Excellence Versus Perfection

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

excellence vs perfectionTable based on a poster from http://thebluecollarsuccessgroup.com/

There is not a great deal of conflict or controversy around this comparison as it relates to leadership. Perfection exists as a concept, but not as a practical reality. Good leaders encourage people to strive for excellence, not perfection. If you always wait for perfection nothing will ever get done. As psychologist and author Harriet Braiker put it, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

In terms of leadership, both of excellence and perfection find themselves under scrutiny in the context of achieving success. Success is usually measured by comparison to others. Our most visible manifestations of leadership are in campaigns — contests for the public’s hearts, or their imagination.

If in these challenges our competition is excellent, then we have to be more excellent — we need to be perfect, right? No.

In his 1989 book, The Heart of the Order, sports columnist  Thomas Boswell describes the difference between success and excellence this way:

“Success is tricky, perishable, and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and of itself, is the best of foundations.”

If success is perishable, and perfection is unrealistic, then leaders in this “pursuit of excellence” are really part of an ongoing learning community, a network of people absorbing and acting on their shared knowledge and wisdom.

If we can agree that excellence is preferable over perfection, how can we make sure that excellence has substance? Look at the mission statements of nonprofit organizations, schools, and businesses. Apparently everybody is already excellent, because the claims of excellence are everywhere.

Maybe excellence is more of a constant reminder of betterment, of constant improvement, more than it is a state of being. Maybe the best way to achieve excellence is to maintain a modest intellectual curiosity, and an attitude that we want to learn something new every day of our lives.

Leaders Versus Managers

“You don’t manage people; you manage things. You lead people.”
-Admiral Grace Hopper

leader v mgrAdapted from a table at changingminds.org

This comparison is similar to the Entrepreneurs Versus Administrators relationship. One big difference is that entrepreneurship is usually associated with business or enterprise development. Of course, at the core of all of our explorations here is the idea of getting things done. Things do get done in organizations with rigid vertical organizational charts. Things also get done when passionate leaders build relationships and leverage diverse skills and
common values. A comparison of leaders and managers on the website diffen.com asks some questions that get to the heart of choosing an approach:

  • Does a manager have to be a great leader?
  • Does a leader need to have good management skills?

My response to both questions is, “not necessarily, but a little bit couldn’t hurt.” This is really a case of something not being questions of either/or, but rather times when both/and makes much more sense.

It’s like Grace Hooper said in the quote at the top of the page, people need leadership, but there are always details related to their work that require management. Even though these discussions center around leadership, business management guru Tom Peters is right when he said: “Stop being conned by the old mantra that says, ‘Leaders are cool, managers are dweebs.’ Instead, follow the Peters Principle: Leaders are cool. Managers are cool too!”

With this in mind, it seems critical for leaders to identify what aspects of the work that they are involved in require commitment to detailed control, and what aspects lend themselves to serving as a guide to help others navigate new terrain.

Narrowing The Gap Between Our Ideal And Our Real Values

“The whole idea of knowing who you are and what you stand for is so simple, yet also so profound and sophisticated. It’s difficult to pull off, but without it there’s no chance to institutionalize the vision and make it long-term and lasting.”
-Bob Boylan

Positive change usually happens after people have: 1) examined and understood their values; 2) articulated a shared vision after identifying their common values; and 3) strategically leveraged their own strengths toward achieving their common goals.

One big barrier to change is the fact that most people don’t spend a great deal of time analyzing their values. Your values are your principles, your personal standards of behavior. They tell people what you believe is important in life; and they indicate to others what you have in common at the deepest human level.

Examining your values is important because they become clear over time. They are not static; they change as you grow personally, establish relationships, and life experience. As you consider your values, it becomes apparent that some feel more personal than others. These might be called realized, or real values. The ones that seem like they have less to do with you personally are ideal values. They are things like freedom, democracy, and fairness.  You know that you should value them, and you don’t spend much time thinking that other people might have wildly different understanding of what they mean.

Despite these differing interpretations, ideal values are considered absolute. They are written into law. Real values help to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and people’s everyday behavior.

The Gap, the Contradictions, and the Conflicts

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”
-Abraham Lincoln

If you asked any 100 people in your community if any children in your town should be going to bed hungry, I would guess (and hope) that they would all express that having no undernourished children is a community value. If everyone shares that value, why are children going to bed without enough to eat? It probably isn’t a disagreement about the definition of hunger or malnutrition that is the barrier to coming up with the political will to do something to address the problem.

