Winning on the Corporate Battlefield Requires Inspired Employees Seeking Perfection

Editor's Note

To remain competitivemaybe even to surviveorganizations have to have an ample supply of perfectionists.

Orchestras resemble a modern organization. Several hundred musicians and their CEO, the conductor, can play together because they all have the same score. The score tells the flutist, violinist and all the other musical specialists what the play and when.

These musical specialists cannot be told how to do their work. They can't be coaxed, coddled or bribed with money. But the conductor can focus on the musician's skill and knowledge … and create the environment for enabling them to achieve the perfection they strive for.

Think about it. The modern hospital consists of mostly specialists—doctors, nurses, physical therapists, x-ray technicians, pathologists and the like. They must be internally motivated to seek the perfection required.

Management is the art of getting your employees to do something you want done. Leadership is the art of getting your employees to do something you want done because they want to do it.

Perfectionists are self-driven. They get great satisfaction out of doing it right. They enjoy their work. True leaders make this happen. (In a future article we will explore the various kinds of organizational structures for creating an inspired workforce.)


Peter F. Drucker told a fascinating story that rendered explicit the notion of "perfection." Said Drucker:

"It is a story of the greatest sculptor of ancient Greece, Phidias. He was commissioned around 440 B.C. to make the statues that to this day, 2,400 years later, still stand on its roof of the Parthenon in Athens.

"They are considered among the greatest sculptures of the Western tradition. The statues were universally admired, but when Phidias submitted his bill, the city accountant of Athens refused to pay it.

"'These statues,' the accountant said, 'stand on the roof of the temple, and on the highest hill in Athens. Nobody can see anything but their fronts. Yet, you have charged us for sculpturing them in the round, that is, for doing their backsides, which nobody can see.'

'You are wrong,' Phidias retorted. 'The gods can see them.'''

Drucker's point? To be truly successful, one has to strive for perfection even if only "the gods" notice. We all have to strive to get a little closer to excellence. Hopefully, passion for the work being done drives our need for perfection.

We all do things, with respect to our work, that we hope the gods don't notice. However, we are entering a new era of intense competition with countries that strive for excellence. Indeed, they demand it!

Coming: Creating Inspired People to Produce Excellent Results

The new multinationals. They're smart and hungry, and want your organization's customers.

They study America's masters—Peter F. Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, Philip Kotler, Bruce Henderson, Tom Peters, Jim Collins and dozens more. Sooner or later, many of today's youthful workforce will understand that "good enough" is not good enough.

Good enough cannot compete against a passion for excellence coupled with deep understanding of the necessary tools, techniques, tactics and technologies required for success.

Indeed, organizations must be structured in a way that encourages employees to become perfectionists in their specialties … and not just process the work required. Inspired people produce results.

Excellence Requires "Sweating the Small Stuff"

People with a passion for what they do sweat the small stuff. They know that it's the small stuff that can make a big difference—possibly the difference between success and failure.

Also, they know the gods notice. They care. Really care.

And they know that they've never been bitten by an elephant. But they have been bitten by mosquitoes. They sweat the small stuff. The small stuff counts.

Many in today's workforce ignore the "small stuff," claiming to have an eye on the bigger picture. Andy Andrews, in a marvelous book called, "The Noticer," discusses this assertion in detail.

Andrews—in plain, simple language—points out that the bigger picture is composed of nothing more than "small stuff."

Andrews gives several marvelous illustrations of how the "small stuff" can make or break an otherwise successful strategy or unintentionally wreak havoc. Here's just one example (we've made some minor modifications to fit our narrative):

"On the eighteenth of June 1815, Napoleon … suffered his greatest defeat—an unmitigated disaster—at Waterloo.

"But that was only after he won… Here is the story that very few know:

"Napoleon had brilliantly outmaneuvered Wellington's 77,000 men—this in addition to the more than 100,000 Prussians nearby. Together, these armies easily outnumbered Napoleon's 76,000, but when he got between them, Napoleon prevented the two from combining…

"He had already beaten the Prussians two days before, so he detached a part of his force to hold them at bay while pointing the rest of army toward Wellington and the British.

"Napoleon began the battle at a bit after eleven in the morning with an artillery barrage and initial assault against the British right flank.

"Pushing back and forth most of the day, at one point Napoleon watched from a hillside as his troops pushed past Wellington's lines, capturing almost all of the 160 British cannons."

Andrews explains that the cannons were packed with black gunpowder, wadding and a projectile of some sort.

"The touchhole of the Cannon was then contacted with a flaming torch, which ignited the powder and fired the cannon … It was customary in those days for several of the troops to carry small metal rods—nails—with them in the event that they overran the enemy's guns.

"The metal rods were hammered into the canon's touchhole, rendering it useless. When Napoleon's men overran Wellington's position—and his cannons—it became immediately apparent there were no spikes among his troops.

"As Napoleon screamed from the hilltop for the cannons to be destroyed, he watched Wellington's men retake the guns and turn them on their attackers. Napoleon was defeated… And all for a lack of a fistful of nails."

Take-home lesson: Perfection cannot be achieved unless you sweat the small stuff. Just remember a long-ago children's story: "For the Want of a Nail, the Kingdom Was Lost" (We suggest those who do not know the story, Google it!)

Summary and Conclusions

Many people in today's workforce have grown up in the era Charles Handy calls "an aberration." Prosperity and stability characterized much of America's ‘80s, ‘90s and the early part of the new century.

Historically speaking, notes Handy, prosperity and stability are not the norms. Frequent economic downturns and instability are the norm. Today's workforce will have to work smarter and harder to survive and thrive.

They are already beginning to experience the impact of a rapidly changing business, political, social, and economic environment. Prosperity will return and vanish in ever-increasing cycles. Stability will, in all likelihood, not return for many, many decades.

Today's workforce will have to adjust to today's new realities and fast history. What they consider "normality" will not return.

To slightly paraphrase Jim Collins: "They now have to become interested rather than interesting … and make themselves useful.

"It is absolutely essential for today's knowledge workers to have a passion for what they do, be genetically encoded for the work they do, and continually produce measurable/meaningful results.

"Above all, they have to take exceptional pride in their work, strive for perfection even if only "the gods" notice, and "sweat the small stuff."