How Ordinary Leaders Achieve Excellence

How Ordinary Leaders Achieve Excellence

I like watching my kids play sports. But I don’t enjoy watching other people’s kids play.
If I’m going to watch sports, I want to see the very best performing at the very highest level.

Take LeBron James. He plays basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. He entered the NBA in 2003 at age nineteen and became an immediate star. In his mid-thirties now, he’s acknowledged as one of the top five players of all time. His accomplishments include four NBA championships, four NBA Most Valuable Player awards, four Finals MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals.

Can you achieve excellence, regardless of your natural ability?
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, being six-foot-nine and two hundred and fifty pounds with tremendous athletic ability gives him a real edge.” But his success is not primarily the function of innate ability. It’s ability combined with a dedication to ongoing skill development, the discipline to take care of his body, the cultivation of an outstanding competitive attitude, and with whom he surrounds himself.

Let’s explore what athletes do to achieve excellence and how you can use these principles, even if you consider yourself to be quite ordinary, to become an excellent leader.

There’s a beneficial paper by Daniel Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence.” I like that title because the idea of mundanity is that it’s something ordinary. Chambliss’s paper inspires this article. Let’s demystify how to achieve excellence so that you can grasp it and improve your leadership.

We’ll examine three things:

  1. Seven areas of leadership excellence
  2. Self-imposed roadblocks to excellence
  3. The path to excellence

Excellence is consistent superiority of performance
It’s not for everyone; otherwise, it would not be excellence. But I’m assuming because you are taking the time to read this, you want to achieve higher leadership performance levels.

A leader thinks, speaks, and acts.

With that in mind, let’s explore the seven areas of excellence.

  1. Time Usage
  2. Communication
  3. Talent Development and Mentoring
  4. Strategic Thinking and Planning
  5. Running Effective Meetings
  6. Decision Making
  7. Self-management

The first area of excellence is time usage. That has everything to do with how you manage your schedule daily and weekly and how you prioritize. Self-discipline and focus are essential.

The second area is communication. All excellent leaders have a communication style that impacts those he or she leads. There are three areas of communication that I believe every leader must focus on encouragement, accountability, and recognition. When it comes to communication, you must excel in each of these areas if you’re going to be an effective communicator.

Talent development and mentoring are areas where many leaders fall short simply because they get focused on the challenges they face daily running their business. They don’t think of the future, and how the company will be growing or changing, and the talent needed to fill particular roles. That’s where a leader must set aside quite a bit of time to think about talent development and then execute a talent development process.

Then there’s strategic thinking and planning. As a leader, you are responsible for working on your business, not just in your business, thinking about how you will be successful. Then, along with your executive team, building plans that you can execute to achieve that success. Strategic thinking and planning are skills that you can develop.

Next is running effective meetings. Meetings are often the bane of our existence, but they are essential. You lead meetings with clients, your internal team, your project partners. You need to become excellent at running effective meetings.

Then, decision making. The success of your business is a direct reflection of the quality of the decisions you make. You need a process to help you go through the decision-making loop to produce the right choices that move your company forward. Over time your levels of decision-making confidence and competence should increase.

The last one is self-management. Unfortunately, this is something that many leaders also neglect. They don’t manage their energy levels or their temperament. They don’t manage their physical well-being. As a result of that, they don’t perform at the highest possible level.

Do you think you can improve your performance in all these areas? What if you could incrementally improve in one over the next ninety days, then work on another, and begin to stack those improvements over time? What kind of impact would that have on your performance? How would that help you to achieve excellence?

Now let’s talk about the second thing: the self-imposed roadblocks to excellence.
It’s interesting when we see an athlete, musician, or artist perform at a high level. We look at them, and many times we think, “I can never do that.” But we don’t see all the mundane things that they did to achieve that high level of performance that overwhelms us at times and takes our breath away. The hours of doing stuff that other people could do, but don’t, and how those things accumulated together to produce the performance that blows us away.

