On leadership: Is excellence a dirty word? (with Steve Waugh)

Leaders love the word ‘excellence’.

It’s used to set high standards and encourage a team to greatness. But is it overused? (Hint: 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 with strong opinions on leadership style, explained the problems he observed with a dogged pursuit of ‘excellence’ during our work together.

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


Why leadership experts love ‘excellence’

In search of excellence Tom PetersMore on Steve Waugh’s concerns in a moment. First, let’s look at the word ‘excellence’.

Excellence’ as a buzzword was born in 1982.

The book ‘In Search of Excellence’, by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman 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. 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?’ Sure, sometimes, however…


Your Leadership Style

In search of excellence worn bookIf you use a buzzword like ‘excellence’, have you considered the message that goes along with it? It doesn’t matter what your leadership style is, 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 interpret 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?

steve-waugh1This is where Steve Waugh has an interesting perspective. Recently. he has teamed up with Peter Cox, an organizational leadership expert, to run events focused on the Leadership Behaviors That Drive Results.

And they believe excellence can be taken too far.

For example, look at Tiger Woods. This incredible golfer has spent so much time and energy improving his golf swing that he periodically loses focus. Steve Waugh also tells a story about Michael Bevan who constantly tried to improve his batting style so he could handle any possible ball, and he ended up not only losing his focus, but his place in the team.

Peter Cox says: “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. In other words, get to market before the product is excellent!

Microsoft dominated the early computer landscape with the MS-DOS operating system by getting the software to market quickly, when it certainly wasn’t described as excellent.


Facing the truth head on

Excellence truthSteve Waugh: “As a leader, sometimes you have to decide to stop trying to improve and focus your energy on what you already do well”.

Peter Cox says “There are different leadership styles, however, 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, your leadership vision must include tough decisions about whether the effort and energy to constantly improve something, outweighs the benefits of sticking to the thing that works.


Where does excellence work?

leadership-excellenceOf course, the basic idea of excellence – to do things well – is sound. It’s the decision of when to apply it that makes for great leadership.

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. which have been very successful.

And rough-and-ready MS-DOS was continuously improved – leading to the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Excellence as an idea that drives process improvement is wonderful, as long as the leaders involved are using common sense.


A common sense leadership style

Leaders must make a lot of decisions. The principle of excellence can certainly be used to guide a team or an organisation.

However, slavishly following a principle like excellence won’t help you. A good leader benefits from a common sense leadership style to make the tough calls on what to focus on, and when.

Unfortunately, finding the right focus won’t always be supported by the data. Great leaders check the data, face the truth head on – then trust their own judgment.


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