Excellence differs from failure and mediocrity most obviously because many people openly and passionately aspire to it. They want the satisfaction excellence brings and the rewards it promises. Excellent people simply have richer lives, get more done, and have more fun. Aspiring to excellence is valued, encouraged and rewarded. No one really says, “I aspire to mediocrity.” Or, “I’m comfortable with failure.” So, even though excellence eventually turns on us and leads us into to the Excellence Trap, it is nevertheless fitting to speak of those habits and practices which can lead us to excellence as virtues.
There is no shortage of advice and opinions about what drives excellence. After studying much of what’s out there, across time and across cultures, and after working with a myriad of clients, we’ve identified five core virtues which truly account for excellence, without reducing or narrowing what excellence actually is or what it requires. The Virtues of Excellence are these: effort, proficiency, expertise, commitment, and acumen. If you demonstrate those five consistently then you will achieve excellence. And you will be also well on your way to the Excellence Trap! Let’s discuss these five virtues one by one.
Effortis a measure of energy output, and basically refers to what we put out of ourselves and into something. Effort is work, pure calories in action. It is required to achieve anything. Without effort, dreams never become reality, and goals are never reached. Everything from simply standing up to running a marathon requires effort. So does everything from checking voicemail to leading a Fortune 100 corporation. Indeed, all conscious activity requires conscious effort. The greater the task, the more effort required. As any good athlete can tell us, no pain, no gain. Without expending significant effort in a sustained fashion, excellence will be missed and mediocrity or failure awaits you in its embrace.
Proficiency is an acquired capability, a specific technique or skill required to do a task well. Proficiency is necessary if we are to have the skill necessary to excel at the things we want to do. Without proficiency, we are a dabbler, a fan, or a dreamer, but not a doer. Here’s a good image of what proficiency is: it’s everything that “air guitar” isn’t! You can love something deep down, let it consume you, identify with it deeply, and even envision yourself doing it to great acclaim, but without proficiency it’s all just, you guessed it, playin’ air guitar. When I was about six years old, I played guitar in a “band” with a few other kids my age. None of us could play a note, so we just held our instruments and strummed along to the music, except unlike the bands currently lip synching on TV, the real music was only in our heads. I’m sure it was a total cacophony that tested the limits of parental love and neighborly restraint. It required an imagination that few people above the age of six seem to be able to maintain. The “drummer” would flail away and yell, “Fingers!!” at us. This was meant to remind us to move our fingers as convincingly as we could up and down the necks of our guitars, enhancing the realistic effect as we prepared someday to amaze an audience. Of course, we weren’t excellent. A few years later I got serious about proficiency, and whenever I would get tired of practicing, I’d think of the manic cry of “Fingers!!” and get back to it, often for hours on end. Ten years later I was at the nation’s leading private conservatory, and I assumed that our drummer was out there somewhere pounding out rhythms on his dashboard. There’s no substitute for proficiency. It’s a cost of entry for any successful endeavor, but it’s of particular importance on the road to achieve excellence.
Commitment is willpower, the readiness to sacrifice in order to reach a desired outcome. We hear about commitment so often as to almost be deaf to it, thinking it falls somewhere between a no-brainer and a platitude. But it bears giving attention to the three drivers of commitment: It applies willpower; It sacrifices; and it stays the course. Nobody achieves excellence without commitment. Commitment has to come first, even before effort and proficiency. But it also has to sustain when both pursuing excellence and maintaining excellence. It can never go away. This is why we placed it right in the middle of the list of virtues. Excellence is not like a joint that once set and glued can last for generations. Instead, excellence is like a moving part that requires constant care and attention. Commitment is the grease that keeps the moving part in motion. Expertiseis not advanced proficiency, rather it is accrued proficiency. With expertise, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You can do new things with relative ease and efficiency. Expertise serves the voice of experience; it can break down its components and teach, mentor, and guide others. Expertise is “unconsciously competent,” complementing the skills of proficiency with a depth of experience that can be applied broadly. When considering promoting a junior person who has demonstrated proficiency, it is wise to ask, “Has this proficiency added up to anything greater than itself? Has it accrued to expertise? Can this person only do what they already do well, or can they do more? Can they do things they haven’t tried yet?” When considering promoting or tapping a mid-level person for more responsibility, it is prudent to ask if they have only developed a range of proficiencies, or if they have demonstrated real expertise. When pursuing excellence, if proficiency is a cost of entry, then expertise is a requirement for advancement.Acumenis the strategic ability to make smart choices in a competitive environment. It scans the environment, assesses threats, analyzes competition, identifies opportunities, weighs options, identifies goals, and directs strategic action. Acumen is necessary to read the map, chart the course, and navigate the terrain of life, particularly competitive life. It recognizes, through intelligence and using its wits, what to do and where to go in every challenging situation where options may be less than ideal or waiting to be created.Without acumen, all the other virtues of excellence won’t actually achieve excellence, because acumen is what we require if we don’t live in a vacuum. All things rarely “being equal,” acumen must step in to drive and own action. You can see that all the Virtues of Excellence must be in place for Excellence to become real and be put to work. We won’t take the time now to describe the countless possible scenarios where one or more of the virtues are missing or under-developed, but it’s easy to imagine. The practical implication is immediate: If you see someone failing to achieve excellence and flirting with mediocrity or even failure, you can be assured that they have not applied all the Five Virtues of Excellence.
If you’ve developed and applied these virtues in your personal and career life, you have reason to be pleased. Firstly, you have achieved excellence and are therefore potentially on the road to mastery (if you can first escape the Excellence Trap!). Secondly, you’re entitled to and are likely enjoying the Rewards of Excellence, including pride, satisfaction, focus, a sense of security, as well as increased reputation, resources, influence, and possibilities.
But if Excellence were all there is to it, this blog would honorably shut down tomorrow. Instead, we’ve discovered the Excellence Trap, and we see that it is the largest hidden cost in business, and how it is always threatening to drag us back to mediocrity and failure.