Access vs. Excellence: Which Is More Important for Leaders?

company team meeting

You’re the leader. You want your team to succeed, but you’re unsure which leadership style will serve you best for developing people in the workplace. 

Does your team need to be challenged toward excellence in order to grow and succeed? Or do they need a leader they can access, one they can trust who will guide them toward success?

The answer is—both!

Why Leaders Need to Balance Access & Excellence

Neither access nor excellence works well in extremes. In truth, effective leaders combine them, leading with making themselves available (access), then leveraging that availability to guide their teams to greater performance (excellence). Tilting too far to one or the other brings less than desirable results. 

If you’re the easy “go to” for your team (high access), you may encourage complacency and stifle the growth of emerging leaders. They’ll never have to do the hard work of thinking for themselves if they know they can rely on you to do the thinking for them. 

On the other hand, being too demanding (high excellence) can quickly transform into demands for perfection, and you may leave your employees untrained and under-supported for the tasks you’ve set them. The result can be losing the trust of employees, or being blindsided by failures or resignations that seem to come “out of nowhere” but were entirely predictable and avoidable.

How Can I Offer a Balanced Leadership Style?

Start with Access

The first definition of “accessible” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is actually divided into two nuanced explanations:

  1. Capable of being reached
  2. Easy to speak to or deal with

When thinking about accessible leadership, many leaders focus on the first part of the definition: whether or not they can be reached. This part focuses on possibility and potential more than actual experience: “My employees know I’m here if they have questions,” or, “I have an open door policy in case they need me.” 

You believe you’re accessible because, well, you say you are. But it’s a theory that few employees have ever put to the test. You’re always encouraging your team to knock on your door, but when is the last time you knocked on one of theirs?

The second part of the definition is based on your employees’ actual experiences with you. It’s all about fostering trust and goodwill through open, effective communication. 

Your employees know you’re easy to speak to because they’ve actually spoken to you outside of office-wide emails or greetings in the hallway. They know they can come to you for help without being brushed off.

What Do Your Employees Need from You? What Do You Need from Them?

A good way to keep your accessibility in check is to be honest about what your employees need from you and what you need from them.

If you find yourself being too accessible, it’s helpful to break up your question into two parts:

  • “What do my employees need?”
  • “Which needs can only I meet?”

Your employees need many things. However, many of those needs can be met by other people. The key is defining what they need from YOU. Seek to understand when your skills, wisdom, or approval are exclusively needed. 

Can a Leader Be Too Accessible?

Accessibility can sometimes be an excuse for an unhealthy amount of control.

This may sound surprising to some people. After all, between accessibility and excellence, it’s the leaders who are demanding excellence who are the control freaks, right? Maybe leaders who are overly accessible are just misguided.

In reality, extreme accessibility and extreme demands for excellence are two sides of the same coin: the need for control. Different personalities express their need for control in different ways. 

Being too accessible for your team may be your way of proving that they couldn’t survive without you. If you step in and fix every single problem, even ones that are beneath your pay grade, then you make yourself indispensable—and ultimately prevent other leaders from developing and threatening your control. If you tend to be too accessible as a leader, the solution is to set clear boundaries.

How Should I Strive for Excellence as a Leader?

Good leaders offer guidance, but they also give their employees opportunities to grow. They motivate their employees to challenge themselves and strive for excellence. But what is excellence? How can you foster a healthy drive for excellence as a leader?

Like with accessibility, your first step should be to define what excellence looks like at your company. The definition will likely vary across roles and departments, but there should also be an overarching goal to strive for as part of a strategic plan.

Excellence Relies on Specific Goals and Objectives

A leader with an unhealthy obsession with excellence will constantly move the goalposts when it comes to success. Eventually, excellence-obsessed leaders judge their employees not based on performance and potential, but instead on perfection.

Specific goals and objectives create a clear definition for excellence that both employees and employers can work from. Instead of constantly changing or misunderstood expectations, the team will have a common target at which to shoot. One fundamental method for doing this is developing the tried and true SMART goal: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. This provides a way to accurately measure performance based on an agreed-upon metric.

Challenging Your Employees Motivates Them to Excellence

Everyone wants a challenging job. One study found that bored workers are twice as likely to leave their jobs in the next six months.

Your employees can achieve great things, but unless they’re constantly learning and growing, their motivation for excellence will fade away. Sustainable excellence requires your employees to feel challenged and have opportunities for growth. 

Not every employee will climb the corporate ladder, but those who show a hunger for excellence and an aptitude for leadership should be rewarded with projects and tasks that hone their skills and strengthen their weaknesses. The level of relational access you give to them will be a significant determining factor on the level of excellence they achieve. 

What If I Push Too Hard?

That’s a great question. Will they fail? What if they burn out or leave entirely? How can leaders ensure that work is challenging in a good way?

First, failure is an unavoidable part of any workplace. Every company will miss deadlines, lose clients, or fail to meet certain goals. Good business leaders are constantly calibrating the level at which they guide their employees toward excellence. Every once in a while, you’re going to “over guide.” It’s a natural part of the learning process.

Second, once you realize you’ve pushed past the line, acknowledge it. You may have to apologize, eat some humble pie, become vulnerable—in other words, become “accessible,” letting them see your weaknesses. This creates relational equity and will allow you and your team to pick up and start again.

Access or Excellence: Where Do You Need to Grow?

Good leaders continue to seek out opportunities to learn and grow at work. They love being challenged at work, and they feel comfortable using their own journey of growth (and failure!) as a way to continue motivating and leading their employees.

Learning how to balance leadership attributes and competencies like access and excellence may be one of the best ways you can help your employees grow. So be proactive. Your team will thank you.