# 263: Modeling Excellence


Ash, Mary Kay. (1984). On People Management, 65.

Story behind the Passage

Last week someone mentioned that I should not worry so much about how to call what I do. What matters is that I do what I do and thus “model” what I stand for. Fine, that is what I call “walking the talk.” I do not think that this is enough, though, because, after all, we live in a world in which you need to be able to properly communicate the value you create, at least to people who do not know you yet. As I told my friend as well, I also think that there are great opportunities related to the issue of “branding.” I know people freak out about the word, particularly people from the humanities in academia but that is the way it is, they live in their own world.

No matter how much I try to focus on products sometimes, I am constantly reminded that a business like mine is based on the fact that I am the product and the brand. And this, turn, is very much based on my people skills. When I thought of people as the focus of my business, I remembered looking at Mary Kay’s book in my shelf the other day. I read several books by her and was always intrigued by the balance of wisdom, spirituality, and hands-on advice. I am not saying she was a hero or she always did the right thing. All entrepreneurs and all managers are just that: human beings. Still, the way in which she managed and scaled her own company and her emphasis on passing on her knowledge and experience are exemplary. That is exactly what she also writes about in the book.

My Learnings

“Any manager can talk about excellence; a good manager, however, leads by example.” Yes, the concept of excellence has become used in an inflationary sense but it still has meaning, I think. Excellence for me always means going the extra mile for anything — the project, the client, the employees or co-workers. Excellence, no matter how you define it, is at least a goal to strive for. Not more, not less. And the crucial difference is already in the simple fact that some people do strive for it and others never even consider it because they are happy with a “good” status.

This satisfaction with mediocracy, as I provocatively call it, is something that seems to be mainstream today. Maybe I am too old-fashioned now but in so many realms of society, we seem to be seeing such a decline in the quality of work and a rise of immense stupidity at the same time (especially in politics…). Yes, this might be a matter of perspective and a bias of looking at the half-empty glass. But it could also be a plain fact and the result of the education system getting worse. As I watched today, a well-known foundation published a new report on the status of democracy and extremisms in Germany today and one of the suggestions by the authors is that we need more political education.

I argue: We need more and better education again in almost all fields. Germany is not only lagging behind when it comes to digitalization. We are lagging behind in so many areas!

But I am getting off track here…

So, I am not that much interested in the strict definition of what marks the difference between good or excellent. The point simply is: The kind of manager that Mary Kay is talking about here is one with the drive to perform in an outstanding way. And that, for sure, will have an effect on the team. That is all that matters. So often, I look at people in leadership positions and that is all it takes. Just watching how they walk, talk, and manage their own stuff for a while usually tells me how their team members manage. As always, and this is exactly what Mary Kay states above, the speed of the leader determines the speed of the followers (gang). If the leader is slow, all others are slow.

How could it be otherwise?

If it were, the leader would be outpaced within the blink of an eyes.

Hence, he would not be leading anymore.

This dynamic is particularly sad to observe if there is much potential in the team. Managers who work for a boss who is a lame duck run the risk of losing their potential for excellence. At the beginning, they might be mad. Then they become sad. And then they adapt and become as slow as the head of the team. This is even more frustrating in the case of highly talented people at a young age. Instead of being self-confident about their fast speed, they start believing that excellence is something different than they were thinking before; something slow, considerate, and conservative — all the things their mediocre bosses model.

In the pioneering spirit of Mary Kay — I wish that the current New Work and Diversity debates lead to exactly one thing: That excellent people — no matter on which level of the hierarchy or in which profession — have the opportunity to discover their own excellence early on to then use it. This is the only way they can become models of excellence for others. And this is all it takes to change organizations and ultimately the entire society. There will never be excellent leaders only. Still, if we all at least keep in mind that excellence still exists, we can all help pick up the speed of the gang!

Reflection Questions

1) Did you ever have a leader you followed who modeled excellence with everything he/she did?

2) What are the downsides of always striving towards excellence?

3) Can you ever be too fast with what you achieve? Why/not?