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Professional Performance


Are you fulfilling your performance potential? Performance is important in all fields of work, as the following story shows. 

A mother was having a hard time getting her son to go to school one morning. “Nobody likes me at school,” said the son. “The teachers don’t and the kids don’t. The superintendent wants to transfer me, the bus drivers hate me, the school board wants me to drop out, and the custodians have it in for me.” “You’ve got to go,” insisted the mother. “You’re healthy. You have a lot to learn. You’ve got something to offer others. You’re a leader. Besides, you’re forty-nine years old, you’re the principal, and you’ve got to go to school.” 

Professional performance requires statesmanship, the ability to work with and through other people; entrepreneurship, the ability to achieve results; and innovation, the ability to generate new and useable ideas.


Statesmanship is the ability to work with and through other people. Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout his life, Lincoln was willing to teach others what he had learned himself. From childhood onward, he was the statesman – storyteller, speechmaker, and always ringleader. As one boyhood comrade relates, “When he [Lincoln] appeared, the boys would gather and cluster around him to hear him talk …He argued much from analogy and explained things hard for us to understand by stories, maxims, tales, and figures. He would almost always paint his lesson or idea by some story that was plain and near to us, so that we might instantly see the force and bearing of what he said.”

To improve statesmanship, follow these principles: 

  1. Let people know where they stand. You should communicate expectations and then keep people informed on how they are doing. If criticism is necessary, do it in private; if praise is in order, give it in public. 

  1. Give credit where due. Look for extra or unusual performance, and show appreciation as soon as possible. As a rule, the greatest credit should be given to those who try the hardest, sacrifice the most, and perform the hardest work.

  1. Tell people as soon as possible about changes that will affect them. Keep people informed, and tell them why change is necessary. Many people dislike change, and they especially dislike sudden change. 

  1. Make the best use of each person’s ability. Let each person shine as only that person can. Take the time to look for potential not now being used.4 

Make use of the four-step method to solve problems.

  1. Get the facts. As Mark Twain advised, “Get the facts first; then you can distort them as much as you please.”6 You simply cannot solve a problem without first knowing the facts. 

  1. Weigh and decide. After getting all the facts, you must weigh each fact against the others, fit the pieces together, and consider alternatives. 

  1. Take action. After you have gathered the facts and determined a course of action, carry out your plan. Harry Truman realized the importance of this step when he said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”7  

  1. Follow up. Statesmanship requires asking, Did my action(s) help the quality of work or the quality of work life? If not, admit this fact and try to find a better solution. Legendary leader Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines taught: By taking time to follow up on actions and being willing to admit mistakes, the statesman achieves three important goals: (a) the respect of all who are watching, (b) another chance to solve the problem, and (c) the opportunity to set an example of honesty and thoroughness in problem-solving.


Entrepreneurship is the ability to achieve results, regardless of obstacles. It takes entrepreneurship to build a plant on time, to produce a quality product, and to close a sale. An entrepreneur is action oriented but knows that it is not just action, but achievement, that counts. Consider the example of entrepreneur Henry Ford, who founded and built the Ford Motor Company. Ford believed in honesty and hard work and lived by the principle “Did you ever see dishonest calluses on a man’s hands?”

To improve entrepreneurship, believe in yourself and exert determined effort. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”10 The chronology of Abraham Lincoln’s career shows the importance of believing in yourself and determined effort: 

  • In 1831, he failed in business. 

  • In 1832, he was defeated for the legislature. 

  • In 1833, he again failed in business. 

  • In 1836, he had a nervous breakdown. 

  • In 1843, he was defeated for Congress. 

  • In 1855, he was defeated for the Senate. 

  • In 1856, he lost the race for the vice presidency. 

  • In 1858, he was defeated in the Senate. 

  • In 1860, he was elected president of the United States. 

Lincoln’s extraordinary perseverance propelled him to the Presidency in 1860. As president, his determination was channeled to abolish slavery and preserve the United States of America. 

The example of baseball great Ted Williams shows the importance of overcoming self-doubt and determined effort, even when the odds are not in your favor. A star player has a batting average of .300 or better. A superstar bats .350. Ted Williams was the last player to hit over .400. This means that he failed to hit safely 6 out of every 10 times he went to the plate. Still, every time, Williams believed he would get a hit. A top professional in any field must have the self-confidence to overcome the fear of failure in the face of change. 


Innovation is the ability to generate new and usable ideas. Important products we take for granted today are the result of yesterday’s inventions – Thomas Edison’s electric light, the Wright brothers’ airplane, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone are but just a few examples. In the field of agriculture, George Washington Carver created more than 300 synthetic products from the peanut, more than 100 from the sweet potato, and more than 75 from the pecan. In addition to new products, innovation includes improving how work is done and creating new markets. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, provide good examples of innovation. They developed the Internet search software that gave Google a competitive advantage and created an entirely new advertising medium.11 

To improve innovation you must keep an open mind. Consider the story of two young men sent to Africa by their companies to study the market for shoes. The first wired back, “Forget the thought, no one here wears shoes.” The second one wired, “Build the plant, buy the leather, start production. The market is fantastic. Everyone here needs shoes!” 

The innovator avoids “monkey trap thinking.” One way to catch a monkey is to use the rigidity of its own thinking. Put enticing food in a box with a hole just big enough for the monkey to squeeze its hand through the opening. When the monkey grabs the food and makes a fist, it is unable to withdraw its hand. Refusing to let go of the food the monkey is trapped. People with closed minds and rigid beliefs are similarly unable to explore the possibility of new solutions. Many problems go unsolved because people fail to keep their minds open.12 

For related reading, see: 

Sam Walton, Made in American, by Sam Walton 

The Practice of Management, by Peter Drucker 

The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson 



1. P. Marvin, The Right man for the Right Job (Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1973); L. Bossidy and R. Charan, Execution (New York: Random House, 2011); D. Abrashoff, It’s Your Ship ( New York: Business Plus, 2012); and R. Charan and A. Lafley, Game-Changer (New York: Crown Business Books, 2008). 

2. W. Forpe and J. McCollister, The Sunshine Book (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1979). 

3. G. Allport, “The Ego in Contemporary Psychology, “ Psychological Review 50 (1943), p. 446. 

4. P. Drucker, People and Performance (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2007). 

5. D. Kahneman, Thing Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). 

6. M. Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (New York: Dover Publications, 1999). 

7. H. Truman, as quoted in J. Cohen and M. Cohen, The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations (London: Claremont Books, 1995). 

8. K. Brooker, “The Chairman of the Board Looks Back” Fortune (May 28, 2001), pp.62-70. 

9. H. Ford and S. Crawther, My Life and Work (New York: Kessinger, 2003); U. Sinclair, The Flivver King (New York: Phaedra, 2007), pp.6,7,19, 69, 70, 78; and H. Ford, Today and Tomorrow (New York: Productivity Press, 1988). 

10. E. Roosevelt, This Is My Story (New York: Harper, 1939). 

11. J. McGregor, “ The World’s Most Innovative Companies,” Business Week (April 24, 2006), pp.63-74; and F. Vogeelstein, “Google@165,” Fortune (December 13, 2000), p.98. 

12. T. Anabile and M. Khaire, “Creativity and the Role of the Leader,” Harvard Business Review (October 2008), pp.100-10. 

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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