The gap between the ideal and real value isn’t simply the fault of individuals. Many people would act if they knew what actions they could take. This is where leadership comes in. Leaders can help individuals understand how their real values, things like justice, empathy, community, etc., can inform a strategy to solve the challenges of making sure that people have enough to eat.

Democracy is a commonly expressed ideal value. If we all believe in democracy, why is voter turnout not 100%? Is it just the IDEA of the ideal value that is important, or are people willing to act on their common values? The table below begins to illustrate why narrowing the gap is not an easy task. It shows how people might have opposing ideas about something perceived as an ideal.

The tables below are based on Frances Moore Lappe’s insightful book, Rediscovering America’s Values. In the book, Lappe explores the nuances of some ideal American values. Here are just a few of the competing ideas she presents relating to freedom.

freedom1freedom2freedom3Despite differing views on these values, how do we work to find common ground? What steps can people take to help narrow the gap between ideal and real values? Dr. Greg Waddell has some ideas that you look at in more detail here. He suggests four things in particular:

  1. Reward what you value.
  2. Measure what you value.
  3. Model what you value.
  4. Design life experiences of what you value.

Think about these four actions as they relate to a personal value. How do you consciously live your values? More on values to come.

Traditional Versus Collaborative Leadership

“Collaboration isn’t about being best friends, or even necessarily liking everyone you’re working with. It is about putting all and any baggage aside, bringing your best self to the table, and focusing on the common goal.”
-Meghan M. Biro

The table below was developed from the extensive work found on the  Collaborative Leadership website of the Leadership Development National Excellence Collaborative.

traditional vs collaborative leadershipCollaborative leadership is all about the intentional development of relationships that enables individual successes by stakeholders while accomplishing a collective outcome. As you look at the comparisons in the table it is clear that most of the world seems to reside in the rigid world of positional leadership described in the left column. There is, however, a lot more collaborative leadership going on out there (or at least headed in that direction) than you might think.

Living in the digital age makes collaborative leadership easier to accomplish, because the open sharing of information is at the heart of making it work. Micro meetings, quick polling, crowdsourcing, and other realities of a life immersed in portable, digital information make once idealistic ideas like self-governance, and broad participation possible.

Another key difference between traditional and collaborative leadership is that the latter is at its core, rooted in trust. When stakeholders voices are not only heard, but in fact, embraced for their valuable perspective; trust is cultivated, and shared time and effort result in productivity.

More to come, as this concept is closely tied to a number of the others discussed here.

Working Together: Coordinating, Cooperating, Or Collaborating

“I never did anything alone. Whatever was accomplished in this country was accomplished collectively.”
—Golda Meir

Source for the table below: COLLABORATION FOR A CHANGE (revised January 2002)
Definitions, Decision-making models, Roles, and Collaboration Process Guide
By Arthur T. Himmelman

CCC_HimmelmanWhen people talk about working together the subtext for everyone at the table, whether it is said aloud or not is usually: “what’s in it for me, and what’s it gonna cost?” Arthur Himmelman’s distinctions between these three concepts are important in that they illustrate how as relationships grow and deepen, critical aspects of working together, like trust and confidence, pave the way for shared risk and resources.

Moving from coordinating, to cooperating, to collaborating isn’t a seamless, smooth evolution. People who work together successfully spend plenty of time up front not only “getting on the same page,” but also honestly sharing their expectations and commitments with their potential partners.

Another important thing to remember is that every partnership doesn’t have to be, or strive to be a collaboration. Sometimes simple coordination can achieve a goal. When that is the case, that success can serve as an underpinning for a deeper partnership.

Quality Of Life Versus Standard of Living

“The quality of life is more important than life itself”
-Alexis Carrel

The terms quality of life, and standard of living, are often used interchangeably. Standard of living is for the most part, a measure of consumption. Money, however, cannot buy happiness. It can’t keep people from discriminating against you. It can’t make you as young as you used to be.

quality of life vs. standard of living

An article by Cornelia Butler Flora, published by the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, cites a NCRCRD study “relating the objective measures with subjective measures of quality of life.” Among the the findings of that study:

1. Quality of life is not related—either positively or negatively—to standard of living.
2. Having choices in the productive work that you do is the most important dimension of quality of life.
3. The respect of family and people who matter to you in your communities of place and interest is the second key dimension of quality of life.

