Getting to Excellent

The following post was published in the Lethbridge Herald on October 21, 2015.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the University of Lethbridge’s Scholarship Breakfast, featuring John Herdman, head coach of the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team, as the guest speaker. His message focused on the ability to get to excellent and, although it targeted a sports audience, it resonated well with many educators in the room.

Getting to excellent in education comes from a desire to continually improve; to hone our skills with the objective of moving from good to great. Most people don’t wake up every day with a desire to be simply mediocre and professionals, whether they are in the classroom or on the artistic or athletic stages, don’t aim to merely reach good! Author Jim Collins says that the natural enemy of greatness is goodness, since being good can be seductive, leading to apathy and a lack of attention to results.

Excellence can only be achieved when we consciously cross over the line from comfortable to uncomfortable. Good lives in the world of comfortable, while excellence takes us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. That is a difficult step. Yet any improvement requires that step. We don’t get better without moving beyond what we do normally – it just doesn’t work that way! Herdman further articulated that excellence comes from the balance of three key factors: vision, passion and discipline. The interplay of these three factors is essential and any breakdown of the three will permanently detour the achievement of excellence.

But I believe there is a fourth factor that needs to come into play for most individuals seeking excellence. That fourth factor is culture. Creating an organizational culture where trust reigns, support is established and risk taking is encouraged allows movement from good to great. When that type of culture exists, people are far more willing to cross over the line, welcome a sense of discomfort and recognize the opportunity to learn to do something better. It is what schools should provide for their students, systems provide for their teachers and governments provide for school boards.

Excellence does not happen without hard work. It also does not occur by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Getting to excellent often includes initial missteps or failure. And, while failure as a permanent condition should never be accepted, failure as part of learning must always be welcomed. In order for excellence to be manifested, it requires strong vision, intense passion, strict discipline and a supportive culture. The first three are individual traits that can be taught and role modelled, but the last requires a community or organization to establish and maintain. It is a shift that will benefit all when all decide that mediocrity is insufficient and good is not good enough.

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