Chapter OneWhen Is Talent Alone Enough?
Talent is often overrated and frequently misunderstood. French poet and dramatist Edouard Pailleron pointed out, "Have success and there will always be fools to say that you have talent." When people achieve great things, others often explain their accomplishments by simply attributing everything to talent. But that is a false and misleading way of looking at success. If talent alone is enough, then why do you and I know highly talented people who are not highly successful?
Many American business leaders are obsessed with talent. Some think talent is the answer to every problem. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, notes that many companies and consultants put finding people with talent ahead of everything else. He says, "This `talent mind-set' is the new orthodoxy of American management." Certain companies hire dozens of MBAs from top universities, promote them quickly, reward them lavishly, and never accurately assess their performance. The prime example he gives is Enron. Its talent focus was legendary. For example, Lynda Clemmons, who started Enron's weather derivatives business, went from trader to associate to manager to director to head of her own business unit in only seven years! Gladwell asks, "How do you evaluate someone's performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation?"
Talent is never enough. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, said, "There seems to be little correlation between a man's effectiveness and his intelligence, his imagination, or his knowledge ... Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results. By themselves, they only set limits to what can be contained." If talent were enough, then the most effective and influential people would always be the most talented ones. But that is often not the case. Consider this:
More than 50 percent of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had C or C- averages in college.
Sixty-five percent of all U.S. senators came from the bottom half of their school classes.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. presidents were in the Lower-Half Club in school.
More than 50 percent of millionaire entrepreneurs never finished college!
Clearly talent isn't everything.
The High-Jump Principle
This is not an anti-talent book. I believe in the importance of talent. How could I not? All successful leaders understand its importance. Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz once told me, "John, I've coached teams with good players and I've coached teams with bad players. I'm a better coach when I have good players!" The more talent that a sports, business, or service team possesses, the greater potential it has-and the better its leader can be.
Most leaders understand the dynamics of ownership, shared responsibility, division of labor, committee governance, and delegation. Often leaders accomplish great tasks by dividing a job into its parts and coordinating the whole effort. Remarkable feats, such as the building of the pyramids or the Great Wall of China, were accomplished in that fashion. However, there are some tasks that are not improved by adding more people. Brooks's Law states, "Adding people to a late software project makes it later." More isn't always better, and some things are best done by an individual.
A wonderful, simple illustration of the importance of talent can be seen in a sports event like the high jump. Winning the high jump requires one person who can jump seven feet, not seven people who can jump one foot. Such an example may seem obvious, yet don't we often believe that we can accomplish more by throwing more people at a task? That isn't always the right solution. In fact, there are many tasks that call for talent more than numbers. Like high jumping, they require the extraordinary talent of one person, not the mediocre talent of many.
Putting Talent into Perspective
As I said, I don't mean to minimize the importance of talent. Talent is a God-given gift that should be celebrated. When we observe talented people ...
1. We Should Marvel at Their Giftedness
Reading leadership books by Jack Welch, I am amazed by his deep wisdom mixed with common sense. It is no surprise that he was able to turn around GE and lift it to a dominant position in corporate America. He is a born leader.
Every time I have the opportunity, I go to Sarah Brightman's concerts. I find that her voice sets her apart from other vocal artists. I often close my eyes and just listen to her sing, marveling at the giftedness of this diva. Sarah Brightman is a born vocalist.
Professional football in Atlanta rose to a new level when Michael Vick came to town. His ability to run a football is guaranteed to thrill the crowd every game. He has lifted his team and the Falcons' fans with his extraordinary gifts. Michael Vick is a born athlete.
Talent can enable people to do extraordinary things, and we should acknowledge people's talent and marvel at their accomplishments.
