From the Editor: Surprising Insights Into Excellence

Barbara Davis, Executive Editor

What does excellence have to do with pornography? Only that, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, we know it when we see it.

I live in Syracuse, New York. We are mostly known for the prodigious amounts of snow that fall each year, averaging 120 inches and lasting from December through March, heaped up in very large graying mounds. We are not proud of our snow; we merely coexist with it. What we are proud of is our supermarket, Wegman’s. This is what we show off to our visitors; this is what we take them to see. While this certainly has a pathetic side to it, there is also a positive side: Wegman’s is excellent. Consumer Reports recently rated it the #1 supermarket in the country in every category. Frigid, freezing Syracuse recognizes and is proud of Wegman’s, because of its excellence.

All of us promise “excellence” in our schools, but really what we generally offer is “extremely good.” This is not necessarily a bad thing. Excellence does not mean perfection and there is no way, as schools of inclusion, that we can assure “excellence.” We can set it as a goal, we can strive for it, but we cannot guarantee its achievement without sacrificing other values which we hold equally dear. Even the Harvards and Yales of the world can only have limited success in the achievement of excellence, despite their ability to select “the best and the brightest” and the “cream of the crop.” Excellence is an attitude, an essence, a beacon to guide us.

So what kind of “excellence” is desirable and achievable in a Jewish community day school in the 21st century? What characterizes an institution that is at the top of the heap and is recognized by others as outstanding? “The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere,” wrote Warren G. Bennis, a scholar of leadership, but “truly profound and original insights are to be found by studying the truly exemplary.” An examination of the 2015 issue of Fortune magazine’s “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” provides some interesting data. Excellence, according to Fortune, is “personal, not perk-able. It’s relationship-based, not transaction-based.” The best companies, like Google, have as their primary goal “strong, numerous, rewarding personal relationships.” Surprised? So was I. The four elements of culture that Fortune identifies as essential to excellence are the following:

  • Mission: pursue a larger purpose and make sure that no one forgets it.
  • Colleagues: get the best people in order to create a self-reinforcing cycle because the best people want to go where the best people are.
  • Trust: show people that you think they are trustworthy and they’ll generally prove you right.
  • Caring: value your employees; don’t just say it—show it.

Think about how we can apply these lessons to our schools. Clearly, we know that our mission is larger than just the 3 Rs and STEM; are we communicating this to our students, our parents, our community? How can we get the best people on our staffs, with our limited resources? What else can we offer to make our schools the best places to work? Google uses food; would this work for us? Do we trust our staffs to do their best, most creative work or do we squelch their enthusiasm with too many administrative demands and the expectation of conformity? Do we really care about our teachers, our students, our parents, our donors and our alumni? Do we just pay lip service to our love or do we actually, on a daily basis, week in and week out, show our appreciation, our support and our concern for them and their lives?

Achieving excellence is no easy task. Excellence demands that we surpass ordinary standards. It takes hard work and sustained effort to achieve superiority, but as coach Pat Riley wrote, “Excellence is the gradual result of always trying to do better.” We hope you will find inspiration, encouragement and insights in this issue of HaYidion that will help you in your own ongoing quest for excellence.

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015