• Chris

Dr. Christopher P. Johnson’s Pyramid of Excellence

This one has been brewing in my head for a long time. I wanted to classify how I believe the combination of what I’ve learned through my experiences matched up with research I’ve done reading historic leaders, scientific articles, and ancient literature adds up to bring people to excellence. My personal experiences are pulled from time as an entrepreneur, college professor, military officer, human performance coach, and project manager and I took notice of the traits that got me furthest in all of those disciplines.

What I came up with was six themes focusing on an individual’s development towards excellence. The six themes focus on one’s self, experiences, skills, wisdom, mastery, and finally excellence. The themes build upon each other, for example, you must have a firm grasp on your personal self-skills in order to get the most out of your experiences and to fully utilize your skills, you must have taken in all you can from your experiences. In that sense, the pyramid progresses like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To get the most out of a higher level, you have to excel at the earlier stages. Below I will bring you through the stages from the earliest stage focusing on your personal self-skills and ending with excellence.

Dr. Christopher P Johnson's Pyramid of Excellence


The first skill an individual must acquire is grit. Grit is an individual’s strength in all they represent, it’s their courage and resolve to become the person they want to be. If you lack the grit to push through the adversities necessary to improve, the rest of the pyramid will never materialize. Part of grit is self-sacrifice. If you want to become something greater than what you are now, you must be willing to sacrifice comforts. Comforts are so because they are familiar and by nature people are drawn towards the familiar, but the ability to sacrifice those comforts can only come from being honest with yourself. Honesty is being realistic about your abilities and place in the world. Although the objective of the Pyramid of Excellence is improving from where you are now to where you want to be, it is important to be honest regarding what is possible. Without being honest to yourself, you will never extract the lessons from experience or reach the higher stages of the pyramid. If all of this sounds painfully hard and unenjoyable, that’s because I haven’t gotten to passion yet. Passion will power you through all of the adversity you face during your journey. It’s the tinder that fuels the fire and light at the end of the tunnel, your reason for waking up in the morning and having the desire to improve your life in the first place. Passion stems from purpose. When we are drawn towards something greater than us, we grow passionate towards that goal and the people involved. Your purpose can be to overcome sickness, escape poverty, or become a better parent. The stronger our purpose, the greater our passion.

The final aspect of self-development is positive-self-conception. Reminding yourself you are worth a damn is the final part of achieving your true self. Constantly reminding yourself that others have been there before you or done something just as challenging is a great reminder that your journey is possible and reminding yourself that you are worth a damn will keep you positive when you feel like Atlas holding up the heavens and the sky.

I never said any of this was going to be easy, and I’m sure most of the people who started reading this article already quit. That’s ok, they’re not ready yet and they can read it when the time is right. What’s going to make the difference is you have to remind yourself that challenges like this are the only way you are going to improve. Keep your head up, and remember the smallest action is better than the greatest unfulfilled intension.


Experience can only be fully appreciated when you have a grip on your personal self. To experience what the world and all the people who have lessons to teach you can offer, you must first work on the characteristics mentioned above. Experience starts with observing a master of their craft and learning through the experiences they provide you. Learning through experience requires you to understand the art of followership. Followership is the ability to observe and learn from others. It can be a coach, parent, manager, or friend. As long as you trust the person you are following, and they are in a position similar to where you want to be, there is something you can learn. Throughout all of history, people have been learning in a mentor and apprentice relationship. Just as people go to college now, people used to pay to live with a mentor and learn the art of their craft.

Whatever craft the apprentice chooses to learn must first be observed. This is the painstakingly boring period of any mentorship. It’s the part when the apprentice carpenter is responsible for getting nails and watching her mentor do all the real work. But it’s also the most important part. This is the part when the apprentice earns the mentor’s trust by being willing to pay attention to the small stuff. If a mentor can’t trust an apprentice getting the right type of nails, how are they supposed to trust her building a house?

During this same period, the apprentice is expected to observe everything the mentor is doing. They are meant to watch how their mentor does their job and mimic them as they learn. When mimicking, apprentices are experiencing trial and error. Trial and error are how we learn from our mistakes while mimicking our role-models. It’s known as the chameleon effect and over time this will allow you to form your own identity as a leader of your craft. Mastering the skill through experiences life grants us. The lessons may not always come in the form we expected, but they present themselves regardless.

All of this sounds great in theory, but the apprentice must be in a positive environment if they are to receive the proper guidance they need. Within that positive environment, op