Be A Better Leader: Be Excellent (by doing what works)

“Be Excellent” is the fifth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Knowledgeable.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Excellent,” we will be talking about the need to be flexible, be intentional, and be competent, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. Sometimes it seems this definition characterizes companies and organizations, because they will continue to do something even though it doesn’t work. Perhaps it is because it is tradition, or because it takes too much work to change, or even because the leadership doesn’t recognize that it doesn’t work, but they keep doing it.

Motorola is great example of this. In the late 80’s and early 90’s they were a leader in the analog phone business.   They were doing what worked at the time, but then something happened: digital technology was developed for cell phones, which completely changed the cell phone service industry. Analog phone technology would no longer be the technology that would drive cell phone production and use, but Motorola continued to invest in its analog technology, and as a result, ceased to be relevant in the cell phone business. They were no longer doing what worked, but continued to do it anyway.

Effectiveness depends on discovering what works and doing it. Often, it is at a micro-level within an organization that people figure this out. Schein describes it like this: “The general phenomenon of adapting the formal work process to the local situation and then normalizing the new process by teaching it to newcomers has been called ‘practical drift’ and is an important characteristic of all operator subcultures. It is the basic reason why sociologists who study how work is actually done in organizations always find sufficient variations from the formally designated procedures to talk of the ‘informal organization’ and to point out that without such innovative behavior on the part of the employees, the organization might not be as effective” (2010, p. 60). In simple words, the people who are on the ground floor tend to figure out how to adjust formal process and procedure in a way that works best, and they then teach it to new employees, which helps the organization to function better. In spite of what may be the written procedures, they do what works. An effective leader pays attention to this and maintains awareness and understanding of what is working and what is not, and will then use that understanding to help shape decisions.

Then, if it is working, keep doing it (as the old saying states, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). This truth was evident in the research conducted by Collins & Hansen and published in Great by Choice (2011). They defined a SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent) recipe as “a set of durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula” (p. 128), and then noted that highly successful companies “adhered to their recipes with fanatic discipline to a far greater degree than the comparisons, and . . . they carefully amended their recipes with empirical creativity and productive paranoia” (p. 131). However, they also found that these companies “changed their recipes less than their comparisons” (p. 138). Their research revealed that companies that were doing things well and were thriving tended to continue doing what was working without great change. They were not subject to changing with the wind, or panic, or the latest fad, but held to the practices that they knew worked.

This has been one of my personal frustrations in the world of education. In my years as a teacher and school administrator, it seems like I have seen countless new programs and initiatives established, often to have another new one rolled out the following year. They have always been communicated as necessary for effective education, but many times it has reminded me of “stage one economics” – there appears to be an immediate short-term gain or value, but in the long term it is more detrimental than it is beneficial. But before that becomes apparent, the world of education has moved on to a new program.

As leaders, we need to be intentional about doing what works (which is generally evident in the results). And we need to not be afraid of allowing the people who would know best to have input, so we need to give people a voice in the process. This does not mean we don’t periodically assess and analyze, because we do need to make sure it still works, and we can often make minor tweaks that bring improvement. But don’t change for the sake of change when what you have is working, and if what you have is not working, don’t keep doing it. Do what works. And keep doing it.


Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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