The opening of the twentieth century and the years leading up to and through World War I brought about dramatic changes both in the modernization of the Western World as well as cultural thought. The industrial revolution had been in full swing for several decades but that was simply priming the pump for what was to come; Powered flight, the automobile, the commercial light bulb, radio and the mechanized factory all reshaped the economic landscape in the first decade of the 20th Century. The assembly line model of Henry Ford’s automobile factory gave rise to mass production and big business. Industrialists like JP Morgan gave rise to the corporation model to run the big business. These events coupled themselves to social and political influences of the times and gave rise to a paradigm of excellence in those who ran the now modern world; Theodore Roosevelt for example, with his “bully pulpit” was a major influence as both US president and political ambassador in the new age of mass communication. The rise of social philosophers like Dale Carnegie helped synthesize these influences into a model of excellence for business, politics and social development in print and speech. By the 1920’s the “excellence through character development” model, that led the 19th century, had been supplanted by a hierarchical, net-result model that resembled an assembly line of the modern factory. Excellence was now in the output, the results, the pilings of achievement on top of achievement in order to out do “the competition”. The competitor, no longer being the person in the mirror, but everyone else. World War I and its aftermath played its role as well. The discipline of combat and the idea of ascension in rank/status through achievements or “victories” shaped the minds of many soldiers returning to the now modern peacetime world. Finding comfort in the  newly formed corporate environments of business, politics and academics, these individuals infused the military model into the DNA of excellence. It is hard to say historically when the phrase, “climbing the corporate ladder” was first used but it was clearly taking shape as a cultural mindset, in the US, during this period. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called, A Theory of Human Motivation in which he outlined his “Hierarchy of Needs” theory for self-actualization. Although suggested by Wikipedia that Maslow himself never used a pyramid to illustrate his linear model, someone did and it stuck, becoming synonymous with Maslow’s hierarchy. By the 1950’s, “getting to the top of the pyramid” was a permanent addition to the vocabulary of excellence as well as climbing the corporate ladder. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs The DNA of these models began to mix, overlap and mutate. The linear production model, the military model of ascension through victory/achievement and the now legendary “Maslow’s Pyramid” had morphed together into a cultural paradigm that serves as the accepted backdrop for excellence to this day. To illustrate all of this, the “Pyramid of Success” introduced in the 1950’s by legendary basketball coach John Wooden resurfaced in recent years, with fervor, as a foundation for excellence in many areas. Leaders in business, sports, politics and social philosophy who write, speak and preach on excellence, offer Wooden’s Pyramid as a blueprint for long-term achievement. The focus, however, shifted from the life and philosophy of John Wooden as whole to the output of his career (that his teams won 10 years worth of NCAA championships) and the idea that you too can reach the top of his pyramid if you just climb hard enough.

The Pyramid of Success, introduced by John Wooden in the 1950's
The Pyramid of Success, introduced by John Wooden in the 1950’s

Many corporate boardrooms and executive offices of the 90’s and early 2000’s were adorned with pictures of another legendary coach, Vince Lombardi. Usually with his picture was an incorrectly paraphrased quote that became the single association with his life’s work;

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” 

Further, Chip Conley’s 2007 book, PEAK, How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow reignited and in many ways was the culmination of the fascination with this hierarchical, pyramid notion of excellence from the last century. But if it was indeed that simple, then why have so many reached the “top of the pyramid” in business, in sports, in politics or in wealth accumulation, societal status, etc; only to fall drastically with sometimes fatal consequence? Add the fact that so many more of us mortals never get to the pyramids top in the first place. Ironically, since the 1960’s companies like Amway that use a “Multilevel Marketing” approach have gained the dubious title of, “Pyramid Schemes” connoting some form of dishonest business practices with ‘shady people’ at the heart of the organization. Yet so many cannot see that they apply the same multilevel philosophy to their careers, relationships and their lives.  


It’s pretty clear that the Pyramid Model for excellence did not simply pop-up overnight. It evolved throughout most of the first half of the 20th century but the inherent flaws have evolved along with it. The unfortunate reality is that these flaws have had significant consequences carrying over into the 21st century and in many respects gone viral as well as unnoticed in the now global human ecosystem. So what are these flaws?

  1. Gravity: It’s basic grade school science, “what goes up must eventually come down. What happens to people when the reach the top of the perceived pyramid? Additionally, gravity is a tough thing to overcome; hence many people won’t even pursue the “uphill battle”.
  2. Action plan vs. snap shot: There is very little “how to” in a pyramid model. Most of these models, like Maslow and Wooden are more snap shots of the results rather than a blue print to get there. The production line model assumes knowledge about how to complete each step in the line and there is really no time for any “how-to” training.
  3. End product obsession: the old saying, “life is a journey, not a destination”. These models reduce excellence to a destination, an end product with little or no concern for how you get there. Even with John Wooden’s principled model, you either have those principles (i.e. building blocks) or you don’t.
  4. It’s lonely at the top: Pyramid models lack connection with the rest of the world. They can reduce excellence to just you, at the top, alone. In varying degrees, humans are social animals and lack of connection in the long-term can have significant physiological consequences. Why do you think that so many people “at the top” self-destruct?
  5. The Egyptians had it right: So the Egyptians put the pyramid metaphor on the map, right? Yes, but for them it was a model for ascension in the afterlife, not in life. Pyramids were tombs, plain and simple.


In 2008, the financial effects of this model reached a tipping point and the economy came crashing down like the walls from the famous story of the Bible. Today the aftermath continues and the global economy struggles to find its identity again. The Pyramid Model remains institutionalized in many areas;

Education –

  • Grades, graduating and diplomas have taken precedence over life long learning.
  • Schools have shifted focus from student’s needs to attendance and funding.
  • Teaching is less about ability to cultivate knowledge, more about tenure.

Politics –

  • Has shifted from good governance to getting re-elected.
  • Platforms are based on what’s good for the political resume as opposed to the nation.
  • National pride has been replaced by party pride, party agenda.

Sports –

  • Is not longer about physical/mental development and fellowship but getting to number one.
  • Staying number one at any cost (Lance Armstrong and others).
  • Competing against others has replaced competing against self.


  • The notion of growth at any cost continues.
  • Profits still win over people.
  • Climbing the corporate ladder dominates purpose in professional life.

These are all attributes of the century old Pyramid Model, but times change and so does the cultural thought process. Intuitively many people have grown weary of this model, they yearn for more depth in professional and personal life, particularly after the economic meltdown of 2008. There is in fact a better model for sustaining excellence. It’s as much a formula, an action plan and a strategy as it is a model. This ‘other paradigm’ has its foundations not in the Industrial Revolution but in science, the observable world and a few time-tested principles often ignored.

17 thoughts on “Excellence Paradigms in the 20th Century

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  10. Another great post, Bryan! To add one more example: We have seen how well the Food Pyramid has worked (NOT)! My guess is quite possibly a sphere?…a dynamic one, in constant flux. That is my replacement for the “wellness continuum” model which also doesn’t work for me.


    1. Thanks so much Trudi for the comments, I’m actually in the process of rewriting this section for a little more clarity and completeness. But you are right, sustaining excellence requires energy…a lot of it. Most people look at wellbeing as a destination rather than a continuous cycle of diet, rest, exercise, stress management and connection.


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