Situational self-leadership: Raising the ceiling and floor of performance

How high of a standard do we hold for ourselves? …and how does that standard help or hamper our ability to succeed at whatever aspect of our life we’re looking to improve?

The following graph depicts a unified theory of Situational Motivation… or better yet, let’s call it Situational Self-leadership. This graph is about how successful people drive themselves to exceptional results, and how struggling people lift themselves from the worst of circumstances:

Situational Self-Leadership and Motivation Model

Situational Motivation – high level (technical, geeky) description

The curved line of the graph describes how improving our efforts and/or circumstances (x axis) can improve the quality of results that we experience (y-axis). The values on each axis are subject to the person’s own values – in other words “100%” means different things to different people, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

There are five tangible areas labelled within the frame of the graph, ranging from Personal Best to Personal Worst.  There are also two theoretical areas labelled outside of the frame: Ideal Vision and Rock Bottom. These latter two areas are labelled outside the frame because the curve within the frame is asymptotic – a person never quite reaches the absolute top or bottom. Within the frame, a person can decide to stay in place (“There is no relevant ideal, other than being satisfied with where I am”) or to keep striving for better (“I want to be the best possible version of me.”). They might even decide to wallow somewhere on the lower end of the curve.

The art of successful living is to know where you are on your own personal curve and to know what motivational strategy to use for yourself, given what you value most.

Situational Self-Leadership – detailed (narrative, fun) description

Let’s dive into this graph and see what it can do for us, top to bottom…

Ideal Vision, aka, “You are 99%? Why not 100%??”

The very top of this graph – the 99% to 100% range – represents an area of the Ideal Vision. People can motivate themselves by setting their mind towards achieving an ideal, inspiring vision, whether that vision is possible or even (seemingly) impossible. It’s the thing that allows the “ceiling” of performance to be continuously raised.

As a person gets close this zone of 99% it seems to slip away, becoming ever-higher… many people perceive the asymptotic nature of this zone and decide to avoid it, or decide to remain satisfied just below it. Others strive too hard for the Ideal Vision and become overwhelmed with frustration by the lack of perfection in the reality they see. The archetype of this is the nervous breakdown of a Type A personality, or the all-consuming wrath of a zealot. In those two cases, the Ideal Vision has been misused, and its motivational power has been misdirected.

An Ideal Vision can be eminently useful, as seen in the following boxer’s poem:

“The most beautiful fighter in the world today.

He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y,

of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speed-y.

The fistic world was dull and weary,

But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.

Then someone with color and someone with dash,

Brought fight fans are runnin’ with cash.

This brash young boxer is something to see

And the heavyweight championship is his des-tin-y.


When I say two, there’s never a third,

Standin against me is completely absurd.

When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse,

Don’t ask how; put your money where your mouse is!


– Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 1964 (later known as Muhammad Ali)

The drive towards being the greatest – whether in strength, wisdom, enlightenment, glory, whatever the value – is powerful indeed-y… especially when it (1) involves a higher purpose or service, and (2) is communicated in a motivating manner (such as this motivational speech), coupled with authentic self-talk on the part of the listener.

The key word there is “authentic,” especially when the person delivering the speech and the person listening to the speech are the same person.

Self-talk is the narrative in the head that says, “I believe what I’m hearing is totally true / mostly true / sort of true / may or may to be true or untrue / sort of untrue / mostly untrue / totally untrue.” (You may ask yourself whether self-talk truly operates using a seven-point Likert scale… but you may prove the point in doing so.)  Self-talk is self-predictive. Self-talk creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Except, of course, when it’s not.

Sometimes pesky reality gets in the way of even the most authentic self-talk.

So, what happens when we are not the greatest?

What happens when we are defeated?  …especially when we are defeated by our most debilitating enemy, aka, ourselves?

Going for the Personal Best

The path towards 100% exists within the 90% – 99% range, the range of something called Personal Best.

At the very peak of Personal Best there can be an overlap with the Ideal Vision (hence, the range of Personal Best is not written 90-to-98.999 repeated… besides, that would be annoying). Yet, the idea of Personal Best is different than Ideal Vision because a Personal Best doesn’t require any external reference points. There is no vision of perfection and no perfect role models. There are only the visions of continuous growth and role models who exemplify continuous self-improvement.  This is the zone where I say, “I love the process, and I love the product.”

Some people (perhaps wisely) eschew the Ideal Vision and strive only for Personal Best. Others use Personal Best as a strategy for approaching the elusive Ideal Vision, because with just a little bit of patience and flexibility, the Ideal Vision can provide a guiding star, a point on the distant horizon which attracts and pulls us forward, helping us incrementally raise the ceiling of our performance as we make progress.

If we are afflicted with perfectionist or Type A tendencies, we can find comfort and safety in the zone of Personal Best. Perfectionists who get too hung up on an Ideal Vision will inevitably get knocked down to the ground by reality. If they focus their effort toward Personal Best, they can stay motivated and driven with reduced risk of melting down.

With the concept of Personal Best, we use an internal reference point – we provide the measure for our own greatness.

