# 50: Excellence Takes Brain
Story behind the Passage
My best friend is in Japan right now. Getting to know a new culture and learning a new language is not that easy in the middle of a pandemic while wearing a mask all the time. Reading facial expressions? Smiling to create trust? Watching people create foreign sounds with their tongues and lips? All this is quite challenging these days but people who are used to traveling to foreign places have learned how to solve problems like this. If you bring the brain and the previous experience of an intercultural nomad — you will manage.
Japan and our conversation today made me think of In Search of Excellence. It was the first practice-oriented study conducted about the importance of corporate culture for business success. Even though it later got criticized for the shortage of sufficient evidence, I personally think it is a masterpiece of business writing. If every manager would read this book today — just this one book in the original version from 1982 — he/she would understand things that desperately need to be understood to meet the challenged of the present age.
Or maybe he/she would not. After all, it takes some brain to actually comprehend what is written in a book.
The reason why I link the book to my friend and his Japanese immersion is because the country became a competitor for the U.S. in the 1980s/90s. And the hypothesis was that it was the culture of Japanese companies that brought them ahead. So, Peters and Waterman set out to find the success recipes of big U.S. corporations to find out which role culture played there. They were indeed successful with their quest. As they write:
“Our strong belief was that the excellent companies had gotten to be the way they are because of a unique set of cultural attributes that distinguish them from the rest… [W]hat we found was that associated with almost every excellent company was a strong leader (or two) who seemed to have had a lot to do with making the company excellent in the first place. Many of these companies — for instance, IBM, P&G, Emerson, J&J, and Dana — seem to have taken on their basic character under the tutelage of a very special person. Moreover, they did it at a fairly early stage of their development.” — Peters and Waterman 26
Remember that they wrote this almost four decades ago. So, I am not saying that things have not changed. Obviously, companies have become a lot less hierarchical and decision making is not done by one single patriarch anymore. Still, they, Peters and Waterman, do not mean autocracy when writing about strong individuals at the top. I truly think that the influence of a leader at the top has not lost any of its relevance. Where you can see this very clearly is obviously in new companies and startups. Even though the products are at the center, the personality and leadership style of the founder(s) are crucial for success.
Another field where we can still see the importance of single leadership personalities is in politics. Obviously, Germany has a history that caused people to be extremely cautious about too much influence coming from one “charismatic” and possibly “manipulative” leader. However, it is simply an immanent trait of leadership that the leader leaves his/her mark on the legislation period. Angela Merkel is no exception to this. Still, we also see that parties that are currently lacking strong figures at the top — and by strong I mean change leaders who are able to develop and communicate a true vision — are losing ground. In Germany, this especially applies to the Liberal Democratic Party. This is a pity. Not because I am for or against them. It does leave a gap in the political spectrum that can be misused by other parties.
This lack of a middle path takes me to my topic. We live in an age where things have become so polarized that there seems to be hardly anything ‘in between.’ Everything is just black and white, full or empty, good or bad, excellent or miserable….
Are you active on social media? Yes? Then you need 50k followers.
You want to be a successful manager? Yes? Then the only option is to work 80 hours per week and climb to the very top. Everything else means failure.
You want a good education for your kids? Yes? Then the only option you have is to pay 1,000 EUR plus for a private school.
In case of a “no” to any of these questions: You suck!
These are just very few examples of where I see that polarization. And, of course, these are outside judgements imposed on people by others. You can build up and cling to your own non-binary worldview. Even if I personally do this. There is actually one area where I would personally wish to see a clearer delineation: in the field of brain power. Here, we somehow have become lazy to call for excellence. Or maybe this is the wrong way of putting it. We have become lazy to check on what excellence could actually mean. Instead, we have somehow accepted that mediocracy is the new excellent. And this is what I would like to think more about…
“Professionalism in management is regularly equated with hard-headed rationality.” When talking about professionalism, we need to first underline that management does not count among the traditional professions. The original professions include law, theology, and medicine which require a fixed body of theoretical knowledge. Management for a long time in the history of the U.S. education system tried to become accepted as a profession. And it finally did based on the promotion of the business school as a cash cow for universities…
The way in which the authors use the term in the sentence above, of course, emphasizes the contrast between someone who knows what he/she is doing and a layperson. Obviously, they see an indication of professionalism in rationality. The very term goes back to the “quality of having reason” (Etymonline). In simple words: You are able to think. But thinking is immanently culturally charged. I have written about this in other posts as well. The main cultural division — and I think this still holds true somehow, even though it is a binary simplification — is still between East and West, between Asia and Europe/U.S. It still allows for only one definition of thinking by as quantification and objective analysis.
There exactly is the problem. Since Peters and Waterman focus on culture, they flesh out all the other things that are crucial for leaders to lead well. And rational thinking is just one quality. The other crucial skills, including intercultural competence and communication, for example, are commonly not accepted as “rational.” What tends to be forgotten in this line of argumentation is that the core of rationality is brain. And these supposedly “soft” factors that I just mentioned require a lot of brain. And if leaders do not have this, they are going to fail.
