People are watching you even when you don’t think they are"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” --Aristotle

(This is part two of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? E = EXCELLENCE.)

"Why do we even bother?" he asked. I was standing in the president's office when the chairman and CEO walked in with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

"What are you talking about, Leonard?" the president asked calmly.

"I'm talking about this stack of credit memos. Why do we have a policy of charging these back when you just stuff them in a drawer and do nothing about them?" As the chairman's voice got louder, I knew I didn't want to be in that room, but I couldn't slip past him before he slammed the pile of credit memos on the president's desk. The desk collapsed as it was torn from its wall emplacement. It hit the ground at a 45-degree angle and everything on the desktop slid to the floor. As the voices got even louder, I was lucky to make a hasty exit, stage left.

Thereafter, we heard about the incident repeatedly as an illustration of what not to do in the pursuit of excellence. The chairman used that parable frequently to remind us that excellence is not a personal preference nor is it indulgent of lapses, sentiment or carelessness.

More than anything, excellence is a mindset, a perspective that demands high performance, constant attention and a willingness to relentlessly pursue that elusive goal. It may conceal an unattainable demand for perfection but it doesn't settle for mediocrity.

To achieve excellence, leaders must demand excellence from their colleagues and teammates. As a business leader, you must embrace it in everything you do and make it the touchstone of your leadership style.

Jay Conger from the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, speaks about the "Spotlight of Leadership" as a reminder that leaders are always being scrutinized, their every action carefully observed, their attitude and demeanor always on display. If excellence isn't pursued when no one's looking, no one will be looking for excellence.

Excellence is also measured by how you speak to others. Do people hear you actively promote excellence ... or do they detect willingness to compromise when those standards are challenged? By way of example, does "on time delivery" to your customers actually mean that or is it just a sentiment that expresses what you'd like to have happen? Has any energy been expended to put policies, processes and procedures in place to accomplish it, or is it just a comforting slogan? Sometimes less than spectacular results will have to suffice, but does your team believe excellence is the exception or the rule?

What do you expect of others? One of the most destructive forces of excellence is unveiled by the quality of your workforce. If there are sub-par performers tucked into every corner, a culture of excellence will be unattainable and your goals will become mere platitudes. Your most talented performers won't embrace excellence … and probably won’t stick around too long … because there is so much evidence that excellence is optional.

Hold your people to a high standard and weed out those who are falling short less they become the spoiled apples that poison the entire barrel.

We all write a lot of email and text messages these days. What does your writing sound like? Does it point the finger at others for their mediocre performance? Does it extol the virtues of achievement and performance or is it defensive and blameless? Do people perceive your guidance as positive coaching or one more “gotcha” that thrives on uncovering wrongdoing instead of promoting success?

To be a successful business leader, you need to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” … both literally and figuratively … constantly renewing your workforce with the highest performers you can find and promoting excellence at every turn.  People around you can easily tell if you're expecting excellence from yourself ... by how you talk, what you write, what you believe, how you carry yourself. If you are uncompromising about your standards, it will be self-evident.

So, keep excellence on your lips for the next week … think of it every time you work on something … make it part of everyday speech and let us know the results by commenting at Exkalibur.com. If you stay with it, you’ll find that excellence will creep into every crevice. That’s a contagion that you hope will infect your entire organization.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the President of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy. You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.