Recognizing Inclusive Excellence

Why do we recognize excellence? Do leaders award certain accomplishments because they are something that we all should do? If achieving a reward is impossible for someone in a community, does that award serve the community or simply the individuals who can achieve it?

A young man in Kansas is being excluded from his school’s varsity letter program because he has Down syndrome and autism.

** The good news from this is one of the young man’s classmates has started a petition to the school to change their policy. Please consider signing the petition.

This story reminded me of a profound lesson in inclusion, equality, and what excellence means for a community. I have four older brothers who played high school football at Saint Thomas Academy; three were All Conference, and two were team captains. I have a fifth brother who has Down syndrome, and consequently did not attend our high school or play football there.

In the fall of 1996, our high school marked the football season’s completion with a banquet; one of my brother’s was All Conference that year. The head coach was Bob Slater, who was also the school’s principal and dean of students. Moreover, Mr. Slater was an alumni whose high school football records still stand today.

At the banquet, Mr. Slater surprised my family by awarding a varsity letter to my brother with Down syndrome, in recognition for all the years of his support to his brothers’ teams. Mr. Slater celebrated the unique role my brother played in the Saint Thomas community, despite not being able to attend as a student.

To underscore the significance of this, my family had absolutely no part in this award: rather, a man who led both the school and its football team did this of his own accord and leadership.

Mr. Slater taught me that awards matter most when they promote the greater good of the community, and when they inspire everyone in the community to achieve them. My brother’s disability prevented him from attending our school as a student; it did not preclude him from belonging to that school community and contributing to our football team’s tradition of excellence.

Moreover, awarding my brother that letter did nothing to diminish the larger significance of the award. On the contrary, I become doubly inspired to earn my own varsity letter- not became I envisioned myself a great football player, but rather because I wanted to be a part of the Saint Thomas community that valued all of my brothers, regardless of our abilities.

In the two decades since, I’ve awarded and witnessed military decorations bestowed on incredible soldiers from Iraq to Korea to Afghanistan. I’ve watched firefighters honored for saving lives and protecting property, and students singled out for academic accomplishment. Occasionally, I too have been recognized before such communities.

Yet few awards have inspired me like Mr. Slater’s recognition of my brother that day. In hindsight, I realize that this was not unlike an award for valor in combat. The purpose of the award is not to recognize the individual’s ability, but rather his or her courage and commitment to something beyond him- or herself. Beyond declaring to the community, look at what this person did, such awards also pose a question: will you do this, too?

Leaders promote inclusive excellence in their communities, not division and discrimination. When a standard of excellence categorically excludes members of a community, it serves no purpose beyond the self-serving stratification of power.

To define excellence in a way that excludes some members of a community is merely to perpetuate the privilege and dominance of the already advantaged and powerful. In contrast, when we inclusively define excellence as actions available to everyone in the community, we promote both individuals and the communities we share.