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Your personal standards drive success

Mar 28, 2010 Success, Sunday Nation

How were your cornflakes this Sunday morning? One of my oldest friends told me something interesting about his consumption of cereals. He asserted that the milk you add to cornflakes has to be very cold, otherwise the taste is ruined.

I was about to dismiss this as individual fastidiousness, but my attention was piqued and I asked him to elaborate. My good friend explained that the milk used for cereals should always be kept in the coldest part of the fridge (the top rather than the door), and should be poured straight from the fridge rather than kept outside for any length of time. He also abhors the use of an already open packet – it will have absorbed odours from the rest of the fridge’s contents and will taint the taste of the cornflakes!

You may laugh, as I did, but you have to respect a man who sets high standards, even in matters as seemingly trivial as his cornflakes. Because if you are someone who says, “just good enough is not good enough,” in a few areas of your life, the chances are high that you will bring the same perfectionism to something that actually matters – your work, and how it affects others.

Later that day I boarded a local flight. As I took my seat in the aircraft, I saw to my distaste that the wastepaper receptacles in the armrests had not been cleaned. The one next to me was stuffed with used tissues. Looking around, I saw a similar mess throughout the aircraft. It had evidently not been cleaned in advance of boarding. Someone in authority clearly has low standards, and the crew are now following suit.

Does this matter? Of course it does. Air passengers pay large amounts of money to fly, and have every right to expect spotless airplanes, timely departures, and friendly and efficient service. Presenting a passenger with a dirty plane is the most basic of lapses. And it correctly places the question in the mind of the customer: if planes are not being cleaned, which other routine processes are also failing to happen?

Pretty much every company I have ever encountered espouses the word “excellence” in its set of values. The idea of excellence is thrown around with abandon in corporate circles. But what does this mean? There is no excellence possible without high personal standards. The standards of the person, if widely embraced, become the standards of the collective. If those standards are high, we achieve excellence. If the key people don’t really give a damn, soon no one will.

Low personal standards have become the bane of the nation. So how do we instil them more commonly? The most powerful driver of standards is leadership and example. If you have high standards in your life, the chances are that someone set the example for you at a formative point in your life. I know very well that my finickiness with words and grammar and syntax came from some powerfully convincing teachers in my early life.

I sometimes wish a future President would get up early and go out for a ride (minus the convoy of sycophants). I wish this mythical President would go around observing everything that is wrong in the environment around him. I wish he would draw the line for everyone. I wish he would stop and chastise traffic-queue jumpers; I wish he would personally reprimand litterbugs; I wish he would walk into police stations and government offices unannounced and deliver a verbal whiplashing to recalcitrant officers.

Those simple things, if done regularly and rigorously, would have a salutary effect on the nation. This future leader’s ministers and technocrats would see the example and would mimic it. “Good enough is not good enough” would ripple through the entire land.

But wait, we don’t have to wait for a fantasy leader to appear. Most of the standards we worry about are entirely within our control. Do you really need a whip-cracking president to do the job you are paid to do to a high standard? We all need to take responsibility for our lives and take pride in our work. Leadership standards matter, but so do individual standards.

Look at great achievers around you, from sportspeople to artists to chefs to chief executives. All of them have extremely high, almost insanely high, standards in very specific areas of their lives. They push themselves to the limit, and don’t accept any dross from anyone else. Certain things have to be just so, and not any other way. At the heart of this behaviour is one ascendant feeling: personal pride. High achievers want to be associated with the best possible standard.

These people move mountains, transform companies, uplift entire nations. They set the bar for others. They infect others with the desire to be better, to do better. When I meet people who set a high mark for themselves and others, in any endeavour, I am filled with admiration.

Now enjoy the rest of your cornflakes…

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