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In the book Scaling Up Excellence (which I recently reviewed), Stanford professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao said this:
“To spread excellence, you need to have some excellence to spread” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 181).
This sentence captures something that is actually quite simple: if you don’t have some excellence, don’t try to spread something you do not have. As Sutton and Rao explained in the book, if you can’t deliver on your most basic promises, then it is pointless to try to scale up excellence. Just think about how hypocritical that is.
There’s a lesson in the Bible in which Jesus tells people to not worry about a speck in someone else’s eye, but to take it out of your own eye first. Although the lesson is about not judging others, it can also apply to not being a hypocrite and deceiving yourself.
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5, English Standard Version).
How many times have you been in an organization, on a team, or part of a group that was already struggling to meet just the basic expectations, but yet was attempting to start spreading excellence (e.g., initiating a training program, delivering professional development workshops, etc.)?
I was once in a meeting where an executive talked about the qualities necessary to be an effective team member. What was so ridiculous was that the executive did not possess many of these qualities and employees in the department knew that this executive was struggling to meet even the most basic ones on that list. Every person in that meeting knew it, except the executive.
Shortly after the meeting ended, employees sat around discussing the absurdity of the list and the apparent contradiction between the executive extolling those same virtues that she lacked.
What bothered them most was that the executive expected everyone to live up to these values, but that she herself struggled to attain even the simplest ones. The hypocrisy of demanding excellence of others when she herself did not have some of that same excellence was what angered the staff most.
Rather than uniting the team, the hypocritical behaviors of this executive revealed itself when the executive tried to spread something that she did not possess.
Sutton and Rao said that prior to attempting to spread excellence, “the first order of business should be to drive out bad behavior” (2014, p. 239). Here’s the lesson: Don’t broadcast that you are spreading and expecting excellence when you (or your team or the organization) are not even adequate. Be excellent first, then you’ll have something to spread!
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor
Sutton, R. I., & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling up excellence: Getting to more without settling for less. New York: Crown Business.