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5 ways for leaders to cultivate a “spirit of excellence” in teams

By supplementing the “principle of marginal gains” with these practical steps, you’ll be well equipped for the journey towards excellence.
A black and white photo capturing the spirit of excellence, featuring a man and a woman at a table.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think / Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • Excellence is a continuous process, grounded in the humility to constantly learn, adapt, and grow.
  • Any leader aiming to instill a spirit of excellence within their teams should become a beacon of inspiration.
  • The quest for excellence is woven into the very fabric of a team’s culture, values, and mindset.
Adapted from Liberate Your Greatness by John Roussot.

Excellence is not just a destination but a journey — the gradual result of always striving to be better. In the world of team dynamics, this pursuit of excellence becomes a shared mission, elevating each member’s personal and professional performance. Excellence, then, is not merely an aspiration but a continuous process, grounded in the humility to constantly learn, adapt, and grow. This journey is marked by a willingness to test new ideas, learn from every outcome, embrace failures as stepping stones, fail forward and collectively evolve through rich experiences.

If you’re a leader aiming to instill a spirit of excellence within your team, your role transcends conventional management. It involves becoming a beacon of inspiration, a living embodiment of the ideals you wish to see in your team. This means not just directing but actively participating in the journey of growth, setting a standard for others to follow, and being the role model that inspires and encourages excellence in all things.

It all starts with you. Renowned leadership author, speaker and mentor John Maxwell says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” This is your moment to step up, serve and lead at higher levels of excellence.

The principle of marginal gains

The Progress Principle is a brilliant book that reveals how small wins and incremental progress can lead to significant achievements and happiness. Authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer emphasize the importance of recognizing and celebrating daily accomplishments to fuel motivation and foster a sense of fulfillment.

Sir Dave Brailsford, the former performance director of British Cycling, is often credited with popularizing the principle of marginal gains. This concept revolves around making small, incremental improvements in multiple areas, which when combined lead to significant overall progress. Brailsford believed that by focusing on achieving just a 1% improvement in various aspects of a task or process, the cumulative effect of these minor enhancements would result in a substantial positive impact. Under his leadership, this approach transformed British Cycling, leading to numerous successes and gold medals. The principle of marginal gains encourages individuals and organizations to identify opportunities for growth in every detail, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and long-term success.

Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, also embraced a philosophy of continuous improvement by encouraging its employees to get 1% better every day. This approach aimed to create a culture of constant learning and growth, where each team member focused on making small, incremental improvements in their skills, knowledge and performance. By fostering this mindset, Zappos believed that the cumulative effect of these daily improvements would lead to significant overall progress and success for both the individual employees and the company. This philosophy helped Zappos become renowned not only for its excellent customer service but also for its innovative and positive work culture.

Excellence is an intrinsic trait

By taking a quick look at a list of the top companies in the world, including Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Disney, Microsoft, Tesla and others, you’ll notice they constantly strive for excellence by focusing on innovation, customer service, quality, culture and continuous improvement in their respective industries.

One of my previous businesses was a 120-seater coffee shop, where our team members who swept the floors and cleaned the restrooms had a higher spirit of excellence than some of the other restaurant managers in town. Excellence is not a role, a title, a position or a badge of honor. When I talk about excellence as part of a high-performing team’s DNA, I’m emphasizing that the quest for excellence is woven into the very fabric of the team’s culture, values and mindset. It’s not just a goal but an intrinsic trait that guides their decisions, actions and behaviors every single day.

A high-performing team that truly embraces excellence is endlessly committed to producing exceptional results, continuously refining their skills and setting the bar high for themselves and their work. They tackle challenges head-on, see setbacks as opportunities to learn and push the limits of what’s possible. These teams cultivate an atmosphere of open communication, collaboration and co-creation, where each person is encouraged to take charge of their work, think outside the box, support each other and contribute their unique strengths and insights to achieve shared success.

Leaders of such teams are essential in nurturing this culture of excellence. They set clear expectations, exemplify the desired behaviors and provide the necessary resources, guidance and encouragement for team members to grow, innovate and excel. By celebrating victories, treating failures as priceless learning experiences and stressing the importance of continuous improvement, leaders can make sure that the pursuit of excellence remains at the heart of their team’s DNA.

As a leader, how are you instilling a spirit of excellence within your team to drive growth and success?

Five practical steps to cultivate a spirit of excellence:

  1. Encourage curiosity: Foster an environment where asking questions is encouraged. Stimulate thought and inspire learning by posing thought-provoking questions and promoting open discussions.
  2. Enable learning: Provide resources and opportunities for your team members to continually develop their skills and knowledge. Offer training, workshops and other learning experiences to help them achieve mastery.
  3. Empower people to take action: Encourage team members to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills in their work. Support them in taking the initiative and making decisions that align with your organization’s goals and values.
  4. Embed teaching and sharing: Encourage your team members to teach and share their expertise with others. This not only helps others grow but also reinforces the individual’s understanding of the subject matter.
  5. Embody a coaching culture: Lead by example and develop a culture where team members coach one another to improve and excel. This collaborative approach empowers everyone to reach their full potential and contribute to the team’s overall success.

By managing and measuring your team’s progress, you’ll see continuous improvement. No matter what level your team is currently at, there’s always another level of success and significance to achieve. Remember that mastery takes time. Transformation takes time. Keep pushing the boundaries and striving for excellence together.

How will you invest your time, talent and treasure to cultivate a spirit of excellence with your team? There’s a significant return on investment (ROI) to be had when investing in developing yourself and others. There’s also a cost of inaction (COI) when you don’t.

The journey towards excellence is a continuous one, marked not just by achievements, but by the growth and development that comes with each step forward. Embrace this journey with your team, for in the pursuit of excellence, every effort counts, every moment is an opportunity, and every small improvement paves the way to greatness.

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