While good leaders and good companies are common, few become great. 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 attain greatness is because they become good and then stop doing many of the things that brought them success in the first place. They stop learning, changing, risking, deciding, and stretching.
I agree with Collins’ diagnosis, and would add that fear is an overlooked culprit obstructing the climb from good to great. This is because when you’re not currently “good,” you’re more likely to take risks, implement changes, and make the decisions necessary to grow. After all, when you’re anonymous or un-established, you have little to lose and much to gain. But when you get “good,” you tend to cling to what you have, maintain and protect it so it doesn’t slip away from you. In other words, you stop playing to win and begin playing not to lose. As a result, you neglect the opportunity to build on your foundation and reach a higher level – greatness.
If you’re willing to keep an open mind and not sink into denial, look reality dead in the eye as you consider these two questions:
- Are there areas in your personal or work life where becoming “good” has caused you to stop changing, risking, deciding, learning, and stretching so that you could become great?
- Do you have steadily performing employees or departments within your organization who are stuck at “good,” and need a new perspective about the staggering difference between being “successful” (good) versus striving to reach their fullest potential (great)?
If you’re like most folks, the answers in both cases are “yes.” For you, the next question becomes, why have I, or we, embraced good and failed to become great? Here are possibilities:
- Because the leaders within an organization are the architects of the status quo, they have the most to defend and to unlearn. Thus, you must consider the possibility that they—or you—are afraid to change because doing so threatens egos and may somehow diminish the perceived value of your past contributions. Defensive and prideful people will protect the status quo rather than rattle it, and settle for what is while missing out on what could be and should be.
- If you’re a leader in your organization, it may be that your fondness for the “good old days” has caused you to keep the wrong people too long. These team members were good enough to get you to a certain point but don’t have the talent or drive to take you to greatness. Sometimes these are people who expect their tenure to substitute for results, and who may be good at some things but not great at the things that matter most. For whatever reason you’re afraid of stretching these loyal soldiers to reach your bar, and instead you lower your bar—and diminish your dreams—in order to accommodate their skill level or comfort zone. This strategy of surrender guarantees that you will never become great.
- Another possibility is that you’re afraid of facing the reality that although you were once great, you no longer are—but prefer to pretend otherwise. Perhaps you even regale bored-stiff friends, family, and associates with tales of your mightiest feats, despite the fact that they took place during the Clinton years. What you’re most afraid of in this case is admitting that you once had it and let it slip away—and don’t have the guts to go after it and get it back.
- Actually, you may not be afraid at all. It could be that 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. If so, you’ve got plenty of company. Countless under-achievers have allowed “good enough” to get in the way of greatness. You may give lip service to getting to the next level, but it just isn’t worth the pain, discomfort and stress. While you would admit this aloud, your actions find you guilty as charged.
Moving from good to great requires: bold leadership, high expectations buttressed by strong accountability, an eagerness to embrace change, a willingness to take mature risks, and the discipline to consistently implement what you know full well is necessary to move to the next level. Without a doubt, this list is a tall order and can appear both overwhelming and scary. But what’s even more frightening is the prospect of wasting your life, allowing others to underachieve on your leadership watch, being racked with regret and haunted by one of life’s saddest choruses: “I could have, I should have, if only I would have,” or eking out an existence so average and uninspiring that when you die it will be as though you never lived. When you think about it in these terms, the risks you take to move from good to great should be far less fearful than the terrifying prospect of remaining as you are.