Solution Saturday: Culture in Two Words

Dear Dan,

Can you address the key indicators of a culture of excellence and steps to establishing that culture for a school?


Culture Builder

culture begins with beliefs and finds expression in behaviors

Dear Culture Builder,

Thanks for asking such a great question. My response applies to profit, not-for-profit, and education. I’ll begin by simplifying culture down to two words, beliefs and behaviors.

Culture begins with beliefs and finds expression in behaviors.

When it comes to a culture of excellence two questions apply. What do you believe about excellence? What behaviors reflect your beliefs about excellence?


Excellence is:

  1. Curiosity about better. Excellence is the pursuit of better. Any organization that isn’t getting better is getting worse.
  2. Intolerance for “good enough”. When it comes to culture, you may aim high, but, in the end, you get what you tolerate.
  3. Passion for exemplary leadership. Lousy leaders spend too much time imposing demands on others and making exemptions for themselves. Expect much more from your leaders than anyone else.
  4. Commitment to build strong relationships. Isolation is the enemy of excellence.
  5. Devotion to feedback, honor, and celebration.
  6. Dedication to transparency and candor. Secrets distract and weaken organizations.
  7. Faithfulness to forgive. Excellence is reaching high. People who reach high fall short. How you respond to failure in the pursuit of excellence determines the extent of your reach. If you always succeed, you aren’t reaching high enough.

The first aspect of culture is belief. The second is behavior.


  1. Everyone champions “better” by asking, “How could we be better?”
  2. Mediocre performance is identified and discussed. Leaders ask, “What are your aspirations?”
  3. Leaders have:
    • Development plans.
    • Transparency with their development journey.
    • Open conversations concerning their weaknesses and failures. Excellence is never petty.
    • Respect and honor for each other’s strengths. Jealousy ends excellence.
  4. Progress is celebrated. Meetings include time to discuss wins. Leaders ask, “What’s working?”
  5. Teammates can explain the aspirations of their colleagues.
  6. Leaders invite – they don’t wait – feedback concerning their performance. When they receive feedback they say, “Thank you.” Excellence requires responsibility. Excuses and blame validate mediocrity.
  7. Responsible failure is met with:
    • What did you learn?
    • How can you make things right? (If anything.)
    • What will you do differently next time?
    • How can I/we help?
    • Thank you for reaching high.

I suggest you clarify your beliefs and identify specific behaviors that express your beliefs. A few simple, memorable behaviors are better than a long list that no one remembers or practices.

Public pursuit:

Leadership’s public pursuit of personal excellence is the first step toward organizational excellence. Leaders block excellence when they allow mediocrity in themselves.

Thank you for your question.


P.S. You may want to explore connections between responsibility and accountability.

What ideas do you have for Culture Builder?

*I relax my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.

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