No ambitious young professional ever sets out to be mediocre or average. Everyone aspiring to reach a level of success—however they would define it—recognizes the need for excellence. While excellence is a key to success often thrown around carelessly or placed in front of nouns to add credibility, what is it actually?
If you’re going for the simple, straightforward answer, the Oxford Dictionary defines it: the quality of being extremely good; outstanding. How can such a powerful and mysterious word have such a straightforward definition? Businesses and organizations often link excellence to success—revenue, achievement, status, recognition—external realities that are an end-goal. And with hundreds of books, workshops, and guides giving corporate pathways to prosperity and practical steps to achieve success, organizations have limitless tools at their disposal. But on a personal level what does it mean to live in an excellent way? Yes, it may lead to success, influence, or prosperity, but those outcomes are born from carrying oneself excellently, through internal realities.
Describing a business as excellent defines its success. Describing a person as excellent identifies superior character and lifestyle choices.
Excellence is merely an attitude about the way you live life. Colin Powell, military leader and diplomat, puts it beautifully: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” So what is this attitude comprised of? Underlying the obvious dedication and vision that is necessary to establish someone as “outstanding,” or excellent, are two overarching character traits: integrity and humility.
Integrity, much like excellence, is a positively considered word that is used all too often without being defined. But again, breaking it down to a simple definition brings insight. Merriam-Webster calls it the firm adherence to a code of moral values; or the quality or state of being complete or undivided. Having integrity as a life code means that no matter the circumstance, task, or audience, our actions and words remain consistent. And in context to excellence, integrity means our actions remain consistently of the highest quality or standard. Consider the well-known story of the German visiting a temple where a sculptor was constructing an idol of a god to place on a column 20 feet in the air. When the man spotted a similar idol lying on the floor, he questioned the sculptor about it to find it was apparently damaged. Finding nothing wrong with the sculpture upon inspection, he asked the sculptor, who mentioned there was a scratch on its nose. Incredulous, the man questioned the sculptor, pointing out that no one would know the scratch existed with the idol so high in the air. The sculptor replied, “I will know it.” His commitment to producing something of the highest quality regardless of the situation or if anyone would notice demonstrates integrity and how it produces excellence –even down to the smallest details.
Integrity promotes untainted actions. When you’re speaking and living in an “undivided” way and adhering to a high moral or artistic code no matter the circumstances, your motives become purified and your attitude shifts toward the positive. John Maxwell, well-known author and speaker, makes integrity and adherence to ethics very black and white: “There are really only two important points when it comes to ethics. The first is a standard to follow. The second is the will to follow it” (Ethics 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know, p. 23
). Additionally, consistency in words and actions across the board lets people know they can trust you—that you’re honest and dependable. And what career-minded person doesn’t want to build relationships and do business with someone dependable and trustworthy? Aside from the way integrity draws others to you, it produces in your work a high quality that withstands time and scrutiny.
Integrity, as it produces excellence, is closely related to leadership. When you walk in excellence, you naturally rise to the forefront of wherever you are. With this in mind, establishing a foundation of excellence from the beginning enables you to be an inspiring uncompromised leader, as others feel they can trust you and strive to follow your example. “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is a section gang, a football field, in the army, or in an office,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The third step toward excellence, after commitment and integrity, is possibly the most surprising: humility. You may have read that initially and responded in skepticism, but consider the leaders of some of the most thriving organizations. Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great
, analyzed 11 organizations that went from a slump, through a transition of some sorts, and then rocketed to greatness and stayed an industry leader for at least 15 years. The first factor he found that enabled these organizations to outperform every other was what he called a “level 5 leader,” someone who possesses humility on a personal level, but also drive and a desire to succeed. These people think beyond their own personal glory and success and focus instead on creating lasting prosperity. They never point to themselves as the reason for success, but humbly attribute it to other factors. “A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions,” as Confucius said.
When leaders operate from a place of humility, it invokes a teachable attitude and commitment to learning and adapting as industries change that keeps them ahead. People overconfident in their own abilities or wisdom tend to miss important trends and be limited by their vision of personal success. Preferring others instead of thinking only of one’s own success or promotion invites collaboration and encouragement –pivotal elements to an atmosphere of excellence. And when men operate from the desire to leave behind a legacy of prosperity beyond their own wealth, the drive to succeed in the greater picture produces an attitude of excellence. A study performed by the Academy of Management Journal
found that humility is key to effective leadership. "Leaders of all ranks view admitting mistakes, spotlighting follower strengths and modeling teachability as being at the core of humble leadership," says Bradley Owens, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "And they view these three behaviors as being powerful predictors of their own as well as the organization's growth."*
Do you want to reach your greatest potential? Start in the smallest places, the places you don’t think matter. Live with integrity and humility and watch how excellence is produced. Keep yourself accountable to stick to your guns and not compromise on the way up — the reward is worth it.
* University at Buffalo (2011, December 9). Humility key to effective leadership. ScienceDaily
. Retrieved July 30, 2012.
Deborah Fraser is a photographer and writer located in Kansas City, Missouri. She has spent the last two years marketing, coordinating events, and teaching classes on purpose and intentionality for young adults with the non-profit organization, Joseph International