Creating a Culture of Excellence

In 1959, when Vince Lombardi had his first team meeting with the Green Bay Packers as their new head coach, he said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” A culture of excellence is not a simple concept. In any organization, it means the enterprise and its members do their “dead level” best every time a task is attempted. For example, a faculty member teaching a class who believes that the subject matter is absolutely critical to every student is likely to be chasing excellence. Faculty who do not believe the subject taught is critical should quit. If a nurse providing healthcare recognizes the patient’s current and future well-being depends on the actions they take, the nurse is more likely to be a great nurse: excellent in fact. Excellence is the result of intentional drive, passion, commitment and the profoundly important recognition that every decision matters immensely and ultimately affects lives. The fact is true in schools, hospitals, police stations, restaurants, university campuses, athletic fields/courts, and pulpits. These commitments supersede any long-range plan, statement of organizational goals, mission or other defining characteristic of the work at hand. Simply put, excellence is an intense habit, not a destination.

On June 18, 1940, in a speech entitled “Their Finest Hour,” Winston Churchill expressed The House of Commons a culture of excellence. He stated, “Success always demands a greater effort.” And, during WWII, excellence targeted the salvation of the free world and “the survival of Christian civilization.”

Do you aspire to excellence? High standards of performance include a commitment by leadership at every level to promote and embody the values of excellence through continuous and relentless means to improve offerings and services, as well as holding every individual accountable for sustaining high standards. The three R’s of successful organizations are to recognize, reward and retain excellent people by reinforcing the value of high performance with the intention to empower every member of the organization, at every level, with the autonomy to stimulate excellence in decision-making. Excellent leaders aspire to foster ideas and reward best practices as commonly held property, and they place a strong emphasis on personal and professional development, ensuring skills and knowledge are continuously updated to support higher performance.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in his important writing, “Le Petite Prince,” published in 1943, observed, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Excellence always requires a clear vision. Long-range strategic plans help clarify vision when responsive to a community served. In universities, no matter how similar they appear, each one is decidedly different. If any institution sees itself as the same as another institution, it “looks through a glass darkly.” They are unnecessary and ineffective. Distinctiveness drives institutional quality: from a family of two people to the largest corporation in the world – Walmart, with over 2 million employees.

As Dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, I asked a landscape architecture faculty member who was appreciated by all as a great educator and distinguished practitioner, “What created excellence in education and practice from his perspective? ” He told me leading by example was singularly the most important aspect of both teaching and practice. Old fashion advice, to be sure. He suggested one of the most important things is to be a role model for excellence. He said, “It’s not complicated, and the opportunities are endless. Landscape architects are stewards of the natural and built environment. ” The conversation continued as we walked back from lunch on the campus. He noticed a piece of paper on the sidewalk and stooped down to pick it up. He looked at me squarely in the eyes and said, “Walter, that’s what I’m talking about. Stewardship.” Passion and commitment in every action we take is the definition of excellence, embodying a crystal-clear understanding of a vision and goals. My friend and colleague, Don Austin, embodied the most important manifestation of excellence, leading by example.

Organizations define excellence considering various factors aligned with the goals, values and standards of practice in an industry and the place where the enterprise is located. Cultures of excellence are born from engaged people and leaders who understand industry benchmarks and the power of innovation in response to both deep principles and current circumstances. Continued measurement of performance in feedback throughout the organization will allow people to understand when excellence has been achieved.

Of all the steps that must be taken to create a culture of excellence, recognizing high performance is paramount. Not all members of a group, team or organization will always perform at the highest levels. In any organization, addressing people when they are not meeting expectations is challenging. However, anything less is an abrogation of responsibility. For example, according to The New York Times, 80% of the grades given at Yale in 2022 – 2023 were A’s. Grade Inflation? By subject area, where enrollments exceed 500 students, economics had the lowest percentage of A’s with 52% and History of Science/Medicine the highest with 92%. Academia is above shirking responsibility in grading practices by holding students to standards of excellence. Eighty percent of students are “excellent? ” Hard to believe.

At West Texas A&M University, we recognize excellence is a simple but rare thing. Our goal is to make it less so by rewarding performance.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at