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Former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell believes in excellence, but author Jake Breeden argues that its unbalanced pursuit will only get you into trouble. (DANIEL OCHOA DE OLZA/AP)
Former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell believes in excellence, but author Jake Breeden argues that its unbalanced pursuit will only get you into trouble. (DANIEL OCHOA DE OLZA/AP)

managing books

Striving for excellence? Tone it down Add to ...

Tipping Sacred Cows

By Jake Breeden

(Jossey-Bass, 215 pages, $30.95)

Former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell believes in excellence. “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude,” he has said.

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That sounds sensible. But Jake Breeden thinks it’s nuts. A teacher with Duke Corporate Education in North Carolina, he argues that an unbalanced pursuit of excellence will only get you in trouble. It’s one of seven sacred cows venerated by leaders, who often go overboard on a virtue and thus turn it into a dangerous habit.

“Jealousy, selfishness and greed are demons that some leaders grapple with, and there are many places to look for help if these are your issues. But I find virtue that is secretly harmful to be a much more interesting problem than vice. I’m driven to help well-meaning leaders discover problems they don’t know they have,” he writes in Tipping Sacred Cows.

So Mr. Breeden takes aim at things we hold dear, such as excellence, fairness and collaboration. They’re still virtuous, but only in the right dose at the right time.

“The complete absence of any of these virtues would be a tremendous problem for any leader. The trick is in cultivating an awareness of when and how they function well, when and how they backfire, and how to recalibrate them so that they’re helping and not hurting,” he notes.

Mr. Breeden identifies the seven sacred cows as:

1. Balance

This can be a positive attribute, as you seek to set the dial properly between short-term and long-term results or being detail-oriented and visionary. But it backfires when you move from making bold choices to bland compromises.

“If a leader, in striving for balance, is mediocre at everything (or engenders mediocrity in her employees), then balance has backfired,” he warns.

Don’t hide behind the notion of balance to avoid tough choices and unpopular decisions. Seek what he calls “bold balance,” rejecting compromise as a default position, and over the broader horizon turning those bold choices into a balanced approach.

2. Creativity

It can be fun to exercise your creativity and make breakthroughs. But often an old idea is fine, as is combining two old ideas to produce a new initiative. Beware of always feeling you have to add your own ideas to the brew – what he calls “narcissistic creativity.” And remember that “useful creativity delivers value, not just novelty.”

3. Collaboration

Collaboration falls apart when it elbows aside accountability. Yes, you want people working together, complementing each other, but you also have to ensure that everyone knows their own and their colleagues’ responsibilities, and that they aren’t afraid to point out when someone is not carrying through.

4. Excellence

We do want high quality, as Mr. Powell urged, but we have to ensure it doesn’t choke progress. Typically that happens when you focus on excellence in process rather than outcomes, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sure, you want great processes, but sometimes rather than holding your process to a high standard, you can simply focus on excellence in the outcome.

“We set a trap for ourselves when we expect excellence in everything,” Mr. Breeden argues. “High standards are wasted on activities of low importance because leaders can’t give themselves a break.”

5. Fairness

When it comes to fairness, differentiating between process and outcomes is again important. You want fairness in processes, so that people are treated fairly and understand that to be the prevailing rule in the workplace. But treating people fairly can result in inequitable outcomes.

Don’t make the mistake of a hospital head nurse cited in the book who declined to send her top performer to a training program for a second consecutive year, even though she was the best candidate; the head nurse believed it was fairer to send someone else – thus infuriating the top performer, who moved to another unit in the hospital.

6. Passion

Passion is widely sought in the workplace, and Mr. Breeden agrees it’s important when it’s “harmonious passion,” in tune with the other parts of your life. But beware of obsessive passion, which crowds out other aspects of your life and work, as you fixate on one thing at the expense of others. “Obsessive passion leads to wild swings from huge enthusiasm at the start of a project to disappointment and regret when delays, challenges, or changes arise,” he notes.

7. Preparation

Don’t delay things with what Mr. Breeden calls “backstage preparation,” trying to line up everything before going ahead with an idea or a product. He prefers “onstage preparation,” when you learn as you are doing – “the exhilarating, powerful process of making yourself vulnerable to be persuaded and changed even as you’re attempting to persuade.” Also, be alert that preparation can backfire if you fall in love with the work resulting from all that preparation and defend what you should change.

This is a thoughtful book, which prods us to look at these vital aspects of our working lives and determine when we may be taking a wrong turn even if our intentions are noble.

Mr. Breeden offers a chapter on each of the seven sacred cows, and seven ways to overcome the dangers each poses.

POSTSCRIPT

Harvard Business School Professor Robert S. Kaplan shares techniques for defying carving out a path that fits your unique skills and passion in What You’re Really Meant To Do (Harvard Business Review Press, 210 pages, $28).

In The Q-Loop (Bibliomotion, 216 pages, $27.45) consultant Brian Klapper presents a process for lasting corporate transformation , from ideation to complete implementation.

Brian Tracy and Peter Chee show how leaders achieve high performance in 12 Disciplines of Leadership Excellence (McGraw-Hill, 204 pages, $26.95).

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