As most war stories go, this one is not all that different. It starts, of course, with, “There I was,” and continues along a familiar path. But, unlike most war stories, this one isn’t about heroics, personal glory, or even resounding success. It’s about mediocrity, and our continuing trend toward rewarding it.
There I was, standing in the doorway of my boss’s office. I’d just come from the SCIF, where the other planners and I were in the midst of trying to stay ahead of a fast-moving train called a deployment. At the time, I was the division’s sustainment planner, and my boss was the G-4, the senior logistician on the general staff. C-5s and C-17s from Air Mobility Command were already arriving, we had troops and equipment staged at the airfield, and a brigade combat team was in the early stages of a march to war. So, the words that came next were a surprise.
“I need you to fix the airfield,” he said. Clearly, the confused look on my face spoke more than anything I could have said. “Our airflow was just turned off. We have 48 hours to [expletive] ourselves or it won’t be turned back on.”
We’d spent weeks perfecting our deployment plan, working weekends and nights to simplify the process. Or, as we said at the time, to make it “foolproof.” That was the day I cemented one of my planning fundamentals: “No plan is foolproof when executed by the right fool.” In this case, we should have seen it coming. The Division Transportation Officer had skipped every single planning meeting and had no understanding of the deployment plan. Confused and with no plan of his own, he refused to load several aircraft, turning them away empty. In mid-stream, Air Mobility Command stopped our airflow, and all hell broke loose.
When we arrived at the airfield, he sat alone in the hallway outside the operations room with his face buried in his hands. From outside the room, you could hear the bellowing voice of one very animated and irate brigade commander. It’s not an exaggeration to say that violence was on his mind. The division commander emerged from the room, looked down at the hapless major, and shook his head. Then, he looked up at us and simply said, “Fix it,” and walked away.
Within 48 hours, the deployment was “back on the rails” and ran smoothly from that point. I returned to the SCIF, the brigade made its way to a far corner of the world, and the DTO was rewarded with a Meritorious Service Medal and a stellar evaluation. Why you ask? There were a number of excuses, ranging from “we need to help rebuild his confidence” to “he can’t afford to fail at this job.” The only thing I heard was that we were rewarding him for mediocre performance. And “mediocre” was a stretch.
Moving Beyond Mediocrity
Life isn’t Little League. Not everyone deserves a trophy. As tech mogul Robert Herjavev said from the set of Shark Tank in 2015: “The world doesn’t reward mediocrity… Nothing is ever ‘good enough.’ It’s either excellent or inferior.” Yet here we are, rewarding mediocrity at every turn. Why? Because it’s easy? Because we want to avoid confrontation? There are any number of reasons, but regardless of the answer, what matters is moving beyond mediocrity. And how do we do that?
Establish a Standard
First, establish a standard. This drives the second issue. In a 2013 video concerning sexual misconduct and degradation in the Australian Army, Lt. Gen. David Morrison declared, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” As a leader, you get what you settle for; if you accept mediocrity, you’re going to get it. If you want that to change, it’s incumbent upon you to define the standard and enforce it. What does “right” look like? What standard will you accept? Have you done enough to ensure everyone understands the standard? Then you take every opportunity to reinforce that standard. You don’t reward efforts that fall short, you reward those who make the effort to exceed the standard. Don’t settle for anything less.
Don’t Let Mediocrity Hide
Second, don’t let mediocrity hide in the shadows. Ignoring mediocre performance isn’t any better than accepting it. It’s not going to go away on its own, and everyone else already sees it. One of the best ways to tease mediocrity out of the shadows is to use data. Data tends to shine a light on everything, both good and bad. Set and enforce performance metrics. Use data to monitor performance and discuss it openly—this is as much about enforcing a standard as ensuring quality performance. Reward good performance and take steps to correct performance that falls below the established standard. It’s hard to hide when the spotlight is on you.
Focus on High-Performing Teams
Third, focus on high-performing teams. As a leader, work toward the kinds of teams that drive successful organizations. Part of that is building a culture of peer leadership that pushes mediocrity into the spotlight. That allows you to place a greater emphasis on coaching and mentoring than might otherwise be possible, while at the same time optimizing team effectiveness. As a result, your teams will improve while mediocrity will decrease (either through attrition or improved performance). Allowing mediocre performers to work on their own only exacerbates the problem.
Be an Engaged Leader
Ultimately, be an engaged leader. A chronically poor performer tends to get much more attention than someone who muddles along with average performance. Leaders have an inherent responsibility to develop subordinates, but often accept mediocrity in the vain hope that performance will improve on its own over time. Rather than take the steps necessary to help an average performer improve, they’ll reward mediocrity in the belief that doing so might spur the expected improvement. It doesn’t. If anything, it encourages the mediocre performer to maintain status quo while killing the morale of those who are performing exceptionally. If you want exceptional performance to be the norm, you have to put in the time and effort to nurture and encourage it. You don’t reward anything less.
Consider Your Messaging in your Actions
When tempted to reward mediocrity, don’t. When you feel the need to acknowledge someone who’s just muddling along, don’t. You can’t ask your team to work to one standard and tolerate another. If you do, you might as well hang a sign outside your office that says, “Average is the new excellent.” Be better than that, for everyone’s sake.