“Arise (from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you-rise to a new life: a life of excellence) and shine!” I read this statement at the beginning of the year and could not stop thinking about it. Then a few weeks later, a question arises “how can a leader cultivate excellence?”
Some months ago, I travelled with Brussels Airlines. As I entered the plane, I was welcomed by a cheerful cabin crew chief by the name of Vincent. I asked if I could hand over to him my jacket and some ironed clothes to keep till we landed. “Of course, I can keep these clothes for you but please do not forget them because if you do, I will gladly wear them. They are a perfect fit for me as well.”, was his response. I was impressed by his professionalism and the way he cared for the passengers. I observed from where I was sitting in one of the middle row seats, that Vincent, while giving a glass of white wine to a lady said, “madam, I noticed that today is your birthday. On behalf of Brussels Airlines, I wish you a happy and pleasant birthday”. It was a breath-taking moment. The woman could not hold her emotions: “Wow! How did you know? Oh wow! I am impressed. Oh, that is kind of you, oh you made my day…” She couldn’t stop saying wow and I am sure that passenger will never forget that experience and the way Vincent made her feel on her birthday.
In this article, we will first define excellence and go on to explore a few reasons why many leaders are not excellent. The aim is to challenge us to pursue excellence in everything we do and wherever we find ourselves.
The Oxford Dictionary defines excellence as the “quality of being outstanding or extremely good”. The attitude of Vincent can be qualified as an excellent attitude because of his outstanding customer service.
Martin Luther King Jr. throws more light on the subject of excellence on these terms “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well”.
Charles Dickens adds to it by saying, “My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”
According to Aristotle, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Here are a few reasons why we are not excellent:
- The first reason is a lack of purpose.
Purpose can be defined as the reason for being of something. A personal purpose is the reason for which that person exists. Many people have not yet answered the question “why am I here on earth?” or “what is my life’s purpose?” Knowing your life’s purpose helps you to know that one thing you would love to do and do it very well even if you are not paid for doing it. “Knowing and living our purpose allows us to be truly alive-it is magic”.
“Finding one’s purpose is a spiritual pursuit. It represents your ability to connect with something greater than yourself”, asserts Dave Boreham, the CEO of MCA Training International.
“If you don’t love what you do, chances are you will never become excellent at it. You might be good at your work or whatever it is that you do, great maybe, but never excellent. This is why it is so important to do what you enjoy, to use your gifts and talents because then and only then, it will all come naturally to you, and what others might see as hard work, for you will only be love (passion). The moment you put love in what you do and work with your heart, nothing will be seen or felt as hard work, to you”, according to PurposeFairy.com. Therefore, you give “your all” to it and you do it with all your heart, mind and soul and with passion. For example, we can have two bankers A and B in the same department – Banker A is full of passion and loves what he does. He will always find creative and innovative ways to do his job and to exceed the expectations of his clients. On the other hand, banker B in performing a task or duty will find it very difficult to be excellent in what he does. Robert Townsend says, “if you don’t do it with excellence, don’t do it at all! Because if it’s not excellent, it won’t be profitable or fun.”
Living your purpose-driven life is one of the best things which can ever happen to a man/woman on earth. It is critical and imperative to know our purpose. If we do not know it yet, may I suggest that it is about time we paused and asked ourselves that ultimate question: “What am I here for? Then when we discover it, we will be on our way to excellent living.
- The second reason is the lack of discipline and courage.
It is one thing to discover your purpose, but another thing entirely to be willing to live according to that purpose and to excel in it. It is obvious that Vincent has found his purpose, but he must polish what is so natural to him to do which is “the ability to anticipate the needs of his passengers and to try to meet them.” As stated by Aristotle (quoted earlier), “…excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Author Rick Pitino adds to it by saying, “Excellence is the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer.” It requires discipline and focus. The ability to focus on that one thing and refusing to be distracted will lead us to excellence. The mastery of that natural talent – in its raw state, a talent cannot be expressed fully till it reaches its full potential. But it must be worked on with dedication, discipline and focus. “Excellence always sells” remarked Earl Nightingale.
Brian Tracy summarizes this so well in this phrase, “the foundation of lasting self-confidence and self-esteem is excellence, mastery of your work.
- The third reason is a low self-esteem mindset.
As soon as we think that excellence is the “panacea” of a few privileged people or the elite in society, it will be difficult or almost impossible to achieve it. I love this quote from Colin Powell which says, “excellence is not an exception; it is a prevailing attitude.”
We become excellent because we think and believe that it is possible. “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?” underlines John Wooden.
In his book “Think Big” (unleashing your potential for excellence), Ben Carson narrates his life story and how he used to think that he was the dumbest kid in fifth grade till the day, his mother who was not well educated told him, “Bennie, you can do anything you want to do-only you can do it better”. He says, “All of the many lessons my mother taught me I can combine into this maxim: “Always give your best.” This statement changed the mindset of the young boy who was the last of his class to become the first in his class. With the renewal of his mindset for excellence, Ben Carson became the first black neurosurgeon in medical history by successfully separating Siamese twins joined at the back of the head – successful because both boys survived.
I remember how growing up, I was repeating classes and my parents were quite discouraged about my progress. Coming from a family of four children where my other siblings were brilliant academically. The years spent repeating classes were seven years and this became a history no one in my family wanted to recount. On one Christmas day, the 25th day of December, a friend gave me a Christmas card and in it was written: “There is hope for your future.” This simple statement challenged my thinking and I personalized it “There is hope for my future”. Gradually, I became confident and broke away from a low self-esteem mentality. I turned my “mourning into dancing” by seeing the positive aspects of failure. Now I am a pursuer of excellence.
- The last reason is the attitude of complacency and the absence of hunger to learn
According to Alvin Toffler, “the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Our ability to learn new things, new ways of thinking, learn from our mistakes, get rid of bad habits and wrong mindsets and adopt new attitudes will make us people with an excellent spirit. Ben Carson quoted one of his medical mentors called Dr Don Long: “Anyone who can’t learn from other people’s mistakes simply can’t learn, and that is all there is to it. There is value in the wrong way of doing things. The knowledge gained from errors contributes to our knowledge base…Learn everything you can, but think for yourselves”
Reading can be one way of coming out of complacency and “reading is the way out of ignorance, and the road to achievement”, according to Ben Carson. “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way”, says Booker T. Washington. This uncommon way can be learnt and added to creativity, will surely distinguish us. Encouraging children to learn, read and think creatively is a great way to become pursuers of excellence. In the education system and organization, the culture of excellence needs to be encouraged. Good is the enemy of best so strive for the best. “In the land where excellence is commended, not envied, where weakness is aided, not mocked, there is no question as to how its inhabitants are all superhuman” emphasizes Criss Jami, Venus in Arms.
In conclusion, the discovery of our purpose, the discipline and focus on working on that purpose and the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn make us leaders who are continually arising and shining with excellence.