Author Talks: Attributes—not skills—determine whether you ‘cut it’ or not

Retired Navy SEAL commander Rich Diviney explains why we react to stressors the way we do and how to achieve optimal performance.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Vanessa Burke chats with Rich Diviney about his book, The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance (Random House, January 2021). A retired Navy SEAL commander, Diviney dives into how we can—and should—assess and develop our own attributes, equipping ourselves for optimal performance within our lives and throughout our careers. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

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I’m really interested, and I’ve always been interested, in human performance. Really, if I were to boil that down, elemental human performance. In other words, who are we at our most raw?

We’ve heard this old adage that it’s only during stress, challenge, and uncertainty when the real us shows up, and I’ve always been fascinated with who the real us is. When I was working with the Navy SEAL teams and dissecting what performance is, I found that performance was much deeper than just your visible skills, and it came down to these qualities—these attributes.

These attributes fascinated me because they start to inform this really raw performance. They’re innate to us, and they inform the way we show up to situations, especially situations of stress, challenge, and uncertainty.

Attributes are characteristics like patience, situational awareness, and adaptability. Those types of attributes, those types of qualities, inform us about how we show up and perform in any environment.

Was there anything that surprised you in the research, writing, or response?

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One of the most surprising and enjoyable things that I discovered while writing the book was the ability to dive into these attributes. I’d never thought about them as deeply as I needed to in writing the book, so a couple of things happened.

First of all, the attributes began to clump into these categories that I wrote about in the book—five different categories. I had no intention and no ideas on how those might clump when I started writing the book, but they seemed to settle in these specific categories of grit, mental acuity, drive, leadership, and team ability. That really helped me formulate and formalize all of the information on these attributes.

Second, some of the more counterintuitive attributes were really interesting to dive into, things like cunning and narcissism, which really are quite pejorative in nature, and which people think of in negative terms. Certainly, there are negative manifestations of those, but to be able to think about those in terms of how they manifest positively and how we can metabolize those attributes positively in our lives was enjoyable for me—to discover, write about, and even dive into the neuroscience of.

Start by looking in the mirror

What are some strategies for assessing where we fall on the attribute scale?

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There are some resources you can start to use or look into to determine your own attributes. One is, obviously, the book. The book helps because it introduces the concept and lays out what each attribute means. We have an assessment tool online that people can visit and take for free. They can figure out where they stand on the grid attributes, the mental-acuity attributes, and the drive attributes, so that’s a resource.

Aside from that, it’s really one of the things we can all do: we can look back and, in some cases, autopsy our performance during stressful and challenging times. We can ask ourselves, “OK, when I think back on my performance during that time, how adaptable was I? How empathetic was I? How courageous was I?” or “Open-mindedness is very easy for me,” or “I’m a naturally empathetic person, so I’m higher on empathy.” The idea—and the book—is about one’s ability to look inside themselves.

How are Navy SEALs different than everybody else? I wanted to reverse the question: How are Navy SEALs the same as everybody else? Because we are, in fact, human, and we can take these lessons, and I can take some of this experience and things I learned in the SEAL community and extract them and help all of us live and perform better lives. That’s really the idea. If we start to look internally and introspect, we will get a better insight into our performance.

Should we spend time developing as many attributes as we can?

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Should we focus our time on developing the attributes in which we’re a little lower? It’s totally up to you. You can do that, or you can capitalize on the ones you’re a little bit stronger on.

One of the things I would recommend is asking yourself, “How is my current situation in the specific niche I’m in?” You may be in a niche where you feel like, “This is great. I feel fulfilled. I’m running on all cylinders.” If there’s friction, if there’s consternation, then that might be because you’re actually in a niche currently where you are a little lower in some of the attributes required for that specific niche.

So, it’s up to you whether or not you want to develop those attributes and stay in the niche you’re in or switch to one that’s a bit more congruent with some of the attributes you’re stronger in. The fact is, you can develop any attribute you want—you just can’t do it the same way as you can a skill. If you want to develop your patience, you have to find environments in which you can deliberately test and tease and develop your patience, whatever those environments might be.

It might be, “I’m going to go deliberately drive in traffic,” or “I’m going to go wait in the longest line at the grocery store.” I always say that having kids is one way to test your patience; that’ll help develop your patience pretty rapidly [laughs]. The key is you can’t teach anybody else attributes. You can’t train anybody else in attributes. You have to do it yourself, and it’s all up to you. It’s all your choice.

Call yourself a leader? Check your behavior

Which attributes should we improve to help ensure business health and growth?

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What are those attributes that someone who is concerned about the growth of the business, the health of the business, should be focused on? I would say by far the most important ones are the leadership attributes. The reason is that businesses are made up of one common element, and that’s people. We can’t run an effective business without understanding how to deal with and work with and lead people, so these attributes—these leadership attributes—are really important.

What we have to understand about leadership is that there’s a difference between being in charge and being a leader—one’s a noun and one’s a verb. Anybody can be in charge, and you can put people in charge, and you can self-designate. You can say, “I’m in charge,” right?

You can’t do that with leadership; you’re not allowed to call yourself a leader. That’s like calling yourself funny or good-looking. It’s other people who decide whether or not you are someone they want to follow. If they look at you as a leader, then you are a leader. Otherwise, you’re just in charge.

You’re not allowed to call yourself a leader. That’s like calling yourself funny or good-looking. It’s other people who decide whether or not you are someone they want to follow. If they look at you as a leader, then you are a leader. Otherwise, you’re just in charge.

The way that happens is through your behaviors, and these attributes speak to those behaviors. The leadership attributes are empathy, selflessness, authenticity, decisiveness, and accountability. Those behaviors typically are the ones that cause other people to say, “That is someone I would like to follow.” So, if any person in charge of a business wants to be a leader—behave like a leader, and you’ll get people who look at you as a leader. You’ll actually make your business grow stronger, faster.

