Three Keys to Achieving Excellence

Perfectly striped freshly mowed garden lawn in summer

We have all heard the term “believe it and you will achieve it.”  History is full of examples where this has proven to be true.  During the U.S. Civil War, the Union and Confederate Armies were preparing for what is now known as the Battle of Shiloh.  Confederate troops, led by General Albert Sidney Johnston, were seeking to drive the Union invaders from their stronghold in southwestern Tennessee.

During the ensuing battle, there was heavy fighting that led to the bloodiest single day yet experienced on the North American continent.  Halfway through, both sides had experienced terrible losses and leaders on both sides were unsure what to do next.  Some argued for an immediate retreat before the enemy could be reinforced while others wanted to renew the battle at dawn.

I love what happened next.  It is true that the Union commander, Major General (MG) Ulysses S. Grant, was caught by surprise by the Rebels’ morning attack; however, he had no intention of retreating.   When one of his staff members, Colonel James B. McPherson, suggested that they consider withdrawing, Grant immediately snapped, “No, sir, I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” That is exactly what happened.  In his Personal Memoirs, Grant recalled a meeting late that night with his second-in-command, MG William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman said,  “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” Grant replied, chewing on an ever-present cigar, “lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

It is the same way today.  For those of you who are into sports, you have no doubt heard of Bill Belichick.  He is the much-heralded coach of the New England Patriots of the National Football League (NFL).  As the winner of multiple Super Bowl championships, Belichick is very competent and successful in what he does.  In addition to being the head coach, the team owner has entrusted him with total control of football operations of a business that as of 2015 was worth $3.2 Billion (according to Forbes Magazine).   Whenever he goes into a game, he and his players expect to win.  According to Pro Football Reference, Belichick has a record of 187 wins and 69 losses during his time in New England.  In other words, he has a winning percentage of over 73% since becoming the head coach in New England.  I’d say that his expectations are well founded.

There are three keys that allowed both men to expect and to ultimately achieve excellence:

It’s OK to fail, just don’t stay there

Belichick and Grant didn’t come to expect excellence based on instincts alone.  Both men experienced failure early on in their careers.  Belichick was fired as the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns after a 36-44 record over five years.  After getting fired, Belichick went back to being a defensive coordinator.  At the same time, he took the opportunity to look at what went wrong in Cleveland, to learn from others who have succeeded, and to prepare for his next opportunity as a head coach.

Grant graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served as an Army officer for only 11 years.  He left the Army but struggled financially in civilian life.  He tried and failed with several businesses.  After taking the opportunity to look at his shortcomings, Grant concluded that his best option was to return to the military.  He learned from his mistakes and, at the outbreak of the civil war, was ready to take advantage of any opportunity that would come his way.

Be prepared

Belichick drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, and by the end of the year, he had worked his way up to become the primary back-up quarterback on the team.  During his second season, when starter Drew Bledsoe was injured, Brady started in his place.  When Bledsoe was ready to return, Belichick made the bold decision to keep Brady as his starter over Bledsoe, a previous first round pick.  Belichick based the decision on his coaching experience, knowledge of the current team’s capabilities (including Brady), and the lessons that he learned from his first head coaching experience in Cleveland.  That year, Belichick went on to win his first Super Bowl.

Grant was a student of military history and in particular was an expert in the type of military tactics used in the Mexican-American War of 1846.  He studied and practiced the tactics of MG Winfield Scott and the leadership strategies of MG (later President) Zachary Taylor.  At the Battle of Shiloh, Grant’s confidence was based in part on the steady arrival of Union reinforcements from less than 20 miles away.  With the additional forces, plus Grant’s expectation of excellence, the Union Army was able to go on to defeat the Confederates in what turned out to be a major turning point for the war.

Don’t be afraid

Belichick and Grant both knew their businesses very well.  That was a given.  What makes these two great is the confidence that they have in themselves.  Belichick has worked with different coaches, players, and front office staff, yet he still manages to win.  Grant had a reputation of “dogged persistence and an iron will.”  At the outbreak of the Civil War, without any rank or formal authority, he was able to recruit volunteers to serve in the Union Army.  After formally returning to the Army, he used his knowledge as well as his personality to transform undisciplined and unruly units into a productive fighting force.  Both Belichick and Grant were leaders who inspired their followers to give their very best.

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