Leadership: Do you truly want to be great?

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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.”

Being Great

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.”

Bottom Line

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?”

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What People Are Saying

Bill Nordrum   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Thought you might like to read this. :)

Melanie Kaplan   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

An article for you to read.

Karin Hurt   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply


Stephanie Brownlee   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Also, leaders can be a target of envy. Hence, remember you are human, but also don’t give attention or thought to the negativity of others who seek to bring you down. Be level headed and stay focused on the goal of helping others and ignore the mean gossip that comes your way. If you can accomplish overcoming the negativity and be steadfast, which can be extremely difficult at times, then you have truly succeeded.

Wally Bock   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Wow. Great points, Stephanie. Thanks.

Sheila McDonald   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

So very true.

Julius   |   04 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Nice one.

Just Mary   |   05 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Accolades whether from others or from self promotion can be good. An additional question to ask is what kind of impact could you make as a known, award-winning expert?

Instead of waiting on others, directing one’s own path with a mix of external recognition fine tunes your personal brand.

We all want to work with or have access to the subject matter expert. Why not position your self and develop into that expert.

Wally Bock   |   05 Mar 2019   |   Reply

I agree that accolades can be good. Accolades aren’t the problem Working FOR accolades is the problem. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Fred   |   06 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Read on a nice one!

Henry   |   08 May 2021   |   Reply

This is a great article. You bring out some of the cardinal points of leaderships very well. I like the one that talks about being humble. It differentiates leaders from bosses.

Keep up the good work.

Wally Bock   |   11 May 2021   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Henry.