Even still, it is a reference point that establishes a high water mark, which suggests that there is something below that mark.

Which brings us to the next area of the graph…

Less than our best, but Strong Performance nonetheless

Below the area of Personal Best there is the area of Strong Performance. In the zone of Strong Performance most other people may be fooled, but we’re not. We know we can do better. Here too, some of us may decide to be satisfied, while others would be dissatisfied.

Do you consider a Strong Performance a highly desirable outcome, or a minimum requirement?

If you are in an achievement-focused environment (e.g. working at the desk in a Fortune 500 company), a Strong Performance is likely considered as table stakes for holding onto the job.

If you are in a learning-focused environment (e.g. in a training room of a Fortune 500 company) a Strong Performance is hopefully considered as evidence of progress towards the next level of the job.

Of course, sometimes we don’t get a Strong Performance. By definition, the idea of “above average” means that there is an “average,” i.e. an area of mediocrity.

Mediocre Moments

For a person who sets their sights towards an Ideal Vision or even a Personal Best, the zone of Mediocre Moments is infuriating. Yet mediocrity is a statistical inevitability.

My advice: Don’t pay too much attention to mediocrity… don’t settle for it, but don’t get upset by it.

Keep practicing, focus on your strengths, find what will make you stand out as exceptional.

Also, keep in mind that this entire graph is a self-imposed illusion… especially so when it comes to the definition of a Mediocre Moment. This is because the perception of an average performance is simply the sum of perceptions of all previous attempts, divided by the perceived number of said attempts.

Or to put it more simply:  You cannot have a Personal Best without having a Personal Worst.

You will, by definition, achieve your worst personal performance during any period of time that you happen to consider.

So let’s now consider what happens when we dive more deeply, down into colder waters…

Weak Performance

So you had a cold, weak performance… warm it up, but please don’t sweat it.

Change something and try again.

Note that this is the area of traditional performance management – fixing deficiencies and addressing weaknesses. While traditional performance management can be helpful, I don’t recommend giving too much focus on Weak Performance. If we focus on avoiding something to much, we tend to get more of it.  Set your sights higher. Imagine a better result.

That said, we know that every once in a while we are worse than weak.  Every once in a while we sink into the danger zone…

Personal Worst

Down near the bottom of the graph there lives the worst kind of disappointment: personal disappointment.

When we find ourselves in this place, it’s a good idea for us to self-examine and work on the basics, in order to raise the “floor” on our performance.

Without some degree of discipline we may lose the basics. The basics include the core of whatever our task entails. The basics include how we treat and take care of ourselves and others. The basics are things like dinner and a movie, please and thank you, compassion and integrity. Keep those basics and the floor will raise itself.  Keep those basics and what you consider to be average others will consider to be exceptional.

But is there anything worse than a Personal Worst?  Oh yes, there is…

Finally, we reach Rock Bottom

Just as there was a 99-100% Ideal Vision zone above the Personal Best, so too is there a zone below the Personal Worst. This is the dark place of less than one percentage point… the abject failure zone of Rock Bottom.

Here at Rock Bottom we have the opposite of inspiring idealism and hope – it is the place of crushing pessimism and despair.

Sometimes we feel like we’re getting pushed into this area by the situation we’re in, or by the people we’re with. Sometimes we just find ourselves going there by ourselves. Indeed, the more we dwell in a place that we think is Rock Bottom, the more likely it becomes our “new normal” and we discover caverns of depression even lower still.

The lesson of Rock Bottom is —  at the very least — an understanding that things could always be worse.

There is also a lesson here of patience, humility and dignity.  As one former prisoner wrote,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This is the bedrock on top of which all other stable motivation can be built: If nothing else, take responsibility for your response-ability. If nothing else, be patient, wait for the storm to pass and find the opportunity to climb out… and never ever forget the guiding star of the Ideal Vision, because that’s the light that helps you get out of there.

In Summary: Own the Curve, Choose the Swerve

When it comes to personal motivation and inspiration, there are multiple and seemingly contradictory messages. “Go big, or go home!” “Be all that you can be!” “Focus on your strengths!” “Get back to basics!” “Practice makes perfect!”  “Failure is not an option!” “Pick yourself up and try again!” “Focus on others!” “Focus only on what you can control!”   …and so on.  There is truth in all of these messages, but if you try to follow all of them you will twist, turn and swerve in too many directions. Crash. Bam. Thud.

The art of living is the art of choosing which message to tell yourself, given where you are on the curve of this graph.

It’s also about knowing that the only person who defines the curve is you.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 7, 2014, in Analytics, Career, Coaching, Information Design, Inspiration, Leadership, Learning, Life, Metaphors, Positivity, Psychology, Relationships, Talent and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Here’s a great podcast that could be describing that last zone — “Rock Bottom” — with some deep insights about human nature :

    It’s about the coolness, attractiveness and motivating power of extreme pessimism, aka, Nihilism, the polar opposite of idealism… and how it has always been a strong part of popular culture.

    Near the end of the podcast they bring it around full circle in a very interesting way.

  1. Pingback: A Mountain of Inspirational Quotations | Dan Spira

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