Don’t settle for the ordinary. Strive for greatness. But be careful. It’s easy to mistake the accolades of greatness for greatness itself.
The Accolades of Greatness
In 1999, the authors of Lessons from The Top set out to answer the question: “What makes business leaders great?” They created a list of fifty top business leaders. The great ones.
Some of the names would still be on a list of great business leaders of all time today. Jack Welch is there. So are Bill Gates and Andy Grove. Howard Schultz and Shelly Lazarus are there, too. Many others have slipped from the front of mind in the past twenty years. And then there are Bernie Ebbers, Hank Greenberg, Dennis Kozlowski, and Ken Lay. That’s one problem with the accolades of greatness. A leader who looks great today might not look good tomorrow.
It’s easy to declare greatness too early. And there are great leaders who never get the accolades at all.
I have a friend who taught high school English for forty years. In that time, he was the Teacher of The Year twice. The kids who took his classes in the other thirty-eight years would tell you he was great in those years, too. But he didn’t get the trophy.
The accolades are great, but don’t count on them. Remember this line from Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel acceptance speech.
“No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.”
There’s no way to make sure you will receive the accolades of greatness. That’s okay. You can be great anyway.
Just pay attention to your work. Do the best you can in the job where you are right now. If you’re a leader, do the best you can to help your team accomplish the mission. Do your best to care for your team members and help them grow and develop. Try, every day, to do just a little better.
That’s what great leadership is about. You may never get the big trophy. You may never appear on the cover of a business magazine. But you can do what all great leaders do. You can make a difference in the lives of others and the world around you. That’s great work.
One More Thing
Humility is hard. It’s easy and tempting to believe that you are superior to others just because you’re the leader. You will have people in your life who try to get you to stand on a pedestal. That’s when you need the advice the Romans gave to triumphant military leaders.
In Ancient Rome, conquering leaders triumphantly paraded through the streets. The leader rode in a magnificent chariot pulled by magnificent horses while the crowds cheered. A slave stood behind the leader and whispered words in his ear you should remember.
Different historians have rendered the words in different ways. But they all come down to the same thing. “Remember that you are human.”
Great leaders remember that their work is the important thing, not the accolades. They remember that they are only human. They try to get a little better every day. At the end of the day, they ask themselves some version of Ben Franklin’s nightly question: “What good have I done this day?”