*Part One of a Six Part Series on The Excellent Employee
Excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. —Aristotle
Nobody willingly pays a person to be average or mediocre. Or at least, they shouldn’t! And individuals shouldn’t be content being paid to be average or mediocre either!
Imagine going into a job interview or pitching a new project with the premise of retaining an individual’s services through the commitment to a steady dose of procrastination and indifference toward key tasks and reasonabilities. It’s an absurd notion. That organization would be foolish to hire for such a promise. It would be foolish for a person to settle for being average as an employee.
So then, why do organizations hire for excellence and settle for mediocrity? Why do teams within organizations get away with doing just enough to “get the job done?” Why do so many individuals settle for coming to work and being average, at best?
While modern thinkers like Jim Collins, in Good to Great, have evolved the meaning of the word “good” to mean something less than great, ancient writers, teachers, philosophers like Aristotle defined “good” as something extraordinary – exceedingly great. The classic notion of good is manifest excellence—actively pursuing behavior that excels beyond the normal, everyday basics of our mere existence—encouraging us to thrive, rather than simply survive. The pursuit of excellence has led individuals to a greater happiness in living and working throughout history.
The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most important books in the whole history of philosophy and certainly the most influential works of Aristotle. It is a collection of his most profound thoughts and was based on an exhortation to his son to live the best possible life.
Though taught thousands of years ago, Aristotle’s thoughts on excellence—becoming exceedingly good, still serves as a call to action for those who desire and are willing to lead themselves at a higher level. Although there are many narratives that can be culled out from Aristotle’s epic work, there are a several broad narratives that have practical application in our modern workplace.
A Greater Good
For an individual to perform exceedingly “good,” they must believe that “good” is something beyond just their own need, but also the good of the community, organization, or society they live in. According to Aristotle, excellence is a mindset rather than just a set of activities. Most activities are a means to a higher end, or at least they should be, and our work is no exception.
When individuals start showing up to work just to pull a pay check or organizations get too focused on the profit margins, they loose site of why they exist—to serve a greater good. Excellent employees focus on using their skills and knowledge to serve a purpose greater than themselves and in the process meet their basic needs while achieving excellence.
Virtue, Vision, and Values
Excellence depends on living in accordance with appropriate virtues, vision, and values. A virtuous individual is naturally inspired to behave in the right ways and for the right reasons, finding happiness in behaving according to a set of higher standards of excellence—personal standards as well as the standards expected of them by their community.
The Excellent Employee performs all of their duties with clear expectations of their role and responsibilities, in alignment with the core values of the company. Aristotle is not referring to some imaginary notion of perfection, and neither should organizations expect that of employees. But striving for higher levels of behavioral excellence, creating a greater value in products and projects, should be the goal of every employee.
The phrase, Know Thyself was inscribed above the entrance to the Lyceum that Aristotle attended as a young man in Athens. Most historians attribute the phrase as an admonition to those entering the sacred temple to remember or know their place before entering into the learning process. Modern philosophies and leadership theories have expanded the notion of self awareness as a means to become more in tune with one’s own personal strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and behaviors.
Excellent employees are committed to knowing themselves through a daily process of understanding the vision and values of the organization, and then aligning them with their own Key Areas of Responsibility. They are also keenly aware of their own assumptions about the organization or a project that may be holding them back. They are aware of where they are at in their own learning process, and what they need from others to successfully complete their daily tasks. Most individuals struggle to move beyond periods of disillusionment and conflict, settling for something less than exceedingly good. The Excellent Employee is equipped to understand their own needs and move through those periods of doubt and disillusionment efficiently and effectively.
Aristotle believed that the bonds that tie citizens together are so important that it would be unthinkable to suggest that true happiness can be found in a life isolated from others. This understanding applies to the modern workplace as well. But excellent employees aren’t just good at building effective social and professional networks on Facebook and Linked In, they are dedicated to building intimate and meaningful relationships through personal one on one communication. They’re also aware of the fact that there are more ways to getting a job done by gaining the support of people in positions of power, but rather influencing peers and colleagues through other types of personal power in order to meet the needs of the greater good and do an exceedingly good work.
Aristotle did not think that virtue could be taught in a classroom down at the local Lyceum or simply by means of a “good” argument, but rather by applying virtue and values to your daily actions. His claim that virtue can be learned only through constant practice implies that there are no set rules we can learn from in just a workbook or a presentation alone; rather we must find a means of transferring that knowledge into action. The Excellent Employee is committed to training in the skills sets that will help them excel beyond average. They are consumed with creating solutions and meaningful results, rather than wallowing in the challenges, setbacks, and conflicts that arise in the workplace.
The Excellent Employee has a strategy to consistently align their vision and values to the organization’s vision and values, through a clear understanding of themselves and their needs. They also utilize key relationships and apply their knowledge and skills to their everyday workflow, aligning it with the greater good of their company and their clients.
Life is short. Be activly committed to living and working at a higher level, for yourself and the greater good. Aristotle would challenge today’s modern employee to become excellent by doing excellent acts.
Jason Diamond Arnold
Co-Author of Situational Self Leadership in Action