“If less people were concerned about attaining greatness, we might actually see more truly great leaders.”
I frequently speak with extraordinary young leaders that are genuinely capable of setting the world alight, and are well on their way to doing so. It always leaves me hope-filled when I have the privilege of listening to their dream for a better world and what they are doing to take some serious steps toward that possibility. Inevitably we’ll talk about their goals and what it is that motivates them, we’ll discuss their vision, their strategy, their short term and long term plans and then marvel at how, if it all comes together, they’ll get to the end of their life and be receiving the nobel peace prize in their chosen field!
There are few things more exhilarating than dreaming with another how the impossible can become possible. But the more time I spend with incredibly gifted and talented leaders I am increasingly aware of the potential for their shadow-side to dominate their motivation. Leaders are ambitious by nature and for the most part this is how they get (good) things done.
“There is however a fine line between noble ambition and the pursuit of personal acclaim.”
It is not uncommon for me to discover that a carefully articulated dream with seemingly good intention turns out to be a catalyst motivated more by an individuals desire for personal greatness. Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT anti-personal-achievement. But this desire for notoriety is a game changer, and not in a good way. Here’s some reasons why I think the pursuit of greatness can work against you.
1 – The pursuit of personal greatness is perversely counterintuitive
In his book Humilitas John Dickson unpacks the virtue of humility (check out the clip below). He articulates, brilliantly I might add, the sentiment that the most influential leaders are those who understand that it is not ALL about them, and with genuine humility live as though this is true. I tend to agree with him. A genuine focus toward the other communicates that the leader is motivated beyond personal gain making them and their dream incredibly attractive. The opposite to this is of course equally true, no one wants to be led by a self obsessed glory seeking monster, and the quickest pathway to becoming that is the pursuit of personal glory.
A leader cannot achieve their goals without the support and contribution of others. If they are to accomplish a desired outcome they need followers who will buy into their dream and be a loyal to them in pursuit of that. This requires high trust between the leader and follower/s and a clear understanding that ALL are integral to the success of the mission. It also helps if they stand to benefit from the success of the dream (or their version of it) as much as anyone else does. The quickest way for a leader to lose that support is to communicate either in word or deed that the goal is actually for the personal gain of the leader and the leader alone.
2 – Greatness is a bi-product of ones actions, it cannot be strategically attained.
When I think of some of the greatest people to have lived I immediately think of those that were committed to a bigger and better dream for all of humanity. People like Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Einstein, Mandela, Sir Douglas Nicholls. Some might argue this is also true for some of the greatest business leaders of the modern era like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for example… neither list is exhaustive nor any of them perfect, but they are certainly people that can be described as having achieved greatness in their time. They simply lived in a way that would bring about their dream for humanity – and others followed suit as a result.
There is however a common thread to each of their stories. Each life demonstrates the common theme of sacrifice.
They did not set out to be great. They did not plan to attain riches and royalty as a result of their greatness. In fact history records many truly great leaders refused to embrace the accolades thrust upon them as a result of their achievement. They did however count the cost, lay down their lives and decide each day to live their vision into reality.
The best example of this in my humble opinion is Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless of your religious persuasion it cannot be ignored that that his sacrificial life modelled what it means to be truly great. Two thousand years later and billions of followers over time… History would suggest that he probably knew what he was talking about. I’ll let his words alone speak:
Jesus called them together and said,‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
3 – Personal acclaim requires self-preservation, greatness demands risk
Truly great leaders will try new things and be prepared to fail. There is a hint of insanity to this. It goes against mainstream culture to try things that are not yet tested, proven, and accepted as fact. And why? Often because leaders view failure as the antithesis of greatness and with risk comes the possibility of failure. As a result RISK has become a four letter word (check out my previous post on RISK avoidance and its effect on creativity for more on this).
Yet those that have done truly great things have been prepared to take risks, be they small or large risks, there is an acceptance that it will require attempting the untried and believing there will be a positive impact for the greater good. They’ll risk failure, they’ll risk reputation, they’ll even risk their freedom. But they do it with the greater good in mind. They know that there is an alternative reality to attain and they put it all on the line in the hope that it will come to be.
Perhaps greatness does afford certain privileges but it can certainly be argued that the truly great were not enamoured by such things. I resonate with the words of William Arthur Ward to describe the key attributes of greatness:
I am convinced that more leaders must prioritise these attributes. Goodness, humility, service and character are evident in ones everyday small decisions. One must choose these virtues over immediate pleasures and more convenient options. To live this way requires faithfulness to the cause and a decisive intentionality.
“We can indeed choose to live this way today, but whether or not we choose these attributes will surely determine whether greatness chooses us.”
Over to you. How have you seen greatness in others? What do you think it takes to be truly great? Feel free to comment below… I’m keen to know you thoughts.