This is important to understand if you are trying to innovate some change in the world. Even though quality of life is subjective, and means different things to different people, there are many values and dreams that are shared among many individuals, and groups in a community. One of the important things that leaders can do is to work toward achieving satisfaction with quality of life throughout their organization or community. People make up their minds on issues based on how those issues impact their own quality of life.

This does not mean that standard of living indicators are not important. It just serves as a reminder that many, many of our desires transcend money and wealth.

I once worked with a leadership group in a small, scenic community that was staring the quality of life/standard of living question smack dab in the face. This small town had a resident who was proposing to build the nation’s largest tire incineration plant. He was selling the idea primarily on the idea of job creation. His claim was that burning the nation’s used tires would improve the local economy, improving the standard of living for low level wage earners.

Of course, the opposition to this plan came from citizens whose arguments were rooted in quality of life issues. Air quality, ecosystem destruction and aesthetics,eventually won the day, but not before the community experienced considerable divisiveness, trying to reconcile their common values.

There can be no community development without economic development; and there can be no economic development without talking about quality of life concerns.

Learning and Leadership: the Importance of Reflection

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

Learning is critical to effective leadership. If we are lucky, we learn from our mistakes. We also need to understand why our successes worked, so that we can continuously improve on those aspects of our endeavors.

The table below is based on a great little blog post by educator and consultant Karl Kapp, titled: Two Opposite But Important Elements of Learning. It serves as a good reminder that neither interactivity, or reflection are sufficient on their own if the goal is deep learning. Information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know.


“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
-Peter Drucker

Leadership is a formative practice. A good leader is constantly reflecting on what she or he has just experienced, and tweaking the next approach or strategy. Reflection gives us an opportunity to question assumptions and stereotypes. It reveals our real values, and keeps us honest with ourselves.

Problem Solving Versus Appreciative Inquiry

“The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.”
— Andrew Carnegie

The development of the practice of appreciative inquiry (AI) traces back to David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the late 1980s. They felt that problem solving was often limited by focusing only on what isn’t working, and not on further developing what was working well. (Visit the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at Case Western University). The book, A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, puts it this way:

Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

If you have had any introduction to AI, you have probably seen the table below. I have yet to track down the original source of the table. If anyone knows please post in the comments section.

problem solving vs AIYou might look at this table and say, “that’s just semantics – appreciative inquiry is solving problems, right?” The difference, however, lies in AI’s capacity-centered approach, and its deep belief in human potential. Yes, AI solves problems, but it is deliberately constructive in its focus on keeping those same problems from reoccurring.

I plan on posting a number of ideas related to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), an approach which uses approaches like AI to mobilize communities. More on AI when we explore the concepts of ABCD.

Groups Versus Networks

“A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness . . . a network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem.”
– Stephen Downes

Leadership isn’t always about getting everyone “on the same page,” or speaking with one voice. Sometimes it’s most effective when we’re listening to diverse opinions and ideas, and taking advantage of the wisdom resulting from the diversity of the collective voices. Diversity is critically important, and the way to leverage its value is through networks.

You hear a lot about the importance of networking. The value of networks, however, do not simply lie in meeting or knowing increasing numbers of people.

The ideas here come from the work of the prolific and insightful Canadian educational theorist, Stephen Downes.

groups vs networksOrganizing as networks rather than groups also helps to cultivate shared leadership. The sharing that takes place in networks is an indicator of people finding and acting on, their shared interests and values.

In the sort of network that I’m talking about, every member can find a communication connection to every other member. The network is distributed, rather than centralized. Think of the way social media facilitates communication, as opposed to the way a monthly newsletter does.

A commitment to networks requires trust in the idea that people will make the right decisions if given a variety of options or scenarios from which to choose. A distributed network is also an effective way to identify emerging leaders. Distributed networks cultivate shared leadership.

(Note: For dozens of stories of how networks of creative, sharing people are changing the world, I’d recommend Clay Shirky’s insightful book: Cognitive Surplus.)

[post updated 9/22/2016]

Authority Versus Power

“Power does not consist in striking with force or with frequency, but in striking true.”
– Honoré de Balzac

There are those who say that you can’t have authority without power. There are also those who say that you can’t have power without authority. Either way, it is inescapable to lead change without some understanding of these concepts. To me, the critical question is: Can people with authority cultivate a culture that people feel empowered to lead innovation?

authority vs powerAuthority is not always blindly obeyed. Authority is subjective; it is depends upon an our perception of its rightness. When you’re trying to lead people to create change, power is more important than authority. Leaders should embrace the idea of people feeling powerful.

