Language, Leadership and the Pursuit of Quality


Dr. Mark Rutland discusses why clearly stated expectations, pursued with devotion and measured for performance and correction, is the pathway to quality.

In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean." What a horrific quagmire of miscommunication, bad leadership and manipulative propaganda that philosophy would produce. Witness Washington, D.C. Definitions determine outcomes. They miss the very point of language who lightly dismiss definitions as merely the starchy and sterile result of a boring trip down Webster's Lane.

Take, for example, the word QUALITY. The mere misdefinition of that one word, QUALITY, has caused business breakdowns, staff and employee bitterness, marketing misdirections, management frustrations and ruined relationships. The reason is that most people, if asked what quality means, would define it in terms of some objective standard of excellence, some inherent, measurable characteristic. In fact, that is about how Webster defines it, and he was wrong. At least for leadership he was wrong. Folks assume that there exists some measurement of quality against which a chair, for example, can be analyzed. That would mean that rated along those standards, all chairs, whatever their purpose or intended market, are therefore, either a quality chair or not a quality chair.

That way of thinking is rife with frustration for leaders/managers in pursuit of quality. Why? Because such an objective standard of quality does not exist - for anything. There is no such thing as a quality nail, or a quality house, or a quality shoe store or youth pastor or secretary or anything else. That is because how the nail is used or for whom the house is built or what a particular boss needs in a secretary is always locally and chronologically defined.

The late Philip Crosby's definition is incredibly helpful. Crosby said: "QUALITY IS MEETING EXPECTATIONS."

That is so important and so illuminating that I have designed around it an entire lecture on the pursuit of quality at the National Institute of Christian Leadership. Managers who operate on the misapprehension that there is an objective standard of quality for, say, a secretary, especially those who assume secretaries also know of this mythical standard, are in for lots of frustration and a parade of unhappy secretaries. A quality secretary is one who meets the manager's expectations. That's it. Just that. Therefore the principle onus for quality is not on the secretary but on the manger. How can she meet expectations of which she is unaware? Bosses who want quality secretaries (or youth pastors, or music directors, or whatever) must do three things:

  1. State expectations clearly. Write them. Go over them with some attention to detail and make sure they are understood.
  2. Measure the performance of the employee, or volunteer for that matter, against those expectations and nothing else. In other words you cannot say that your secretary is not as high quality as another unless the expectations of her boss are identical to yours and you are both measuring the results the same.
  3. Hold staff accountable with those measurements. Fear of confrontation can paralyze the pursuit of quality. What good is it to state expectations, measure performance and never mention it to those being measured? Learning to confront in a firm yet positive, edifying and instructional manner is the subject of another NICL lecture. Suffice it to say here that a leader who cannot confront will never achieve quality. One who confronts harshly and negatively will never build a healthy team.

This way of understanding quality applies both internally and externally. In other words, this is not just a management definition but a PR definition as well. The expectations I create for my business or church are the ones--the only ones--the public has a right to expect.

If a church puts a sign out front that says, "The Friendliest Church In Town," friendliness immediately becomes the non-negotiable. That particular church cannot have an exciting enough music program to overcome an unfriendly attitude. For the visiting public (potential long-term customers) the expectation created by the sign is the very one that must be met. The expectation you create with advertising is one you must meet.

Quality is meeting expectations. Meeting expectations, clearly stated expectations, pursued with devotion and measured for performance and correction: that is the pathway to quality.


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