Greenleaf writes: The lapse of…three…major institutions from distinguished to merely ordinary performance came, I believe, because the trustees ceased to demand distinction. Their sense of trust declined probably because able, dedicated trustees were replaced by nominal trustees – not poor performers, but just ordinary – and there was no longer trust that could sustain spirit and unity of purpose.
Throughout his writings Greenleaf returns again and again to a number of themes. In this short passage Greenleaf returns to one of them: Demand Distinction. Individuals and groups of individuals (teams, departments, divisions, organizations, etc.) too often settle for ‘mediocrity’ when they should be striving for ‘distinction.’ ‘Distinction’ = marked superiority; high achievement. How many of us consciously demand distinction of ourselves? How many of us settle for mediocrity? How many organizations demand distinction of themselves? How many settle for mediocrity?
How many organizations achieved ‘distinction’ only to become mediocre – or, worse perhaps, to become extinct? I have known both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations that have achieved ‘distinction’ only to lose it and become ‘mediocre’ or to become extinct. I am thinking about a not-for-profit organization that for more than 100 years served, via group homes, children (ages 8-18). When I first became aware of them they had already achieved ‘distinction.’ They had a stable and committed and forward-thinking board of directors. These folks were truly ‘trustees’ for they did, indeed, hold the organization and those it served in ‘trust.’
Then the shift began to happen. Gradually, over a ten year period, the board of trustees changed. The ‘old guard’ were, indeed, aging and no longer had the energy to serve and so they began to ‘leave the board.’ Sadly, more and more of those seeking to be board members wanted to serve because of the prestige associated with being on ‘that board.’ More and more sought this board out in order to ‘pad their resume.’ Within 8 years this wonderful organization became extinct. Not because the staff did not perform with distinction; it became extinct because the board became less than mediocre.
Achieving ‘distinction’ is not enough; we know that. What is just as challenging is: How do we sustain distinction? History tells us that ‘maintaining’ is not sufficient – too often it leads to mediocrity. Sustainability requires a marriage of maintaining and creating/experimenting – two distinct pathways that over time will intersect so that a ‘third pathway’ emerges. This pathway will contain some of the ‘old’ and some of the ‘new’ and will provide an opportunity for ‘distinction’ to survive and thrive.
One of the great examples of this is the organization that Walt Disney founded. Throughout his life-time he was committed to high achievement, to being distinctive, and to continuously evolving so that both high achievement and being distinctive would survive and thrive. He invited folks to serve on his board who possessed an abundance mentality, a high achievement mentality, and a mentality that supported ‘being distinctive.’ These were three of Disney’s greatest qualities (among many) that he believed each of his board members needed to ‘bring to the table.’ There was no doubt that during his life-time he was able to achieve and sustain ‘being distinctive.’ Since his death there have been a few stumbles, but there has not been a sustained movement toward mediocrity – ‘Demanding Distinction’ continues to be one of Disney’s mantras.
What is your organization’s current mantra? Does your Board of Directors support ‘mediocrity’ or does it embrace being a Board of Trustees and ‘Demand Distinction’?