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How to Sidestep the Excellence Trap

I especially detest the Colin Powell quote. Keep your desk neat, straighten your tie, practice your penmanship, and make sure you never make a suggestion that you can’t support with rigorous data. Develop the habit of excellence in little matters. It’s condescending advice that suggests you don’t have the self-control to turn your excellence on and off. But too often it’s advice that leaders have internalized because of the long, persistent campaign from experts who preach the value of excellence. If you work on an assembly line and want to keep working on that same assembly line for the rest of your life, I agree completely. Show up on time and execute with excellence. As long as you’re certain you’ll never need to innovate or grow, focus on excellence in every single thing you do. Otherwise, you’re going to have to get comfortable with a little bit of low quality from time to time.

My advice: be excellent occasionally. I doubt these words have been uttered by many head football coaches or four-star generals. But when we study leaders who accomplish great things, they seem to have a sixth sense that gives themselves permission to produce second-rate work on the way to doing a first-rate job. Often, the best leaders don’t stop to think about their comfort with crap, and they certainly don’t advertise it. They need their people to believe in their own ability to do great things…. How do you know when it’s OK to lower your standards and still end up accomplishing great things?

Creating a tense environment as Ella did hurts workplace morale, reduces employee engagement, and decreases the chances of innovation and change. And excellence can backfire even for the leaders who don’t have direct reports. Demanding excellence in every idea you share or rough draft you create is a recipe for aborting innovation before it has a chance to exist and grow into something meaningful. The easiest time to kill an idea is at its birth. And the easiest way to kill a weak, newborn idea is with the sharp blade of exacting standards.

Excellence not only kills ideas, it kills energy. When leaders demand perfection even in the unimportant details of their workday they waste emotional and intellectual energy, leaving less of their most precious resources for the work that matters most. Leaders too often demand excellence in the small things because they lack the will to prioritize what matters most. Love all your children the same, but don’t love all your work the same. Some activities matter more and therefore merit more of your attention. Leaders must have the discipline and energy to make tough choices and give differently to different tasks. It’s intellectually lazy to work hard at everything.

—Jake Breeden

Excerpted with permission from Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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The Reviewer

  1. Rita Gunther McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and dean of the fellows of the Strategic Management Society. She is the author of four books, including The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business  (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) and Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity  (with Ian C. MacMillan, Harvard Business Press, 2009).

This Book

  1. Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues (Jossey-Bass, 2013), by Jake Breeden

    Jake Breeden is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education who has taught leaders from companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Google, and IBM. Tipping Sacred Cows is his first book.

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