On leadership: Is ‘excellence’ a dirty word?

Leadership Diagram Showing Vision Values Empower and Encourage

Leaders love the word ‘excellence’. It’s used set high standards and encourage a team to greatness. But is it overused? (Yes!) Could it even point people in the wrong direction? When should you and your team stop pursuing excellence? Steve Waugh, one of Australia’s greatest sporting leaders, outlined the a problem he saw with the dogged pursuit of ‘excellence’.

By Cam Barber

Steve: “I’ve seen players try so hard to be perfect they lost their focus.”

More on Steve Waugh’s concerns in a minute. First, let’s look at the word ‘excellence’.

Why leadership experts love ‘excellence’: 

The ‘excellence’ buzzword was born in 1982.

The book ‘In Search of Excellence’, by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. was one of the biggest selling business books ever. It sold 3 million copies in its first four years, and was the most widely held library book in the United States from 1989 to 2006.

Leaders have been using the term ever since. And today there are ‘centers of excellence’ in organizations all over the world. The 2001 business bestseller that grabbed the baton was Jim Collins’, ‘From Good to Great’. Even though it doesn’t use the ‘e’ word, the idea is still that we must leap away from the known to ‘greatness’.

The excellence moniker is embedded in our business growth and leadership culture.

But hang on, you may be thinking, ‘Isn’t that what a leadership vision is about? pushing people out of their comfort zones to greatness?’

Your leadership message:

When using a buzzword like ‘excellence’, have you considered the message that goes along with that? As a leader, have you explained what you mean by excellence? And does everyone in your team have the same understanding you have?

The actual meaning of any word depends on context. This is particularly true of leadership buzzwords. And of ever there was an overused piece of jargon that attempts to say something profound – without imparting any concrete information – then excellence is it.

For example, when you say, ‘We must pursue excellence’ without a clear message associated with it, people could interpreted the meaning as ‘…and we don’t care how much it costs, how long it takes or how many failures we have.’ Is that the message you want them to have?

Leaders need to think clearly about their leadership mantras – and the explanations that accompany them.

What is the problem with excellence?

This is where Steve Waugh has an interesting perspective. He has teamed up with Peter Cox, an organizational leadership expert, to run a 1-day Leadership event focused on the Leadership Behaviors That Drive Results.

And they believe excellence can be taken too far.

For example, look at Tiger Woods. The greatest golfer trying to change his swing and lost his mojo.

Steve Waugh tells a story about Michael Bevan who constantly tried to improve and he ended up losing his focus.

Peter Cox: “I’m a big believer that encouraging and managing change is a crucial skill of great leaders. However, it’s possible to take change too far in the name of excellence.”

Coca Cola provided a famous example of this in the 1980s when they decided to improve the ‘secret coke recipe’. They replaced the Coke millions of people had loved for 100 years – and sales plummeted! (They had to bring back the old recipe as ‘Classic Coke’).

A mantra today at internet start up companies is; if you are really proud of your first app, you probably aren’t getting to market quickly enough. Microsoft dominated the early computer landscape with the DOS operating system by getting the software to market quickly, when it certainly wasn’t described as excellent.

Facing the truth head on:

Steve Waugh: “As a leader, sometimes you have to decide to stop trying to improve and focus your energy on what you already do well. Make up your own mind. Make your own mistakes…”

Peter Cox, says “Regular one-on-one meetings with your team are crucial. Here you honestly and objectively assess whether attempting additional change will waste energy and reduce the team’s focus on what matters at the moment.”

In other words, make a leadership decision about whether the effort and energy to constantly improve something outweighs the benefits of sticking to the thing that works.

Where excellence works:

Of course, the basic idea of excellence – to do things well – is sound. Coca Cola didn’t stop innovating after their ‘new coke’ failure. They added strategic variations to the Coke formula with Coke Zero and Coke Caffeine Free etc. And excellence as an idea that drives process improvement can work well, as long as the leaders involved are using common sense.

Common sense leadership decisions:

Leaders must make a lot of decisions. The principle (of excellence) can certainly help guide a team or an organisation. However, unconsciously or slavishly following principle like excellence won’t solve all your leadership problems. A good leader needs to make the call about what to focus on and when.

Unfortunately, finding the right focus won’t always be supported by the data. A leader needs to make the call.

Check the data, face the truth head on – then trust your own judgment.

Cam Barber (aka the ‘message man’) is a communication coach and messaging expert. He has coached C-level leaders at Boost Juice, Hawthorn Football Club, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Telstra, Southern Cross Austereo, Fox Sports, BBC Worldwide and many others. He and his team also run training courses in the Vivid Method for Public Speaking. www.vividmethod.com