The everyday headlines about the lack of competence in our schools, churches, government, and organizations and institutions shake our confidence and belief that anyone can get things done right. Our personal and national zest for greatness appears exhausted and almost everywhere we look we see decline threaten our democracy and way of life.
Incompetence surrounds us. I fought for excellence and against incompetence at all levels throughout my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper. Organizations were designed to keep good people down and the design works well. But excellence can be achieved even in such an enterprise, exhausting as it is.
I left the newspaper industry in 1994 to join a movement to transform how we work and lead in organizations. For 13 years I continued my battle against mediocrity. I met many wonderful people. But few excellent leaders or supervisors. Disengaged employees intimidated good employees and made excellence a crime punishable by threats, ridicule, and rejection. Today, twenty years after I joined the transformation movement, leadership and management and workplace cultures are more primitive than ever. Our organizations and institutions are too large and responsibility diffuse. Few hold others accountable.
But not all we label incompetence is incompetence. We sometimes expect too much of people, especially when they are learning new skills and information and doing new things or implementing new projects. We want our fixes to be fast, easy, cheap, and painless. That is magical thinking and not possible.
Change and new projects have learning curves and their implementations are often messy, inefficient, and people make mistakes. In new environments people must plan, act, reflect, and adapt constantly. Sometimes we need to remember that the chaos we experience is normal and the chaos of newness comes to order and it does so quickly. We need the wisdom to know the difference between genuine incompetence and the mistakes of change and newness and cut people some slack and give them time to get things right in new and difficult circumstances.
We like to blame others for our incompetence: worker incompetence is the fault of leaders; incompetent students are the fault of teachers. The problems of government agencies are the fault of President Obama. But the continuum from incompetent to excellence is a personal choice not the fault of someone else. I am responsible for my mediocrity or excellence.
Excellence isn’t just about work. Each of us—whatever our age, talents, and place in life–can choose where we want to be on the continuum from incompetence to excellence and in what areas of our lives—physical, emotional, intellectual, occupational, or character, creativity, or relationship excellence, for example.
Those who strive for their unique excellence in life work hard. They do not look for magic, quick-fixes, rescues by heroes, or something for nothing. They take responsibility for themselves, exhibit tenacity and moral courage, follow their own paths, and create their own lives. They understand that happiness comes from the pursuit of noble goals. And they renew themselves and find new sources of energy and spirit many times over the course of a lifetime. We should honor people for the excellence they display, not for their job title. I respect an excellent plumber more than an incompetent publisher.
Those who choose continual growth, learning, and self-discovery in pursuit of the person they could be rise above the mediocrity that surrounds them despite the difficulty.