Monday, April 7, 2014

Why is excellence rare?

When you look at the service we experience around us, do you have the feeling people are striving for excellence? I see it occasionally, but sadly, not often enough.

My strongest impression, though, was experiencing something you see too little of these days on land: “Excellence.” You’re riding in a pressurized steel tube undersea. If anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. This produces a unique culture among these mostly 20-something submariners. As one officer put it: “You become addicted to integrity.” There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutual accountability is palpable. And that is why, said Adm. Joseph Tofalo, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, who was also on the trip, “There is no multiple-choice exam for running the sub’s nuclear reactor.” If you want to be certified to run any major system on this ship, he added, “everything is an oral and written exam to demonstrate competency.”

Excellence, integrity and accountability. All vital characteristics of a submariner. If only those were characteristics of everyone we encountered. Is excellence on land more rare because we accept mistakes and inefficiency as par for the course? Which should come first, the attitude of excellence or the acceptance of inefficiency? Let's set high expectations for excellence, first in ourselves, and then in others.


  1. Barry,

    I think in our efforts to be less harsh on people fewer people are willing to express an insistence on excellence. Many of the people in leadership positions are averse to conflict and therefore allow mediocrity to avoid hurting feelings. The same applies to the receiver of these messages, often they take it as an insult instead of constructive criticism.

  2. I fully agree. Many people generally lack the ability to be assertive, fearing that giving direct feedback, constructive feedback, in a calm, positive and professional manner will be taken "the wrong way." It's hard to be assertive. Interestingly, however, most people prefer others to be direct rather than either beating around the bush or just never saying anything at all.

  3. or worse talking about it with other people