Striving for Excellence: A Lesson in Courage

Excellence is a moment-by-moment way of life.

–Tom Peters


Any leader worth her or his salt will tell you that they strive for excellence. In conversations with many people about the concept of excellence, I have discovered that some leaders will equate excellence with perfection. And yet, we all know that there is no such thing as perfection. But there is such a thing as excellence. It is, as organizational guru Tom Peters has said, a moment-by-moment way of life. It is ever-changing and ever growing. It is the best mechanism for dealing with ongoing and often, overwhelming, change. And excellence is contagious.

Just how do we inspire excellence in ourselves and in our teams and those we serve? How do we encourage dedication to a shared and bold commitment to solving tough problems? How do we remember to revisit yesterday’s idea of excellence, to know for certain that it will be very different from today’s?

Striving for excellence—and “attaining” it—lies in ongoing acts of courage.

The courage to pursue excellence begins with building a bold, crisp, and clear vision that reflects a common and agreed-upon set of values. That vision is met with organizational strategies and structures to hold it in place. Excellence is built when a leader will truly listen to points-of-view other than her own and question habitual thinking and familiar patterns. Excellence is built on taking risks that might mean failure—and having mechanisms and structures in place that will keep the organization safe in the face of total course correction if it becomes necessary. Excellence means standing firm for what we believe in—and understanding that criticism is a by-product of that stance. Courage requires standing steady. And excellence requires us to have the courage to be willing to dive into the mess and to state, unequivocally: this is how it’s going to be.

Only by flexing these muscles of courage and by building them day in and day out will we truly be able to solve the problems we set out to solve every day. Anything short of excellence lands us in a place of mediocrity and falling short of honoring the integrity of those who support us and those we serve.

My job is to call for excellence, to model the courage I require, and to ensure that the strategies and structures are in place to uphold our agreed-upon vision. It is only by aspiring to a new excellence every day, by calling forth the courage to take risks and model both strategic and practical integrity, will we enliven and realize the Power of Possible.