Getting results is one of the preeminent tasks of leadership. “The world is not interested in the storms you encountered,” says Norman Augustine, the aerospace businessman and former U.S. Army official, “but in whether or not you brought the ship in safely.” Perhaps he took his cue from Winston Churchill. When asked about the Allies’ aim in World War II, he replied, “I can answer in one word. It is victory.”
Exemplars can be found in different domains. We associate excellence in leadership development with General Electric and its famous Crotonville training programs. We associate excellence in brand management with Procter & Gamble. Among hospitals the standard of excellence is set at places like Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts General, and Mayo Clinic.
It’s a fair question today to ask whether achieving excellence is getting harder. Is there a ratchet effect of higher standards over time? Look at the continual smashing of world records in sports. Author Daniel Goleman points out that the marathon gold medalist’s time in the 1896 Olympic Games was “only about as good as the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon” in 1990. In 2004, according to author Geoff Colvin in Talent Is Overrated, a 74 year-old man ran a marathon with a time that was four minutes faster than the gold medal performance in the 1896 Olympics. He concludes: “the Olympic records of a hundred years ago… today in many cases equal ho-hum performances by high schoolers.” He cites numerous examples, from mathematics to diving, sprinting, music, and chess. It will be interesting to watch what happens in London this summer.
That leaders must get results is not controversial. But what we call “triple crown leadership” seeks not just any results, but excellent results—compelling and exceptional outcomes. It strives for the pinnacle of performance.
One of the problems today is an overly narrow focus on results for shareholders (and with a very short time horizon). When assessing results, it is essential to consider the ethics imperative, as well as social impact and sustainability. Triple crown leadership—the kind that builds excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations—seeks outstanding financial performance and positive social impact. It’s a new standard, a higher one, and leading organizations around the world are pursuing it in a noble quest, as we describe in Triple Crown Leadership.
Not convinced? Don’t just take our word for it. Check in with Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who shows how “vanguard companies” can create innovation, profits, growth, and social good (SuperCorp). Check in with Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell, who make a case for Sustainable Excellence as the future of business in today’s fast-changing world. Check in with Michael Beer and his co-authors in showing how great leaders can create economic and social value (Higher Ambition). Check in with James O’Toole and Don Mayer, editors of Good Business: Exercising Effective and Ethical Leadership. Check in with Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen and their Responsibility Revolution. The case for higher standards of leadership and excellence—encompassing the results imperative but also ethics, sustainability, and impact—is becoming a crescendo.
Leaders should embrace this new higher standard of excellence—and pursue it with abandon.
-Bob & Gregg Vanourek, the triple crown leaders