In Search of Excellence

In Search of Excellence

In the 1982 classic, In Search of Excellence, authors Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman studied a number of companies to try to ascertain what made some successful while others were less so. They used the term “excellence” to define that special something that seemed to make some companies successful while others were not.

The concept of excellence is part of our cultural vernacular, becoming a buzzword for anything that makes you happy or you consider impressive. Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey, in the classic Wayne’s World movies used the word often in that context. You still hear the term today, and you might also hear awesome, splendid, or outstanding. In times past you might hear splendid, tip top, or top-notch.


We always have a word or phrase to express the pinnacle, the top of the class, the gold medal winner. We are a society of comparators (despite the more recent concept of participation trophies). It is part of our very nature to seek our definition of excellence. In Sustained Leadership WBS I expressed that the sustained leader will always pursue excellence and defined that effort in this way:

WBS Dictionary: The pursuit of excellence is a never-ending process. Most organizations have continuous improvement programs, six sigma/lean improvement programs, and tout their use of best practices. Physical operations can always be improved. This element is more focused on personal achievement. A pursuit of high quality excellence is generally a commendable trait; like most traits, carried to an extreme it becomes a detriment. That ugly side is perfectionism. Perfectionism prevents progress. It prevents accomplishment of tasks. It can impact the keeping of commitments and can cause failure throughout the organization. Thus, this element becomes one of balance—at some point “good enough” has to be acceptable, while the constant pursuit of excellence should be reflected in the improvement of the processes in order to continue the pursuit of excellence.

Personal Achievement

As noted, the focus here is on personal achievement. A theme you see regularly in Sustained Leadership WBS is the never-ending quest to become the best possible version of yourself. Whatever you choose to do, you should do to the best of your ability.

If you have an opportunity to improve, whether it is a skill, a language, a musical instrument, a business technique, a sport, or your exposure to a new discipline, you should always seek to do it as well as possible. Never worry that you start out very inept. Clumsy even. All gold medal winners started out similarly. They simply worked many years to perfect their craft and pursue excellence.

Mom’s Advice

As your mother may have told you, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Why embark on any project or effort if you are not going to do it with your best effort? Your goal should always be to pursue excellence to the best of your ability.

Your Best will Change

Can you be too excellent? Continuous improvement should be your objective, yet there are many factors that affect this. Many of them are not within your control. You can work out every day, you can watch what you eat and you can avoid a sedentary lifestyle.

Nonetheless, you will continue to age. Over time you will simply be unable to be as excellent as you once were. That doesn’t mean that you don’t try. Your abilities will change; your physiology will change, even your mental acuity will wane. It is inevitable. None of those is an excuse to avoid the pursuit of excellence.


Like many positive traits, you can carry it to an extreme. You will never write the perfect novel, direct the prefect play, manage the perfect project, or achieve any standard of perfection in most things. The pursuit of perfection is a fool’s errand. You will more likely continue editing, rehearsing, practicing, or reworking the project scope until you have used yourself up. The output will still not be perfect.

Good Enough

As Seth Godin tells us in much of his work, “good enough” usually is. It is better to ship, even with known errors or mistakes, than to never ship at all. No matter what you are doing, it is proper to PURSUE excellence even if you know it is an unachievable goal.

Similarly, your leadership journey will never put you on a path of perfection. It will however give you many opportunities to pursue excellence to the best of your ability. It will expose you to challenges and situations you might have never otherwise encountered. Each of those is an opportunity to grow, improve, and excel to the best of your ability.

Never Stop Trying

The point is simple – never stop trying. Recognize what defines excellence in whatever field of study or work that you pursue and work unceasingly toward that objective. Set your own standards and your own goals. Always remember that you are competing against no one but the person you were yesterday.

If your mother never shared this with you, take it from me. It’s a helpful phrase to keep you on your pursuit of excellence and progressing on your leadership journey. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” Simple. Child-like perhaps. And motivating. Capture that and make it your own.

This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section, Always Pursues Excellence. Buy Sustained Leadership WBS here. 

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Tom Reid is a lawyer, author, mentor, speaker, and all around good guy to know. He has lived all over the country due to his career as a government contracting lawyer and now lives wherever the notion strikes him. Find him on Twitter @_TomGReid

With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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