2. We Should Recognize Their Contribution to Society
When we observe talented people, we should note their impact. Where would America be today if it had not been formed by talented leaders? I have been reading Booknotes Life Stories: Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped America by Brian Lamb, the founding CEO of C-SPAN and host of C-SPAN's Booknotes program. The book has reminded me of the talent of America's Founding Fathers:
Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president and primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, was a Renaissance man: He invented the first modern plow, was the president of the American Philosophical Society, sent Lewis and Clark on the country's first scientific expedition, redesigned Washington, D.C., so that the president in the White House would have to look up to see Congress on Capitol Hill, and offered his 6,500-volume personal library so that it could become the foundation of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Thomas Paine produced the nation's first bestseller when he penned Common Sense. It sold half a million copies in a country of three million people.
James Madison, the country's fourth president, was the primary thinker behind the U.S. Constitution. He was the MVP of the fifty-five men who created that world-changing document. He was a better thinker than Jefferson.
Henry Clay, orator, statesman, and lawyer, was a mentor to Abraham Lincoln and prevented a move by the southern states to secede in 1850. Many historians believe that the decade-long delay gave the Union enough time to build its industrial base, thus leading to the preservation of the United States.
The course of history the world over has been changed by talented men and women who have maximized their skills.
3. We Should Separate What They Can Do from Who They Are
Fred Smith, author and former president of Fred Smith Associates, shared a bit of wisdom with me many years ago. He said, "The giftedness is usually greater than the person." By that he meant that the talent of some people is greater than other important personal attributes, such as character and commitment. As a result, they often fail to rise to the level of their talent. Talented people are always tempted to coast on their abilities. Or they want others to recognize their skills but overlook their deficiencies.
Haven't you known people who should have risen to the top but didn't? They had all the talent they should ever need, but they still didn't succeed. Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson must have known people like that, too, because he said, "Talent for talent's sake is a bauble and a show. Talent working with joy in the cause of universal truth lifts the possessor to a new power as a benefactor."
So is talent ever enough? Yes, but only in the very beginning. Novelist Charles Wilson says, "No matter the size of the bottle, the cream always rises to the top." Talent stands out. It gets you noticed. In the beginning, talent separates you from the rest of the pack. It gives you a head start on others. For that reason, natural talent is one of life's greatest gifts. But the advantage it gives lasts only a short time. Songwriter Irving Berlin understood this truth when he said, "The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in business. You've got to keep working that talent."
Too many talented people who start with an advantage over others lose that advantage because they rest on their talent instead of raising it. They assume that talent alone will keep them out front. They don't realize the truth: if they merely wing it, others will soon fly past them. Talent is more common than they think. Mega-best-selling author Stephen King asserts that "talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work." Clearly, more than just talent is needed for anyone who wants to achieve success.
Do You Have What It Takes?
So what does it take to succeed? Where does that leave you and me? Can anyone be successful? And where does talent fit in? Here's what I believe:
1. Everyone Has Talent
People have equal value, but not equal giftedness. Some people seem to be blessed with a multitude of talents. Most of us have fewer abilities. But know this: all of us have something that we can do well.
In their book Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton state that every person is capable of doing something better than the next ten thousand people. And they support that assertion with solid research. They call this area the strength zone, and they encourage everyone to find it and make the most of it. It doesn't matter how aware you are of your abilities, how you feel about yourself, or whether you previously have achieved success. You have talent, and you can develop that talent.
2. Develop the Talent You Have, Not the One You Want
If I asked you who would be more successful, the person who relies on his talent alone or the person who realizes his talent and develops it, the answer would be obvious. Then I'll ask you this question: Why do most people spend the majority of their time focused on strengthening their weaknesses?
One thing I teach people at my conferences is to stop working on their weaknesses and start working on their strengths. (By this I mean abilities, not attitude or character issues, which must be addressed.) It has been my observation that people can increase their ability in an area by only 2 points on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, if your natural talent in an area is a 4, with hard work you may rise to a 6. In other words, you can go from a little below average to a little above average. But let's say you find a place where you are a 7; you have the potential to become a 9, maybe even a 10, if it's your greatest area of strength and you work exceptionally hard! That helps you advance from 1 in 10,000 talent to 1 in 100,000 talent-but only if you do the other things needed to maximize your talent.
