A few years ago I stumbled across an ancient Greek word that simultaneously brought into focus and defined my philosophy of how an organization should function. The word is arête, which simply means excellence, but there’s nothing simple about it. The Greeks applied arête to everything, from people to animals to trees to clay pots. In their minds, everything had the potential to achieve its own arête, or fulfill its highest potential.
Applied to an athlete, arête could be the ultimate level of performance; applied to a tree it could mean that the tree was well shaped, provided excellent shade and did it’s best at being a tree. Arête for everything and everyone is different, but what I find so compelling about it is that regardless of who or what you are, you can achieve your own version of arête.
The Importance of Organizational Arete
When I learned about this term, it spoke to me so deeply because I realized I’d been seeking arête in myself and the people around me for years. I started to hire people I thought would be as excited by pursuing this idea as myself and together we developed a process internally to help our team discover and pursue their own arête.
As an entrepreneur, the implications of an idea like this spreading through and becoming imbedded in an organization are fantastic – more skill, speed, thought and craft. Everyone working to their fullest potential leads to an organization functioning at its highest level. In essence, achieving its own arête. We think of it as our capacity for greatness.
Sounds wonderful right? The only question becomes, how does a leader motivate and inspire his or her team to reach for arête, and beyond that, expect nothing less of themselves?
I believe the answer lies not in focusing on arête on the job, but arête in the pursuit of personal dreams and passions. It’s a little like the positive spiral that comes from making the bed – develop the habit of making the bed every morning, and that simple act of neatness has a way of inspiring other simple acts that cascade into larger life changes. Show your employees how they can achieve arête in one area of their lives, and watch how they begin to find other places and ways they can achieve excellence – like at work.
Our Journey So Far
In our company, we inspire the pursuit of arête every year with something we call the betterment bonus. We called it that because it comes with an expectation that the recipient will use the money to do something for him or herself that results in a better life experience, thus pursuing their potential. They can use the money to try something new, take a hobby to the next level, or even make a planned vacation even more fantastic. It doesn’t matter what they do, as long as the money goes toward finding some area of arête.
We work with great people who care about what they do, but it never ceases to amaze me how giving everyone this opportunity to find arête changes the game at work. The infusion of confidence and performance awareness these bonuses give us every year are well worth the cash output.
We support each person’s pursuit of their potential no matter where their heart or interest takes them. If it’s specific like becoming the best mobile UI designer in the world, that’s what we support them in doing. If it’s more broad like becoming a leader, we encourage them to take the path of management and guidance. In the end, the organization benefits because, as the sum of our parts, we increase our capacity for greatness each time someone grows towards their personal passion.
When it comes to actually attaining organizational arête, we’ve noticed it’s important to get each other’s backs and hold one another accountable to our highest potential – as opposed to just leaving someone to figure it out. What happens it that instead of just focusing inwardly, we keep a deliberate focus outward too in order to challenge and support one another. As a 25 person company that means we have 24 other people helping us grow in excellence every day.
These relatively simple gestures have profound impact, and they’ve put our company on the path to seeking our collective arête. I believe that if you take this journey, you too will experience similar results, and, in the process, create a happier more productive team and organization.
Are You Striving for Arete?
For us, the most exciting part of arête is that the fulfillment is in the pursuit. It’s never a destination, but a commitment to continually push higher. When everyone works to reach their true potential that’s when the truly exceptional accomplishments become possible.
Have you started your journey for personal and organizational arete?