“It doesn’t show how strongly workers can identify with the work they do if we give them a little say-so.” The issue of identification is a complicated one. In general, if you identify too much with something, you are likely to become very emotional about it and you take everything personally. The other extreme is that you do not identify with what you do at all. That is the old understanding of work: you drag your body to your employer, leave your passion, heart, and even most of your brain at home, and you sit in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to do whatever you are being told to do.
The latter scenario is (almost) completely outdated now.
I am saying “almost” because we are still in the transition phase of the digital transformation. Soon, most jobs that could be done easily with this non-identification attitude will be gone — machines will be doing them. And that takes us to the crucial issue: The unique features of human beings, i.e., their emotions, their creativity, and their intelligence are not going to be copied by machines — at least not that soon. Artificial intelligence can be as advanced as possible when it comes to standard tasks and big data — humans will remain the leaders of innovation. But this, in fact, requires identification.
The entire startup scene is mostly based on this: young people with a big vision and (partly) big brains are moving the world. Do they identify with what they do? Sure! Most of them are part of the Generation Y and increasingly from the Generation Z. The values that drive them are different from previous generations. They do not care about money as the sole motivator for a fulfilled life anymore. They want to spend their days wisely, i.e., they want to go home from work — if they do not work from home anyways — with the feeling that they are contributing to something bigger or at least to something that gives them a sense of purpose.
But not everybody will start his/her own business — and this is good. Large organizations are there for a purpose of their own — they have resources, both material and immaterial, that give them the power to really move the world in a way that hardly any small company can. And the people who work for these institutions are privileged in many ways because they have accesss to these resources. Still, and this is where the issue of ‘rationality’ becomes the problem, these people also need to hear from their bosses that what they are doing is making a difference. This is not about self-praise or bragging; it is simply about feedback.
This is where the middle path between too little and too much identification becomes so important. Yes, you need to keep your personal distance. Otherwise, you are going to burn out quickly. Still, I have never seen anybody achieving a lot and performing on a very high level who does not at all identify with what he/she does. I am not even talking about the entire company as your reference point. I am talking about the job itself; the goals you are setting yourself.
Hence, if managers/leaders only respond to these efforts with the attitude of pure rationality — no personal or even ‘emotional’ responses between individuals involved — I doubt that excellence will be achieved on a larger scale. This does not even refer to the communication with employees only. It also applies to the manager/leader as role model him-/herself. Yes, identification is a tricky thing but without it, nobody will walk the extra mile that it takes to get ahead.
“…‘good managers make meanings for people, as well as money.” This point, from my perspective, is closely related to the previous one. But I want to take it even further. Creating “meaning” for people and “money” takes more than the usual hard and soft skills. To make it short: it requires excellent brains. Only managers and leaders who know how to do their own stuff well can make enough room for really caring about the rest. And that “rest” makes the difference. If you have a boss who is constantly struggling to get his/her stuff done and has trouble getting his/her points on the agenda of other decision makers — how would he/she ever be able to make you move ahead?
The word “meaning” actually has much meaning for me. Meaningful means something. It means that the impression a person makes on you and the entire organization lasts. And you know what? This is where I am going to be very old-fashioned but the people who have represented such figures in my life, no matter how different they were in terms of personality, all shared one thing: outstanding brain capacity. And by that, I do not only mean analytical, i.e., rational, skills. I mean: broad and interdisciplinary knowledge as well as expert knowledge and much experience — in life and in business.
This is the issue that worries me more and more. Yes, this sounds quite arrogant but I am not saying that I myself have all these qualities. What I am saying is: I am constantly looking for these qualities in other/older leaders. But the frustrating thing is: They seem to be dying out. People who really have entire libraries in their heads while at the same time being so skilled and pragmatic in solving really complex problems that economic success is usually ensured.
This is what excellence really means to me. And it is something that I personally aspire because it makes life so much richer if you feel you can rely on your own brain instead of always relying on others — consultants, advisors, staff. Knowledge brings liberty and opens the door for innovation. It allows you to look closely and to shift your attention to the really important matters; i.e., the people and their needs, their potential and their worries.
Yes, I am lucky to know a few of these people. But is that enough?
The edition of In Search of Excellence that I have is a used one. And, as many used books that I ever ordered, it already had many marks, notes, and comments in it. This edition also includes a dedication at the beginning. The boook was obviously a gift by a senior corporate manager to another executive. And what he, the president of a global corporate, writes at the end of the dedication can serve as a perfect conclusion of what I am arguing about the importance of brain power; to fight the reign of mediocracy.
“Modern management is being shaped by intellectual engagement.” — 10 April 1983
1) How do you personally define excellence?
2) Which excellent leaders have you met so far? What exactly impressed you about them?
3) What are you doing on a regular basis to achieve your personal level of excellence?