Attending a performance of our local symphony orchestra, my husband Bill and I were privileged to hear the first chair violinist perform a solo. I leaned over and whispered, “Bill, how much better can it get? This woman’s playing is sensational.” Had I considered that this was the warm up act for the evening’s virtuoso, another violinist, I’d have realized the foolishness of my question. Less than 30 seconds after the guest artist began playing, the answer was clear. It could get a lot better. The bar was raised—a new standard of excellence set.
You’ve heard it said that an organization can never be something its leaders are not. Like the virtuoso who has mastered his or her craft and set the standard for excellence, it’s an organization’s leaders who set the bar and determine the level of excellence for their organization. The game hasn’t changed. It’s still: Follow the Leader. Like the virtuoso, the proof of leadership excellence in found in the level of performance, and it’s observable.
I’ll use a personal story to illustrate. A local philanthropic educational organization asked me to be the guest speaker for their annual fund raiser for women’s higher education. The event was titled Hogs and Kisses, a program fashioned after my book, You CAN Teach a Pig to Sing.
After the accolades had been shared and the clean-up crew had gone home, I, along with my husband, son and daughter-in-law, all of whom attended the event, headed to our home.
While sitting on our porch, enjoying the late November sunshine and chatting about the morning’s event, my son, quite unexpectedly, blurted, “Mom, I thought your program today was fabulous! I was so proud that you were my mother. You made it all look so easy. But I know something all those other people who attended don’t know. I know the years of time and energy you’ve put into becoming so good at what you do. I know the sacrifices you’ve made to become one of the best. And I’m not just saying that because you’re my mom. You’re a masterful speaker. I know how hard you’ve worked, and I’ve learned from you that if I want to get good at anything, I’m going to have to work at it. It isn’t just going to happen overnight. I may have to work years to get that good. And, Mom, that’s just about the best lesson I think I could ever learn. Developing excellence and being successful doesn’t come without effort – and lots of it. And I have you to thank for that.”
His compliment left me almost speechless. I’d never considered that my son had been watching. But he had. He had been watching, taking in, and learning, not from anything I said, but from all those days, weeks, and years of work put into mastering my craft.
My father, who was raised on a dairy farm, used to say, “Never worry about how many people there are who do what you do. Just remember, the cream always rises to the top. You just have to make sure that you’re part of the cream.”
We all know that competition is greater than ever. But we must never forget that in business, the cream always rises to the top, too. An organization can never be something its leaders are not because the leaders set the bar for the level of excellence expected in the organization, and people are always watching, always aware, always following the leader.
If you want to lead an organization that is known for excellence in every arena, become your own coach, ask yourself:
• At what level have I set the bar for those who follow me?
• Am I expecting more from others than I am expecting from myself?
• On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), where would I rank myself in terms of leadership excellence?
• If I were to select three areas for leadership improvement, what would they be? What would I need to do to develop excellence in each area?
• What seems to be preventing me from developing in those growth areas? How will I overcome the barriers?
• If I were to improve my leadership skills, what difference might that make in my job performance? What difference would it make in the performance of my team?
Aristotle wrote, “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.”
We all know that leadership excellence is multi-dimensional; high performance teams don’t just happen. It requires the right mindset, behaviors and skills. It takes attention, hard work and dedication; it takes a willingness to develop mastery. You raise the bar for your team only when you raise the bar for yourself. People are watching. People are following your lead.