The concepts of success and excellence are closely related, but they have significant differences. Suppose for a moment that, as a golf fan, you had the opportunity to play a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus. It would be a great experience, and you might even learn some of his techniques. But unless you’re one of a handful of world-class golfers, he’d easily succeed in winning the game. In such a situation he could be successful (win the game) without being pressed to achieve excellence. He would probably not find it necessary to play his best round of golf with most of the readers of this column.
Midway in my career with the Los Angeles Police Department I was granted a scholarship to Northwestern University’s Traffic Institute. I was given a fully paid leave to attend this intensive, full-school-year program in the Chicago area. Prior to leaving Los Angeles, my boss gave me a little history of our department’s participation in this program. Chief William H. Parker, who transformed the LAPD from a corrupt, second-rate organization to a respected police department, had attended the program. Several other officers who achieved chief officer rank had also attended. Clearly, he was letting me know I’d be expected to do well.
During the weeks leading up to my departure, several officers in my chain of command gave me words of advice and helpful suggestions. Probably the most reasonable and encouraging words were given to me by my captain, who had also graduated from the program. He told me to do my absolute best, but to not be concerned about competing with the other police officers in the program. He explained that the LAPD wanted a representative that would do well in every respect, including being a helpful team player. He said excellence is superior to success. I’ve never forgotten that.
To succeed is to attain a desired object or desired result. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing one’s best. It may not even mean doing things right. To some people success means winning at all costs. It can spawn an unhealthy competitive spirit that’s ultimately destructive. It’s possible to succeed without achieving excellence.
On the other hand, to excel means to continue to improve or develop. It includes a sense of rightness or goodness. Excel is derived from the Latin word excellere, which means to rise. It implies a process of rising up, as in a continuing process of improving. Pursuing excellence in police work means doing our best all the time. It means doing more than just the basics of a job responsibility when a higher level of accomplishment is within our reach and at the core of our mission. It doesn’t mean reaching a plateau and being content with past achievements when further progress is possible.
Two traffic enforcement supervisors and a narcotics detective identified a problem and put together a proposal for a solution. There was a noticeable increase in the number of drivers arrested for being under the influence with a low or no blood-alcohol level. They theorized that these drivers were under the influence of drugs or a combination of alcohol and drugs. Most of these arrestees would choose to give a breath sample rather than a blood sample to avoid detection. The officers asked permission to conduct an extensive study of arrestees fitting this profile. My approval was necessary to give them a flexible work schedule to make the examination of the arrestees possible.
The study continued for many months. Sgt. Dick Studdard, Det. Len Leeds and Sgt. Jerry Powell documented their extensive observations. They began to develop concise objective symptoms that could pinpoint the specific drugs involved. Later, at a formal, double-blind experiment at a prestigious university, they astounded the scientific world with the accuracy of their expertise. A new tool was developed for law enforcement. The three pioneers taught others. And now the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program is used all over the world. These men pursued excellence. They weren’t content to perform their given job successfully.
Good leaders inspire their followers to excel, not merely to succeed. They make it clear that succeeding at all costs may have dire consequences. They model a commitment to continue improving and growing as an individual and as a team member.
Pursuing excellence elevates the profession, not just the individual. Studdard, Powell and Leeds were successful cops. But they’ll be remembered for more than that. They excelled. They did more than what was required. They went above and beyond. Putting the emphasis on rising to a higher level—excelling—rather than just succeeding is powerful leadership. —On Point.