Would attribute assessments be beneficial in a team setting?

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In a team setting, the attributes show up and manifest in a very interesting, fun way because that is actually what makes a team powerful. A true high-performing team is a group of people whose skills and attributes mesh together, kind of like a zipper.

On a high-performing team, you may have someone who’s a little bit lower on patience but higher on adaptability and another person who’s higher on patience but lower on adaptability. Those people come together, and suddenly you have a team that represents all of the attributes and skills.

It’s really important as a team to understand which attributes are required for that specific team because the list is going to change depending on what that team looks like. For example, the list of attributes that make up a great Navy SEAL team is going to look different from the list of attributes that make up a great team of surgeons or a great team of teachers.

One last thing about teams that we have to remember: a team is simply two or more people working together toward a common goal or objective. That’s all. Yes, a team can be a SEAL team, a team can be a business team, a team is also a great marriage, a team is a group of friends on a trip, right? Any environment where two or more people are working together toward a common goal or objective is one where you have the ability to start combining and meshing these skills and attributes in a way that makes the team very powerful and very dynamic.

Vulnerability is the key

So, assessing team members’ attributes is about strengthening team dynamics, not competition, correct?

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Absolutely. In the team setting, it’s not at all about competition. In fact, it’s the opposite; it’s about vulnerability. The best—the highest performing—SEAL teams, for example, all did what we were able to do because we were all incredibly open to displaying our vulnerability.

I know that sounds surprising because vulnerability comes with a stigma of showing your weaknesses, but it’s not just showing your weaknesses; it’s showing your strengths and your weaknesses and wearing both of those on your sleeves, so all of your teammates understand exactly when you need to lean on them and when they can lean on you.

This has to be transparent in communication. To be the best type of teammate and have the best team requires a bunch of people who show up vulnerable enough to say, “Hey, these are all my strengths; these are all my weaknesses; here’s how I can contribute,” with the humility to say, “Hey, I know exactly when I need to step up and take charge. I know exactly when I need to step back and be a follower,” and to be able to dynamically swap between the leader and follower position.

So, vulnerability really is the key.

A little bit of narcissism can go a long way

How did writing this book affect you personally, regarding your own attributes?

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Writing the book affected me personally because for every attribute that I had to dive into, I also had to index with myself. The surprising—and slightly uncomfortable—discoveries were when I got to those counterintuitive ones.

Narcissism was one that was quite surprising, and I had to do some digging and ask myself, 'Really, what is narcissism, and how can it metabolize in a positive way?' In one sense, narcissism is the desire to stand out, be recognized, and be adored. That is often the impetus for a lot of our audacious goals, right? There’s a hint of narcissism there, and that’s OK. This is exactly why the person wants to be the great executive, wants to be the great singer, wants to be the great surgeon, wants to solve the problems for the planet.

I had to do some digging and ask myself, ‘Really, what is narcissism, and how can it metabolize in a positive way?’ That is often the impetus for a lot of our audacious goals, right?

A little bit of narcissism metabolized in the right way could be a great driver, which is why it’s a driver attribute. It’s a little uncomfortable, though, when you’re trying to piece that together inside your own system.

What are the advantages of knowing your strong versus weak attributes?

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Understanding which attributes we’re strong in and which attributes we’re weak in allows us to understand why and how we show up and perform the way we do. If we feel friction, or consternation, or strife during certain situations of discomfort or uncertainty, understanding these attributes can help us understand why we have those feelings.

For example, I’m low on adaptability: the environment’s changing around me outside of my control, and it feels icky; I don’t like it. Now I know it’s because I’m low on adaptability, you know? Or maybe I wish this would just move faster. I can recognize I’m feeling that way because I’m lower on patience and higher on impatience.

This type of understanding about our own performance and about our own engines helps us understand why and how we perform the way we do. It’s kind of like we understand why and how our Jeep is running on the Ferrari track. OK, I know why the Ferraris are all lapping me—because I’m a Jeep.

Hiring the wrong attributes could cost you millions

Should attribute assessments cross over into the hiring process?

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Yes, attributes absolutely should cross over into HR and the hiring process. In fact, I think it’s one of the critical things about hiring. If we try to put together a team based solely on skills, we’re going to find a team that, yes, looks great on paper, and does well when things are going well, but as soon as things go sideways, or things don’t go as planned, the team is likely going to turn toxic.

It’s the dream team paradox that I talk about in the book; you have teams that are built on these skills, and you don’t consider the attributes. Attributes show and describe how we’re going to show up during stress, challenge, and uncertainty, so what we need to do when we’re hiring for positions is understand what attributes we’re looking at for those positions.

Any hiring process needs to start including some attributes introspection or attributes assessment. Now, that is a little bit more difficult. You can’t necessarily do that in a regular interview process. You actually have to inflict some level of discomfort, uncertainty, and challenge into an interview process.

Millions of dollars are lost every year by businesses who hire the wrong people because they’re looking at the wrong things.

It’s absolutely important when it comes to hiring. Some of the work we do with companies is to help them figure out what are those attributes they’re looking for so they can hire the right people—because millions of dollars are lost every year by businesses who hire the wrong people because they’re looking at the wrong things.

What’s next on the attribute information journey?

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Part two of the attribute journey is to make this assessment tool even better. Right now, we’re working on the leadership and team ability assessment tools. We’re hoping to have those out there in the next few months so people can get an assessment on their leadership and team ability.

Part two also involves really getting out to organizations and to people and helping them to discover their own attributes. Part two is not necessarily a second book; it’s more “let’s get the word out to people and help them discover this.”

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Rich Diviney on why we react to stressors the way we do and how to achieve optimal performance

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