Famed Admiral Rickover once stunned Ensign Jimmy Carter (yes, a future U.S. President) who had admitted to maybe not doing his best while being enrolled in the Naval Academy at Annapolis. “If not your best, then why not?” the Admiral demanded.
Sometimes though, your best isn’t good enough. Entrepreneurs and executives, especially in the high tech industry, have leadership and growth challenges that demand that they up their game … to do better than their best. Like a weightlifter who has plateaued, psychologically unable to grab the next heavier dumbbell, so too do leaders often succumb to doing only their best and not striving for the next level of execution.
For 37 years I led Micrel, the semiconductor company I founded. In that notoriously twitchy industry, we had 36 profitable years based largely on doing better than our best. Like most other large companies, the drive to excel came from a collective relentless focus on beating ourselves in order to beat the competition.
This cannot happen unless top management is doing better than their best, and leading by example. Every top executive can learn what Micrel learned.
Stop thinking that your best is good enough: When you think you are doing your best, you quit being humble. When you are not humble, you quit being a good listener. Since input from every corner of your organization feeds your ability to lead it, your humility must be preserved and grown, not stunted. Narcissism is at the heart of thinking you are the best and therefore cannot improve. Narcissism is your personal enemy.
Get more out of your day: My forthcoming book Tough Things First talks in part about the discipline of doing those tough things first – the big, complex, bothersome tasks – and get them out of the way early. Leaders who take care of the big stuff in the morning find they accomplish much more by the end of each day.
Learn to love the things you hate: Avoiding doing things you hate causes delays, inefficiencies, misperceived priorities within your teams, and can even spawn chaos. Learn to love doing what you hate doing. By removing dread, you increase the happiness of your work day, and in the process ensure the rest of the company is not waiting on you.
Run marathons: Life itself is a marathon and not a sprint, and leading an organization is too. By this I mean psychological long distance, though actually running 26 miles isn’t a bad idea either. Pacing yourself and keeping the right long distance attitude allows you to grow in competence and gains you the ability to handle the vicissitudes and adversity that comes with mortality and business.
Make important things very important: Tackle everything important thing you do in life as though it were the most important thing there is. Don’t slack up on small things because even a pebble can make a horse stumble. Do small tasks with the same gusto that you do the big ones. This prevents the urge to do less than your best from creeping in, and then causing you to no longer strive on the bigger, more important tasks.
Never give up: A research vessel sank in bad weather off the coast of Baja California many years ago. Of the eight people onboard, only three made it to shore after a five mile swim. When asked how they survived when the other five didn’t, they said it was because “…we didn’t quit swimming.” Five people who gave up died at sea. Never, never give up! Being bulldog persistent allows you to overcome any obstacle in your path.