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StrategyJul 31, 2012

The Pursuit of Excellence

Donovan Campbell

When the gargoyles at the Nimes cathedral were removed for renovation, church authorities discovered something surprising: the backs of the statues, which no one would ever see, were as intricately carved as their fronts. The same was true of the gargoyles at the top of the building, high and hidden from view. The intricacy of the pieces was particularly strange because gargoyles at the time were not primarily ornamental. They were functional. Their main purpose was to funnel rainwater away from the stone so the running water would not degrade the mortar holding the masonry together. Why would someone go to all of the trouble to carve something no one would ever see, much less need ornamental decoration to serve its purpose?

The answer is straightforward but difficult for our modern culture to understand. The medieval artists believed their work at the cathedral—seen or unseen, decorative or practical—glorified God, and they carved with this goal foremost in mind. Their overarching aim was not to please viewers or preserve stonework. Their aim was to honor their Maker, whom they believed gave them their talents, by giving Him the best work that their talents were capable of producing. The artisans gave every statue their best effort, for they believed excellence was an end in and of itself, worth achieving even if it produced no personal advancement, even if no one else ever noticed.

My comrade-in-arms Michael Kurz was no artist, but he, too, understood the value of striving for excellence. I got to know Kurz at Marine Infantry Officer’s Course, the intense, three-month school that prepares new Marine officers to lead troops on the front lines. Infantry Officer’s Course (IOC) is one of the most physically and mentally challenging schools in the military. During its twelve weeks, the Marines spend most of their time in the field, patrolling through jungle-like terrain, slogging through deserts, or hiking eighty-pound machine-gun systems up and down mountains. The infantry hopefuls get little more than two to four hours of sleep a night. If they are lucky, they’ll have one meal a day.

Unlike the rest of us, Kurz was a pilot. He did not need the school to advance his career. However, Kurz wanted to be a Marine fighter pilot in support of troops on the ground. So, he volunteered to put himself through the twelve weeks of starvation, sleeplessness, and exhaustion so he could better understand what the troops he supported were going through. For that reason, Kurz had my respect from the get-go.

As the weeks passed, my admiration for Kurz only grew. He wasn’t the strongest or fittest officer. He didn’t shoot as well as some others. His tactics, mission planning, and snap decision-making in the field were just slightly above average. We had at least five other officers in our class who were all-around more talented than was Kurz. But Kurz did one thing that no one else in the class did: Kurz gave every day, and every task, his absolute best.

If you needed someone to carry the heavy machine gun, Kurz would volunteer. If you needed someone to hike the twenty-pound radio and its spare batteries, Kurz was on it. If you had to ask someone to stand the worst watch of the night, the one from three to four A.M, you could ask Kurz and he would never turn you down. Every patrol would find him carrying extra weight. Every off shift would find him doing a little bit more preparation. And he never, ever complained. By the time the twelve weeks ended, even the most talented officers in our class considered Kurz to be the finest man among us.

Donovan Campbell has written a three part blog series on the topic of Excellence.  This is Part One of Three. Click here for Part Two. This blog series is based on lessons learned in three combat tours with the United States Marines, lessons that Donovan found applicable in the business world, and life in general. His second Iraq tour is chronicled in the NYT best-seller, Joker One.**

**Donovan’s book, The Leader’s Code is scheduled to release on April 9, 2013, and provides a practical guide for exemplary leadership. You can read more about Donovan and his book by visiting www.theleaderscode.com.**