Let me tell you a short story: In high school, Adam and I were drummers in garage bands. I was naturally talented, able to sit behind a kit and bang out the latest song by The Clash or The Cure. Adam was goofy and awkward and could barely keep a rhythm. I’m being kind. HE SUCKED!

I coasted on my talent, content to soak up the applause of the small crowds my band played for. Adam was different. He knew he wasn’t that good, but he was determined to excel.

To achieve excellence, you must remove three roadblocks:

  1. Lack of understanding
  2. Lack of will or drive
  3. Bad environment

The first roadblock to excellence is understanding.
Simply put, people don’t understand how to achieve excellence. They don’t know the path to greatness.

The second thing is that many people don’t have the will to excellence. Excellence takes dedication and commitment, but it is achievable. However, everyone is not willing to pay the price.

The third roadblock is the environment, and I believe that is self-imposed because you have a choice as an adult about with whom you will associate yourself. And one of the reasons we don’t achieve excellence as leaders is we don’t associate ourselves with excellent leaders that we can observe and imitate.

There are very few “born leaders.”
Many have learned leadership, and the road to becoming a great leader never really ends. Even if you are not naturally talented, you can still excel if you figure out the formula for success and dedicate yourself to achieving it. Rather than talk about talent and ability when it comes to excellence, we do better to look at what people do that creates outstanding performance.

Adam pursued understanding. He took lessons while I hung out at the pub. He had drive, practicing consistently, while I chased girls. Adam hung out with musicians who also wanted to improve; he created an environment where excellence was possible. I sat around in my bedroom by myself dreaming of “stardom.”

Six months later, I went to one of Adam’s gigs. I was blown away. His dedication and persistence had made a massive impact. He was way better than me, smoothly navigating the drum kit, providing a rock-solid beat for his band to build a wall of sound around.

Take a lesson from Adam. He wasn’t talented, but he excelled because he was committed to improving.

We’ve talked about the areas of leadership excellence and the self-imposed roadblocks to excellence.

Now we’re going to talk about the path to excellence.
Mary Meagher began her swimming career in a summer league country club. She worked her way up through different competition levels, and at thirteen, qualified for the national championships in the United States. Around that time, she decided to try and break the world record in the 200-meter butterfly. As you may know, swimmers develop relatively quickly, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old woman to seek to break a world record in a particular swim discipline.

Qualitative vs. quantitative changes
Interestingly, on the path to achieving her goal, she made two qualitative changes in her approach to swimming. This is very important as we think about excellence—we have to distinguish between qualitative changes and quantitative changes. Many people believe that the path to greatness is by doing more. If I’m going to become a high performing athlete, I have to train more, train longer. And though there is a truth to quantitative increases being linked to achieving excellence, what’s more important in the long run is qualitative changes. This is particularly true when we take that out of the realm of athletics and put it into the business realm because you only have so much time to develop yourself and achieve excellence. It’s critical that you work on qualitative changes that enable you to achieve excellence.

The first thing Mary did is commit to coming to practice on time. She describes that the sense of discipline she got just from that one decision began to filter through various other choices as she developed herself as a swimmer.

The second qualitative change was that she started doing her turns correctly, strictly following the rules. Lazy swimmers touch with one hand, and it’s a little less coordinated. The best swimmers always touch with two hands, and then they execute their turn, and they get a nice push off.

On this path to excellence, I will give you a little acronym to help you remember it. It’s TDAAT, because there are five things that you want to keep in mind:

  • Technique
  • Discipline
  • Attitude
  • Association
  • Time

Let’s first start with technique.

Changing the way she turned was technical and qualitative. It didn’t require Mary to have additional talent. It just took understanding and discipline.

