How to Idiot-Proof Excellence

Amiel Handelsman

Amiel Handelsman

Amiel Handelsman

It’s now been thirty years since Peters and Waterman published In Search of Excellence. According to Art Kleiner, Editor of strategy + business, this book brought into the mainstream the notion that building a successful company requires more than simply managing the numbers. Or, as an integral practitioner might say, it elevated the value of the “We” domain of culture to its rightful place beside the “Its” domain of structures and systems. Since In Search of Excellence, hundreds of books, articles and videos have examined the topic of excellence in organizations and individuals. In this Leadership Coaching Tip, I present my modest contribution to that conversation: how do we idiot-proof excellence?

According to Wikipedia, “idiot-proofing” means designing something so that even a person of low intelligence would use it properly. In my experience, there are few bona fide idiots in the world. In fact, if you subscribe to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences or the many streams of integral development, everyone is smart at something. Thus, calling anyone “stupid” or an “idiot” is, well, stupid.

Yet, I would also assert that there is an idiot within each of us. To be specific, the magnificent human brain contains a part that acts more like a reptile than a homo sapien. It responds to external events by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. This “survival brain” is very effective at protecting us from genuine harm, yet it also gets activated when no true physical harm is present: a variety of wonderfully mischievous behaviors result.

The rub is that this idiot within us can interfere with the full expression of our natural gifts and talents. It can trip us up. Thus it pays to ask: how do we idiot-proof excellence? Here are seven ideas that cover a few quadrants, highlight a few streams and—what the heck—might just prompt a bit of horizontal translation (overrated outside of integral circles, underrated within them):

  1. Get eight hours of sleep. Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that sleep enhances focus, clarity of thinking, resilience and just about every other cognitive, emotional and physical skill that makes a difference. Conversely, cumulative sleep deficit is like giving the idiot within us a promotion and pay raise.
  2. Eat multiple meals of lean protein, slow carbs and healthy fats  throughout the day. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately with the people I coach, and I eat every three hours (plus or minus) myself. The reason: It is hard to maintain excellence throughout the day when we are on a sugar roller-coaster, feel bloated, or are cranky from cravings or deprivation diets. Personally, I was loyal to the much-heralded “low-fat diet” long after research showed it to be counterproductive. (Low-fat in the diet has often meant high-sugar, which leads to high fat in the body. Plus, some fats, like Omega-3s, are good for us.) For more on this topic, check out Jonny Bowden’s excellent and easy-to-read book 150 Ways to Boost Energy.
  3. Time your difficult conversations. This is a corollary to the point about eating, and it goes like this: “To the extent you can, don’t schedule an important and difficult conversation at a time of day when you tend to have low energy and feel cranky.” For me, before I began eating every three hours, this time period was consistently 4:30 to 5:00pm. I knew not to screw around by trying to connect with another human being at this time. Instead, I learned to lift weights. When is this time of day for you?
  4. Sort your stuff and set it in order. During a two-year stint applying lean thinking (the Toyota Production System) to a non-manufacturing environment, I learned the business value of (a) sorting stuff you really need from stuff you don’t, (b) getting rid of the unnecessary and, (c) setting the necessary in order so you can find it quickly when you need it. Looked in your file cabinet recently? How much of what’s in there do you actually need? How long does it take you to find electronic files you need? Search time is wasted time, and it gives the idiot within each of us a performance bonus. The key principle of “set in order” is “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
  5. Say “thank you.” Say “I’m sorry.” These simple declarations go a long way toward strengthening positive relationships and rebuilding fractured relationships. Why does this qualify as idiot proofing? Because, as the Chilean biologist Huberto Maturana has said, love is the only emotion that amplifies intelligence, and both of these declarations increase love. Conversely, have you ever observed the dumb things we all say when guilt and resentment are present in a conversation (when both you and I know but never say that things ain’t so great between us)? Unmended relationships give the idiot within each of us a spacious corner office. A sincere apology backed by consistently respectful actions can go a long way toward reversing this.
  6. Clear your mind. Since I started coaching leaders thirteen years ago, I’ve encouraged them to use yoga, meditation, interval cardio training, massage, and other practices to bring greater clarity to their minds and calm to their bodies. Many are skeptical at first but, a remarkably high percentage later thank me for pushing them into this unfamiliar terrain. More recently, I’ve started encouraging people to take a look at Getting Things Done, David Allen’s approach to stress-free productivity. The basic idea is to get action items out of your head and into a trusted system of follow-up…and then use it. The combination of a mindfulness practice and “getting things done” works magic in demoting the inner idiot back to its rightful place.
  7. Uni-task with a dual purpose. In Be Excellent at Anything, Tony Schwartz makes a  heck of a strong case for doing one thing at a time. I’m all aboard that train. However, my recent experiences as a parent of two small sons has led me to up the ante. If we’re going to uni-task, why not throw in a few extra purposes? For example, my biggest fear in becoming a father three years ago was not having time for the rest of life. Since then I’ve learned that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

In plain English, you can bring your own intentions and practices to the moments you are “parenting.” For example, sometimes I do my morning ITP Kata practice (from Murphy and Leonard’s The Life We Are Given) while in the same room with my son Jacob, while responsible for him (i.e. the primary parent “on duty”), and even while engaging with him. He likes the stretches and yoga poses! The challenge for me is maintaining awareness of multiple territories of experience (to use Bill Torbert’s expression). Similarly, Jacob likes to sit on my lower chest or belly while I’m doing sit ups. Here the additional challenge is adjusting the number of reps to account for the added resistance! Even reading Jacob books before bed provides an opportunity to practice skills needed to speak with clients and talk with groups: enunciating words, placing emphasis, varying tone, expressing emotion, and pausing for effect. Have you considered where in your life you can practice excellence even while doing something that normally you place in a different category of experience?

 About the Author

Amiel Handelsman is an executive coach based in Portland, Oregon who works with Fortune 500 companies, public agencies, and venture-backed startups. He entered the leadership development field in 1993 and discovered Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1999. Currently, he is shifting his business to invest more energy supporting leaders in clean technology, clean energy and sustainable enterprises. He is a covert integral practitioner and overt loving father and husband. His favorite restaurant in the world is Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can be reached at