3. Anyone Can Make Choices That Will Add Value to Talent
The question remains: What creates the effectiveness that Peter Drucker says is necessary for converting talent into results? It comes from the choices you make. The key choices you make-apart from the natural talent you already have-will set you apart from others who have talent alone. Orator, attorney, and political leader William Jennings Bryan said, "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."
I've discovered thirteen key choices that can be made to maximize any person's talent:
1. Belief lifts your talent.
2. Passion energizes your talent.
3. Initiative activates your talent.
4. Focus directs your talent.
5. Preparation positions your talent.
6. Practice sharpens your talent.
7. Perseverance sustains your talent.
8. Courage tests your talent.
9. Teachability expands your talent.
10. Character protects your talent.
11. Relationships influence your talent.
12. Responsibility strengthens your talent.
13. Teamwork multiplies your talent.
Make these choices, and you can become a talent-plus person. If you have talent, you stand alone. If you have talent plus, you stand out.
You Can Do It!
I believe the ideas in this book can help you. Talent Is Never Enough was inspired by something that happened to me in 2004. Coach Jim Tressel asked me to speak to the Ohio State football team on the weekend that they played Michigan. It was more than just a speaking engagement for me-it was a dream come true! I grew up in Ohio, and I have been a lifelong Buckeye fan.
Coach Tressel had read my book Today Matters. Because his players were very young and he wanted to teach them to keep their focus on the 2004 football season, the team studied the book throughout the year. Coach Tressel wanted me to speak to the team on the last and most important game of their regular season schedule. It was an unforgettable experience. I spoke to the Buckeyes on Friday night, walked with them to the stadium on Saturday, and went into their locker room where I saw a countdown clock for the Michigan game that also said, "Today Matters."
Could it get any better? Yes! Coach Tressel turned to me while we were still in the locker room and said, "John, you and I will lead the team out on the football field."
In front of one-hundred thousand screaming fans, we ran onto the field. I'll never forget that moment. Could it get any better? Yes! I was on the sidelines with the team for the entire game. And it got even better than that! Ohio State won!
How does this relate to Talent Is Never Enough? Prior to my visit, Coach Tressel had sent me some information on Ohio State football to help me prepare. One item was "The Winner's Manuel," which contained an article titled "Things That Do Not Require Talent." It emphasized that characteristics such as punctuality, effort, patience, and unselfishness were important to the OSU football program. Not one of those things required any talent. Coach Tressel told me that he and his staff were trying to help their talented players realize that their talent alone was not enough.
I loved the article and thought that if I wrote a book on the subject, it could help a lot of people. You see, people who neglect to make the right choices to release and maximize their talent continually underperform. Their talent allows them to stand out, but their wrong choices make them sit down. Their friends, families, coaches, and bosses see their giftedness, but they wonder why they so often come up short of expectations. Their talent gives them opportunity, but their wrong choices shut the door. Talent is a given, but you must earn success.
In contrast, talent-plus people come as close as humanly possible to achieving their potential. They frequently overperform. People see their giftedness and are amazed at how they continually rise above expectations. Their talent gives them opportunity, and their right choices open the door for even greater success.
Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you. What will you do for your career? Who will you marry? Where will you live? How much education will you get? What will you do with today? But one of the most important choices you will make is who will you become! Life is not merely a matter of holding and playing a good hand as you would hope to do in a card game. What you start with isn't up to you. Talent is God-given. Life is playing the hand you have been dealt well. That is determined by your choices.
Talent + Right Choices = A Talent-Plus Person
The talent-plus people are the ones who maximize their talent, reach their potential, and fulfill their destiny.
I was reading a book by Dr. Seuss to my grandchildren called Oh, The Places You'll Go! In it, I found a wonderful truth. It said,
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself Any direction you choose.
I believe that with all my heart. My prayer is that Talent Is Never Enough will help you to steer yourself in the right direction and make right choices that will empower you to become a talent-plus person, build upon the foundation of your abilities, and live your life to its fullest potential.