What are some techniques that you can use to improve your leadership?
Think about the last time you had a one-on-one meeting with one of your direct reports. What types of questions did you ask them, or how did you frame those questions? A closed-ended question is one where someone can answer yes or no. An open-ended question is one where they cannot; they have to give a more expansive answer. To get into a rich conversation about some of the areas that they may be struggling with, opportunities they see, and challenges they have, asking open-ended questions is more useful than asking closed-ended questions. Try switching how you ask questions and see if that improves your conversations.

Another technique to focus on is how you run meetings. I have a meeting template that I use with my clients and teach my clients. I call it “kick-ass meetings.” It’s a short little report that will teach you how to run an effective problem-solving meeting; you can download it here. You can improve how you run meetings by learning a few simple techniques and tricks and tips, no extra talent needed.

Another technique that you can use that I’ve found to be extremely helpful in terms of how I use my time is time blocking. I just block out a time in my calendar where I’m going to dedicate myself to achieving one thing and one thing only. For instance, I use a time block when I’m writing this article. You can do time blocking to help you in your leadership role. The time blocks that I recommend are 30, 60, or 90 minutes.

This stuff is not rocket science.
But over time, if you begin to implement some techniques in the leadership areas that you struggle in and discipline yourself to practice those techniques, it begins to change your performance. We could talk about many strategies to help you get better at your leadership; it’s just a matter of breaking down the functions of leadership and understanding the pieces and the parts that make up the acts of leadership you’re engaged in each day. Then, think about how you can improve your techniques to get better.

The next part of the framework is discipline.
Mike Tyson gives a good definition of the word: “do what you hate to do, but do it like you love it.” Mary started showing up on time; she had schedule discipline. One of the main ways we can achieve excellence as leaders is by committing to a consistent, disciplined schedule.

Learn to say “no” to interruptions and distractions.
In one-on-one meetings, don’t allow your phone or email to distract you from what you are doing. If you’re in a meeting and get distracted by your phone, what does that communicate to the person you are meeting with about how you value the conversation? What would it mean to your one-on-one meetings and your communications with your direct reports if you committed every single time you had a one-on-one meeting to put your phone away and focus all your attention on them?

There are many ways to discipline ourselves as leaders to become excellent. It’s just a matter of whether we are willing to embrace the pain.

That leads me to the next aspect of really achieving excellence and the path to excellence: attitude.
We all live under unchangeable laws of success and excellence. The first one is, “you reap what you sow.” If you’re going to achieve excellence, you have to embrace pain. If you have a garden and plant an apple seed in the ground, for the apple tree to grow that seed has to die. If it doesn’t, there’s no apple tree. There’s no fruit. But if it does, there’s a ton of fruit. It’s the same with you. You must embrace that attitude of self-sacrifice to achieve excellence. Take joy in things that are unpleasant, such as difficult conversations. I don’t mean in some sort of sadistic way, but simply understand that these difficult conversations are essential. Maintain this type of attitude daily.

The fourth part on this path to excellence is all about your associations.
On her journey to breaking the world record, Mary was hanging out with people interested in achieving similar things. Have you identified those excellent leaders from whom you can learn? With whom can you link arms and grow in your leadership? You may look around your company and think, “I’m not sure I have a ton of excellent leaders here.” Well, that will give you some incentive to develop them.

One of the fantastic things about the connected world we live is that you’re able to develop relationships all over the globe quickly. You’re able to access books and information and videos that explore excellent leadership. Regardless of your immediate physical environment, you can surround yourself with excellence. Do your best to meet in person with outstanding leaders, spend time with them, pick their brain, go into a meeting with an excellent leader as if you know nothing, and ask them questions, ask them what they would do in a situation that perhaps you’ve just recently faced, and get to know them. If you get the opportunity, observe them in action and see what rubs off on you about how they show up and handle themselves. That association is vital.

