6 Characteristics of the World's Peak Performers

Charles Garfield looked around the room at his new job. There was a certain buzz in the air that wasn’t there before. His new team was achieving great results on a regular basis. People were visibly happy in their work, and everyone was working cohesively towards a greater good.

He asked his supervisor, “What is going on around here lately?”

The supervisor took the young mathematics graduate and pointed to the moon.

“Look at that. People have been dreaming of going there for thousands of years. And we’re going to do it. You want to know why we’re doing so well? You want to know my secret? I’ve got a mission, something that matters to me, something that matters to all of us. We finally have something we can sink our teeth into and be proud of.”

That mission was Apollo 11. The team of scientists was working toward one of mankind’s greatest feats – putting a man on the moon. This mission ignited the team to produce great results, and as we all know, the team was successful in 1969.

After witnessing what can be accomplished when a mission ignites people, Garfield set about his own mission – to discover what separates those peak performers from everyone else. And after over 20 years of study, he found 6 unique characteristics of peak performers. [1]


As soon as the Apollo 11 team reached the moon, the mission was gone. They lost their sense of purpose and went right back to mediocrity. In peak performers, however, Garfield found that this sense of mission is an internal motivator that never goes away. They have a purpose to do something great. Something larger than themselves. Something that motivates them through the good times and bad. They don’t rely on the chance event that the President will call for them to put a man on the moon; they are always working on a greater purpose, and are always inspired to achieve more.


Many people wait for the perfect time or the perfect moment to start taking action. The peak performers in Garfield’s studies didn’t wait for something outside of themselves. They took action every single day to get the results they sought. They took purposeful action to achieve their mission.


Peak performers are not those who look for guidance from the “higher-ups”. They align their own missions with that of their organization, aim for results, and manage their own process. They are able to see for themselves what is working and what is not, then make necessary changes to get the best results. They don’t require motivation; they are all self-motivated individuals who can manage their own progress.


Although they are masters of their own processes, peak performers also have the capacity to understand that they can achieve more with a team than by themselves. They harbor little ego when it comes to achieving their mission, and have the ability build the right team around them to produce great results. They also know how they best fit within that team, regardless of whether or not they’re leading it. The mission is always more important than their own personal aggrandizement.


Peak performers are not always the smartest people in the room. They’re not predictive geniuses who can plan their mission's success from day one. However, when they begin to see negative results, setbacks, or indications that they’re on the wrong path to their mission’s success, they’re able to take that information and correct their course. They learn from their failures and direct themselves and their teams in a new direction to achieve their mission.


Nobody can think up the perfect strategy. Internal and external changes are both rapid and accelerating with technological advances. Peak performers have the ability to anticipate changes, adapt to them, and then take purposeful action. They know that their plans will change due to circumstance, so they focus on intelligent adaptations to whatever changes may come.


The striking thing about Garfield’s findings on peak performers is just how normal they are. He did not find that peak performers had out-of-this-world IQs or talent. Instead the common theme was that they had a powerful, motivating mission and were willing to take action and refine their plans to deal with obstacles. There is not much separating us from peak performers; only a purpose to be achieved, a willingness to act and an ability to adapt to setbacks.

So the first thing to ask yourself is, what is your mission?


  1. Garfield, Charles A. Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business. New York: W. Morrow, 1986. Print