While many leaders and businesses become good, few attain greatness. Jim Collins addressed this phenomenon in his book, Good to Great, where he declared that the enemy of great is good. Collins contended that the reason so few leaders or businesses attained greatness was because they became good and then stopped doing many of the things that brought them success in the first place. They stopped learning, changing, risking, and deciding.
I agree with Collins’ diagnosis, but I also believe that what really lies at the core of failing to move from good to great is fear. Why? When you don’t have much, you’re more likely to make the changes and take the risks necessary to leap forward; but when you’re already “good,” you now have more to lose. You are also more likely to play it safe and clutch what you have in a death grip. While there are always exceptions to this tendency, the rule generally rules.
As you consider the points in this column, evaluate these two possibilities:
- Are there areas in your personal or work life where becoming ‘good” has caused you to stop pressing forward to greatness?
- Do you have employees or departments within your organization who are stuck at “good”, and need new thinking and motivation to move towards greatness?
Afraid of being ‘great’ thoughts:
- Without a large enough dose of inherent ingredients like intensity, courage and mental toughness, if the not-so-good become good, they let up. Prosperity drains urgency.
- Point one explains to us why these “good” can easily have their killer instinct quenched with even a modicum of success. They then spend more time maintaining and protecting their current status than reaching for another level. Unfortunately, you can’t put intensity, courage, or mental toughness inside of them. It’s their responsibility to develop these qualities. That’s why hiring people who already have them is strongly advised and has been discussed in past columns.
- The human nature underlying in point two makes sense because once one becomes “good” he suddenly has more to lose. He can then become fearful, playing not to lose rather than playing to win. The fear of loss when you’re good becomes more powerful than the desire for gaining necessary fuel for the journey to greatness. The desire for gain is often the strongest when you have nothing. When you have nothing, you don’t fear loss because you can’t lose what you don’t have. Thus, with nothing to lose you take risks and make changes that the satisfied “good,” in their comfort zones neglect, allowing you to surpass them on the road to greatness. But without strong enough drive and big enough goals, once the good get their share of “stuff and success”, they become more committed to protecting it than to multiplying it.
- Point three helps explain why those who hit the real big time are often ones who came from nothing. They had everything to gain and nothing to lose so they took the risks and made the changes that greatness requires. Stories abound of penniless immigrants who came to this country and excelled while the homegrown—oftentimes spoiled, complacent and entitled—were busier erecting fences to protect what they had, versus tearing down the bars of their comfort zone so they could reach new heights.
- Point four teaches that “remembering where you started from” means that when you come from nothing, you’re prone to be humbler. You develop more of the mental toughness than those who have had their urgency and drive drained by a series of silver spoon sedatives throughout their life. These same folks often wrongly assumed that because they were born on third base, that they hit the triple. They overestimate their own abilities and under-appreciate the efforts of others.
- Point five reminds us that the start-from-nothing, mentally tough, self-made men and women are more likely to understand that the risks and costs of comfortable inaction far outweigh the risks and costs of bold new action. Thus, if they err, they err on the side of doing too much, not on failing to do enough.
What about being good has scared you or your team members from making the moves that could bring you to greatness? Here are various possibilities:
- Your fondness for sentimentalism and the “good old days” causes you to keep the wrong managers too long. These are people who expect their tenure to substitute for results, and who may be good at most things but not great at the things that matter most. For whatever reason, you’re afraid of removing these “historical markers” and settle uttering defeatist nonsense like, “He may not be the best, but there are certainly worse managers out there.”
- Since you are the primary architect of the status quo in your company, you also have the most to defend. Thus, changing what you’re doing threatens your ego and security.
- Actually, you may not be afraid at all. You’re simply complacent or lazy. You know you’re not as good as you could or should be, but in your mind you’re still good enough. Getting to the next level just isn’t worth the pain, discomfort and stress. While you would never admit this to your team, your actions and attitude declare it for you.
However, if you fall into any of these particular categories, you should consider this: deciding to maintain rather than maximize your assets and opportunities renders you a poor steward of these blessings, creating the distinct possibility that you may one day lose them.
Another possibility is maybe you once were great, but no longer are, yet you fail to recognize or admit it. Perhaps a dose of this reality will help to shake you from your delusion and cause you to recommit to excellence.
Many leaders romance “once-upon-a-time” when they were great at one time, no longer are, but live in denial. Here is an example:
You’re the number one retailer in your region, but you’re far worse than you used to be. You’re not as profitable and have lost market share, but you are still officially numero uno. If this is your definition of greatness you need a therapist. Just because everyone else is worse than you doesn’t mean that you’re great. A truer measure of greatness is whether or not you’re better than you used to be when you were legitimately considered as great. If you’re not, you’re no longer great. Quit kidding yourself.
Incidentally, just because business is great, doesn’t mean that you or that your team is great. It requires only moderate skill to adjust the sails fueled by a torrent of market, product or economic momentum.
All things considered then, how should you define greatness? Since greatness can be fleeting, it should be considered more of a process than a destination. In fact, if you consider it as a destination, you’re more likely to let up once you believe that you have arrived there.
One thing is for certain, if becoming great requires continual change and risk, then a location cannot become your fixation. Rather, the personal and corporate transformation required to embrace continual change and risk must become your objective. It would be a healthy exercise for you to identify the transformational strategies, processes, personnel adjustments, decisions, changes, and risks necessary for you to move past being good and into the realm of greater results.
Closing thoughts: Discussing this article with most “good” management teams will be an exercise in futility. This is because few people have the maturity or humility to admit that their failure to be great is more about their personal decisions than about the conditions beyond their control that they have spent their careers blaming.