The character quality of excellence is a leadership imperative, and if pursued intentionally, it will bear fruit. The first of those fruits is contentment, best defined as a peace with our current circumstances that frees us from daily dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, contentment is an outcome we often seek but rarely find. The reason for this paradox is simple: we too often equate contentment with a destination rather than a journey. We believe once we have reached a certain position at work or society, or once we have achieved a certain income level, or degree of prosperity, then we will finally rest and be content. The problem with this mindset is two-fold: 1) there is always another position to achieve, level to reach, or thing to buy and 2) circumstances outside of our control often have a vote (usually an unanticipated one) in the outcome of our lives.
However, if we seek excellence and are satisfied with that alone, then we are much more likely to maintain our composure when our lives upend or when we find ourselves in places we never dreamed. We are much more likely to radiate optimism, and we are much more likely to keep control of our overall attitude if our overall attitude depends on that which we control.
Commitment and Integrity
Our teams will also find we as leaders are committed, constantly pursuing what matters. Every team admires a person who every day sets their shoulder to the wheel and pushes with everything they have. Every team admires a leader who faces each day determined to give that day their all, no matter what the circumstances and no matter what the outcome. The world is full of smart, talented people who pursue things other than daily excellence, who quit as soon as the going gets tough. There are very few who, like Eisenhower, remain constant in giving their best.
Steadfastness, in turn, allows us to maintain our integrity—the unity between beliefs, words, and deeds. We often associate loss of integrity with moral failures like lying, cheating, or stealing, but there are less dramatic, and equally powerful, ways to lose it. One of those ways is simply to change our goals routinely. If we said something was important, and then we discarded it later, was it really important? If it was not, then why did we say it was? If, however, we are steadfast in pursuit of what we say matters, then we can keep our integrity.
Competence and Responsibility
The pursuit of excellence also enables competence (though without guarantee). If we are determined to give our best at a task every single day, chances are we will become good at that task eventually, even if it is not squarely within our natural skill set. If, however, we chose to be mediocre at our daily tasks, for whatever reason—we find them unimportant, we believe a better job is just around the corner, etc.—then chances are high that our skill sets will remain mediocre. What is worse, we will develop a habit of mediocrity because that is what we train ourselves to be.
But if we give our all now—even in circumstances where our all is not necessary and mediocrity will suffice—then we train ourselves to give our all in the future, when it really might matter. We build our capabilities, if only through sheer effort, and we improve constantly so that when crunch time comes along, we are ready. We had a saying in the Marines: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” Having fought and bled, I can attest to this truth. Pursuing excellence, daily, makes us better at the day-to-day and prepares us for crisis.
Excellence also prepares us for increased responsibility. Those who are faithful with a little are likely to be faithful with a lot. Those who can be trusted to give their best no matter how menial the task or how unpleasant the circumstances can usually be trusted to give their best in high-profile assignments and in high-pressure circumstances. When crunch time comes, it is those who are known quantities that are given responsibility. Practicing daily excellence prepares us for future responsibility.
No matter what our natural gifts, we can all choose to be a Mike Kurz (as mentioned blog post, The Pursuit of Excellence) or a Dwight Eisenhower (referenced in blog post, Our Best Efforts Every Day). We can all choose to achieve excellence in all circumstances by giving our best in all circumstances. No matter what we think, we have no real idea of what life has in store for us. Try as we might to connect the dots in advance, life is too unpredictable for us to base our level of excellence on the perceived commensurate level of reward. So, we need to give our absolute best every day at whatever task we have in front of us, no matter what the outcome. We need to challenge ourselves to purse an unflaggingly demanding—but unfailingly achievable—goal: to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.
If we can do this, then we can state with confidence at each day’s end: “Today I have given all that I have…There is nothing I have kept…nothing that I have lost forever.”
Donovan Campbell has written a three part blog series on the topic of Excellence. This is Part Three of Three. Part One is The Pursuit of Excellence and Part Two is Our Best Efforts Every Day. The 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. Newsweek named Joker One a top war book of the decade.
Donovan’s book, The Leader’s Code is scheduled to release on April 9, 2013, and provides a practical guide for exemplary leadership. To learn more about Donovan and his book, visit www.theleaderscode.com. For assistance with strategy and leadership initiatives, please contact us.