Leadership Mindset for Personal & Team Victory
Excellence as Virtue or Liability?

Excellence as Virtue or Liability?

We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do.

~Aristotle

I’ve been giving a lot of thought these days to this thing we call excellence. We use it so much in daily conversation that we can begin to feel numb to its presence, or sadly, to its absence in our lives and in organizations.

Excellence is the inner yearning to achieve mastery. It is experienced outwardly when our discipline meets the pressures of our environment, and seen when the persistent application of discipline creates the momentum that breaks through the status quo. As thoughtful leaders, we pursuit excellence in our character, and we long for it in our organizations.

Renounced authors Peters and Watterman brought “excellence” to the contemporary business conversation when they engaged in a two-year project to understand what the best 42 American companies did that others didn’t.[1] They went on to discover those companies were able to manage ambiguity and paradox better than others could. Their work, published in the book In Search of Excellence, sold over three million copies and became the de facto go-to textbook on organizational excellence.[2]

Jim Collins also went on a study of great companies, and discovered that a relentless pursuit for excellence turned good companies into great companies. Collins went a step further to refine what excellent meant: “understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it”; he termed this adherence to the “Hedgehog Concept.”[3]

The problem is that many leaders used Collins, Peters, and Watterman’s advice, saw positive results, and over time turned excellence into a liability.

Over time, organizational excellence can turn into silos of excellence. In their book Reengineering the Corporation, authors Hammer and Champy noted in their research the case of IBM.[4] Over time, employees began to seek individual excellence (as this was a recognizable attribute in employees); the result was that individual excellence became the greatest obstacle to collaboration. The company had to standardize operations to build commonality of processes and infrastructure and forced collaboration. It worked.

Here’s another example. In the early stages of the war in Iraq, Gen McChrystalnoted how that pursuit for excellence allowed the war machine to become efficient at major theater wars, but when faced with an unconventional enemy (terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan), the military’s agility was crippled.[5] He had to flatten the organizational structure, improved accountability and cross-communication, and empowered teams to exploit opportunities.

It would be easy for leaders to fall into this trap. The best medicine is to supplement the virtue with shared knowledge, personally and organizationally. In other words, leaders must supplement the urge to become excellent with the reason why excellence is important (a sense of purpose), and then create a shared sense for excellence across the organization through knowledge sharing, collaboration, and enterprise thinking.

Always motivated, lugo

Notes:

[1] Peters, T. J., & Watterman, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York, NY: Warner Books. 100.

[2] In Search of Excellence. (2015). Director, 68(8), 18.

[3] Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap—and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

[4] Hammer, M., & Champy, J. (1993). Reengineering the corporation: A manifesto for business revolution. New York, NY: HarperBusiness. 198-219.

[5] McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

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