 Talking About Power

Leaders think of power as ability to do or accomplish something. What is POWER? In mathematics, power refers to exponentiation. It can also mean exponential growth of the number of people on board with the change you’re trying to create.

In physics, power refers to energy, force or momentum. An action in one place can make something happen in another place. Social power is the same way. Think of any movement, and how actions in one place influenced results in other places.

I like to remind folks about these myths and insights about power from a great book, The Quickening of America:Building Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul DuBois

Myth: There’s Only So Much Power to Go Around
The Empowering Insight: Relational power expands possibilities for many people at once. The more you use it, the more there is.

Myth: Power is a One-Way Force
The Empowering Insight: Power always exists in relationships, going both ways. In relationships, the actions of each affect the other, so no one is ever completely powerless.

Myth: Power is a Dirty Word
The Empowering Insight: We cannot realize our values or goals without power. Power is the capacity to act publicly and effectively, to bring about positive change.

How do you think about power?

Three Faces of Power [added 1/21/2015]

When people think about political power, they usually fall into two groups. The first sees power as an elitist concept, one where a privileged few call the shots. The other group has a pluralist view of power – that it is distributed equitably in society. This is, of course, a basic tenet of democracy.  It is also critical to the idea of organizing, and leading change.

Without getting too academic, I want to introduce just a little theoretical stuff that might help expand our practical notions of power. Political Science scholars have, for the last half century studied what are called the faces of power. Here are just three brief snapshots from this ever-expanding continuum of thought.

1) Robert Dahl’s One-Dimensional Model of Power, which says that power is exercised only in decision-making situations where parties hold opposing views. That power is exercised thusly: A has power over B, and A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do;

2) Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz’s Two-Dimensional Model of Power, this says that in addition to this decision-making function, power is also related to the control of communication. Messaging, or silencing messages, can control the political process, and restrict it to issues that serve only to reinforce power.

3) Steven Lukes’ Three-Dimensional Model of Power says that the first dimension of power is success in decision making. The second dimension is managing the agenda. According to Lukes, the third face of power is not as overt as the first two. It is the manipulation of the wishes of others without them knowing they are being manipulated.

In an age of rapid dissemination of information it is easy to see how the second face (controlling communication) is more difficult. People acting as citizen journalists take to the streets from multiple angles to expose truths that people seeking power and control don’t want you to know. When everyone on the street has a camera and a publishing mechanism in their pocket, it is pretty hard to deny the reality they are sharing.

Similarly, manipulation is enhanced by social media. For people who want to maintain power, propaganda finds all media platforms. For example, Fox News masquerades as “fair and balanced” journalism when it has a clear agenda that has no intention of being either fair, nor balanced.

People’s access to good information is important for leadership. Leadership is not about public relations machines that spin every message your way. Real information creates real options, and real choices. When people have the power to make informed choices, they are more likely to act on behalf of that choice becoming a reality.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

“If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively”
― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

We need to be aware that we have ideal mindsets, and real mindsets. Even though we like to believe that we embrace growing and learning, fixed mindsets contribute greatly to keeping us from accomplishing goals. The comparison below is based on Carol S. Dweck’s 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

mindsetLike so many of the ideas we discuss here, changing your mindset requires courage. We are afraid to fail. We are afraid of criticism. It’s pounded into us from an early age.

Leaders can help people bolster their courage. Ways that you can help others (and yourself) to overcome fear, and demonstrate more courage include:

  • Build confidence – Try to capture the feeling of confidence that you have when you are inside your “comfort zone.”
  • Wade outside the comfort zone – Know personal limits, and start small. It is always easier to face the things you fear when you are with someone else. Be there with people when they take those baby steps toward facing their fears. When you get to the uncomfortable place . . .
  • Avoid hesitation – Don’t allow for more time to come up with excuses. Accomplish something small, and then lock that success away to bolster your confidence next time.


“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
— George Bernard Shaw

I created the table below to illustrate a few of the ways that people think about responsibility. The first use actually address the difference between responsibility and accountability. Accountability is liability, and demands some sort of response. You can be responsible by being accountable.

ResponsibilityThe “it’s not me” notion of responsibility is often used as the excuse for not doing the right thing. It often takes courage to avoid using this excuse, because it can mean risking an asset or a privilege that you currently have.

To think of responsibility as a social contract is supposedly what we are doing in a democracy. Of course, the idea that democracy is primarily about competition rather than cooperation often keeps social responsibility from being a primary consideration.