Book Review: The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership, Book Reviews

Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan have written a book that changes the game when it comes to taking your company to the next level. They have done so by pointing out how to clear the past from defining your future and instead allowing you to create the future you desire. Sounds a bit “over the top” and it is not. If we as business leaders can take our companies through this long and difficult process, then we have the opportunity to finally move beyond the normal company dysfunction and have everyone on the same page.

This very well written book is part of the Warren Bennis collection of business management thought. The series is devoted exclusively to new and exemplary contributes to leadership practice, and this volume is definitely in the right place. The authors organized the book in three parts: 1.) the three laws in action, 2.) rewriting the Future of Leadership and 3.) mastering the Game of Performance.

The three laws of performance are: 1.) How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them. 2.) How situations occur arises in language. And 3.) Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people. The book clarifies these terms for the reader. First “occur” means the reality that arises within and from your perspective on the situation. “‘How a situation occurs’ includes your view of the past (why things are the way they are) and the future (where all this is going).” It is critical to understand that our view of the future includes our view of the past – and that therefore limits the options for most people. A lot of work will be to understand that past, put it to rest and be complete with it so that the future is no longer being limited by our stories, beliefs or convictions about reality from the past.

Next, it is important to understand that “how situations occur is inseparable from language.” The authors use the Helen Keller story to demonstrate how incredibly powerful language is in shaping our perception of “reality.” It is worth repeating their report from Anne Sullivan, Keller’s tutor:

For nearly six years I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactual. I was impelled like an animal to seek food and warmth. I remember crying, but not the grief that caused the tears . . . . I was like an unconscious clod of earth. Then, suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil! I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.(1)

Keller, because she can compare life without language to the discovery of language – through Anne Sullivan and sign language – saw language for what it is: “a force that makes us human, that gives us a past and a future, that allows us to dream, to plan, to set and realize goals.” The authors also explain that we humans deal with a phenomenon of the “communicate the unsaid but communicated.”

The third law is based on the concept that there are two different ways to use language. The first is descriptive – using language to depict or represent things as they are or have been. Future-based or generative language does not describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs. It has the power to create new futures and to create visions. It eliminates the descriptive limitations of the future by rewriting the future that was originally written by our descriptive language.

Part I of the book comprises three chapters—Transforming an Impossible Situation, Where is the Key to Performance: and Rewriting a Future That’s Already Written. This section introduces the three laws and helps clarify the meaning of the terminology used. It’s critical to remember that language defines our experience and so to define how words are used, the definitions for the purpose of the authors clearly communicating is key to the reader’s successful understanding of the concepts put forth.

Part II of the book comprises two chapters and is particularly poignant at the time of this writing since we are presently having lots of discussion about the leadership lessons being learned from several incidents including the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill. The chapters are: With So Many Books on Leadership, Why Are There So Few Leaders? And The Self-Led Organization. It is the contention of the authors that there are two “Leadership Corollaries.” The first is “Leaders have a say, and give others a say, in how situations occur.” That is to say that a leader helps create the future, inspires others to see that future and align with it and makes sure that the environment needed for people to align exists.

The second Leadership Corollary is “Leaders master the conversational environment.” The authors suggest that we consider that our organizations are a network of conversations. They ask, “Is there anything that matters that isn’t done through conversations?” Conversations produce innovations. Conversations are the vehicle for delivery of services. Conversations coordinate activities.

The third Leadership Corollary is “Leaders listen for the future of their organization.” Leaders create conversations from the Third Law (Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people) to invent futures for the organization that didn’t previously exist. However, “leaders don’t rewrite the future by themselves—they create the space and provide the ‘listening’ for that future.”

Part III of the book comprises three chapters: Who or What is Leading Your Life?, The Path to Mastery and Breaking the Performance Barrier. In this section the authors tackle the hard fact that there is almost always someone or something that is driving our lives. It could be a distant past decision you made about who you were based on how an event occurred to you. To be authentic (to be your own author), you need to “find your native energies and desires, and then find your way of acting on them.” Who are you really and how did you become who you are? Answering these questions requires some deep, difficult work on our parts. The authors give us a framework to do that work.

The chapter on mastery points out that there are no “Steps to Mastery.” The point is that the best way to learn a new language is to be immersed in it. There is no one best way to do things, and when you are immersed in a culture to learn the language, things to not go sequentially and neatly. Instead there is chaos and lots of parallel paths. There are milestones however, and they are:

  1. Seeing your “Terministic Screen” in action
    Leadership is about inventing something radically new, in concert with those who will implement it, and it can’t be done through a formula, steps or checklist. And to create something radically new, we have to realize we are always viewing the world through a Terministic Screen – the names we have for things, situations and the events of the past are like a set of contact lenses that filter out possibilities for the way something is and limits it to what we “believe” it is.
  2. Building a New Terministic Screen
    The example given by the authors here is to think about how Galileo had to overcome the Terministic Screen of his time with the sun “rising” in the morning and “setting” in the evening. That is the Terministic Screen of the day, confirmed by human observation, was that the sun was doing the moving, the action. It limited people’s view of possibilities, specifically that the earth was rotating, not “still.” We have the same issues in our world today. When you have that “Aha!” moment and get a breakthrough to an issue, you likely had to recognize a change in your “Terministic Screen”; you put on a “new set of lenses.”
  3. You’ll see New Opportunities for elevated performance everywhere
    Zaffron and Logan proclaim that shortly after you pass the second milestone, you will begin to notice you are seeing old situations with a new perspective. You will begin to ask in various daily situations, “How must the situations be occurring to the people here, such that they are doing what they are doing.” “How does my spouse occur to me, and me to her, such that we behave as we do?” And perhaps a bit more profound, “How must I occur to myself, given what I do in these types of situations?”

The call to action is in Chapter 8 – Breaking the Performance Barrier. Here the authors advise that the reader take on the following commitments:

  1. Get out of the stands.
    Are you in the game, or only an observer? What kind of conversations are you having?
  2. Create a New Game
    A game starts when some influential person uses future-based language and says that something is more important than something else.
  3. Make the obstacles conditions of the Game
    If something occurs to you and others as an obstacle, you’ll push back by playing on the obstacle’s terms. Instead, make the obstacles conditions of the game.
  4. Share your insights
    So who do you share with? How will you improve the performance of your organization if you don’t share what you learn about breaking the performance barrier?
  5. Find the Right Coach
    From the Three Laws, great coaching alters how the situation of the game occurs for the players, especially at the critical moments. The coach will say and do whatever is necessary to win the game.
  6. Start filing your past in the past
    Get the future and the past straightened out, once and for all. We all make a very simple and far-reaching mistake—one that you must not make if you’re going to elevate performance. We use past experiences and our Terministic Screen as a filter that defines and limits how situations occur to us.
  7. Play the Game as if your life depended on it;
    because, in actuality, it does depend on it. So “play the game passionately, intensely, and fearlessly. But don’t make it significant. It’s just a game.”

This is not the average book on leadership and performance enhancement. If you take this book seriously, embrace the suggestions of the authors, your life will be transformed – never to be the same again.


(1)Helen Keller, My Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1928) 20-21. Helen Keller quotation from My Religion, courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives. Used by the authors with permission.

Click here to see the book on Amazon.