The last thing in terms of this framework of how you get on the path to excellence is time. Greatness does not happen overnight. When you’re looking at someone perform on the television, they have spent thousands of hours doing mundane tasks and stacking those tasks together to perform at the highest possible level. Excellence comes by putting together all the little things performed well into a coherent whole. That’s why it’s crucial for you to understand what a successful leader looks like and break down the habits and techniques of successful leaders. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen if you do the other things consistently, if you focus on your improving techniques, your discipline and your attitude, and your associations.

Interestingly, when you have this perspective, none of those actions in themselves are extraordinary.
There’s nothing remarkable about, as Mary committed to, showing up on time. Nothing unusual either about touching the pool at the end of the swim with two hands. Excellence is created by executing each action and how it fits together with other aspects of the overall performance.

Mary Meagher broke the world record within a year of her commitment. She went on to win two individual gold medals and another gold medal in a relay race at the 1984 Olympics. Came back in 1988, won a bronze medal. She consistently performed at a high level for several years.

Let me give you a couple of examples here of achieving excellence:
Several years ago, I was working with a gentleman who had just come into a senior leadership role, and frankly, he was a little bit uncomfortable in that leadership role. He was not performing excellently in meetings of the executives. So, he made a specific technical, qualitative commitment. And that was he was going to prepare for each session. And then he made a shift in his attitude. He began to embrace the mindset, “I have a contribution to make to this organization.” He began to prepare more diligently for those meetings, to excel in his participation.

I was chatting with a guy just this week, and he does a great job. He realizes that to be beneficial as a leader, he needs to speak less and allow his people to go through the process of explaining to him the challenges they’re facing. He doesn’t need to dive in and seek to fix things right away. His commitment is to “bite his tongue.” His road to excellence as a leader has a lot to do with not only what he says but what he doesn’t say.

As you’re reading this, you might think, “Well, I’m not talented. I know I’ve been put in this leadership place, but I’m just not a natural leader. I was a great project manager, and now I’m a project executive. I’ve got project managers that I lead. I’d rather just be back out there and building projects.” I’d just like to encourage you for a moment to think about that TDAAT framework that I shared with you—technique, discipline, attitude, association, and time. Think about how you can break down your leadership responsibilities into small incremental pieces and begin to work on qualitative changes in the way you show up.

Instead of talking about talent and ability, which you may or may not have, ask yourself what people do that creates outstanding leadership performance.

You’ve heard of LeBron. How about Mike Mancias, LeBron’s physical trainer?
LeBron has spent millions of dollars on his physical training throughout his career. He has played over ninety percent of the possible games. If you know anything about basketball, that’s a pretty incredible feat. He has never missed a playoff game. What’s interesting about this physical training is an insight from Mancias: “Just remember, some of the simplest routines and exercises are probably the ones that are the most beneficial to you as long as you focus on your intensity and focus on your movement. That’s when you’ll see results.”

Take that insight there. In his training, LeBron focuses on simple routines and exercises and executes them with intensity and focus. That’s how he consistently performs at an excellent level. Take that idea of simplicity and focus and passion and think about how you can improve and become an outstanding leader.

Let’s talk about some next steps. First, define what excellence means for your leadership. Pick one area to improve. Don’t pick three; pick one. Then keep in mind this is going to take time. Concentrate on small wins, controllable actions that produce visible results.

For example: block out ninety minutes to focus on a bid. The visible result will be a more accurate bid. How might that impact your hit rate (not to mention your profitability)?

Start small. Make it achievable. A small win breeds confidence and gives you the motivation to try another one. Develop the habit of building up those small wins over time.

The next step you could do is download the Construction Leaders Dashboard. It’s a simple framework that will help you define excellence and focus your effort and attention to begin to make progress.

And finally, one of the ways that athletes achieve excellence is through coaching. If you are struggling in your leadership, and you would like to consider some executive coaching, feel free to reach out to me. I coach executives in construction companies, and I’d be more than happy to explore if and how I can help you. I work with CEOs, Executives, Project Managers, and field leaders in construction companies ranging in size from $5m to $1B+ in annual revenue.