rising tide lifting all ships. Moreover, by the time Prima Donnas show their true colors, the damage they cause can be considerable. For this reason—and to amass the resources that you need to keep Talent satisfied (they are not inexpensive)—you must learn to discriminate between these two sets of high scorers:

Test 1: Know them by what they want. The easiest way to differentiate Talent from Prima Donnas is by what it takes to satisfy them. Talent, although often quirky, strives to succeed for the joy of succeeding. Prima Donnas seek both tangible rewards for doing well and public acclaim. Talent is often shy, eschewing spotlights for quiet time after a job well done. Prima Donnas can’t just know they did well; they must have an audience! Since their maladaptive drive was born to keep critics at bay, the compensation they develop is not complete unless potential critics (everyone) is told that they are Stars. Warren Buffet—The Oracle of Omaha—appears in public infrequently. Donald Trump, a man drawn to interpersonal conflicts, has his own Reality TV show.

Test 2: Know them by their influence on others. Apart from humility and a passion to actually be the best—not merely be perceived as the best—Talent will demand the best from those around them. Interestingly, Talent are not necessarily good mentors, but neither are they saboteurs like Prima Donnas are. It is one thing to not suffer fools gladly and seek social support to improve a sub-standard teammate’s performance or have him axed. It is quite another to castigate someone or humiliate them if what they do is not up to par. The reason why Prima Donnas are so critical is because they "identify with the aggressor:" Dad ripped them apart for not putting points on the board, so they do what he did to others once they can.

Test 3: Know them by how they demand to be spoiled. Aristotle observed, "No great genius has existed without some touch of madness." All Talent is quirky, at best, and obtuse, at worst. However, Prima Donnas are downright upsetting, refusing to make their wishes known in benign ways. Recall Cal Ripken, Jr., formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, who surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. In private, Cal was anything but accessible and humble. To keep in peak condition, he received special accommodations: He traveled apart from the team; he slept in a private room; he had personal trainers. While these were costly and not in keeping with There is no "I" in team, Ripken created a win/win: He provided record attendance, and he achieved greatness without stepping on anyone to do so.

Years ago, I worked for a legal consulting firm and was hired to coach "problem partners," all Prima Donnas with a propensity to berate, belittle and abuse their associates. Why? To have a scapegoat-in-waiting should a case of theirs not go as expected.

Talent eschews the blame-game: Yes, they refuse to perform unless all knives around them are sharp, because they want to achieve cutting-edge outcomes that enable them to show that they are the sharpest blade in the bunch.

Once you can differentiate Talent from Prima Donnas, you need to reward Talent in ways that inoculate them against attempts to poach them while massaging their egos. The only way to do this is with heart-to-heart conversation, a prospect that is intimidating to managers. Michael Jordan describes what Talent must do to function as A Players, not Prima Donnas: "To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. Once you get to your highest level, you have to be unselfish: Stay reachable, stay in touch, and don’t isolate."

First Published in Leadership Excellence 6/2010