How great thou aren’t…

“If less people were concerned about attaining greatness, we might actually see more truly great leaders.”

How great thou aren't

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.

Einstein--Human-Greatness

There is however a common thread to each of their stories. Each life demonstrates the common theme of sacrifice.

Extreme.

Personal.

Cost.

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).

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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:

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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.

BK

my favourite four-letter word…

When was the last time you did something different? I mean truly different? I’m not talking about a tweak on the status quo or a slight adjustment on a pre-existing thing, I mean a brand new idea that you dreamed up and then committed time to implement it.

I often ask leaders and teams that exact question, and you might be surprised to know that most of the time the answer to that question is ‘never’. Even more interesting is that many don’t actually see this as a problem. I hear leaders regularly tout the words of Solomon ‘there is nothing new under the sun…’ as if to find some kind of comfort or solace in the realisation they are void of the responsibility to dream the impossible and initiate a unique and alternative response to the myriad of issues people face today. It would appear that our culture’s ‘cookie cutter’ approach to living has informed the way we do ministry, that we have forgotten the place of innovation and creativity in our work. Personally I find this really disconcerting.

It leaves me pondering ‘what happened?’ When I consider the early church and the creativity and innovation they had to employ (for the sake of the gospel and the survival of the church), I can only wonder why we are so reticent to do the same. As I read through the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles I am constantly confronted with the incredible risks people were prepared to take in response to the Creator, His work through Jesus and those who would be brave enough to follow. There are countless stories in scripture of people pursuing the impossible, displaying incredible innovation and creativity for their time, and seeing extraordinary outcomes as a result. So again I ask… what has happened?

It would seem that our image conscious age has impacted our ability to innovate and take creative risks. For many people in today’s context and culture, RISK has simply become another four-letter word! The worth of an idea is measured by the maxim ‘will it work?’. An important question, granted. However such a question does not allow for the possibility that the dreams and desires that well up within us (on the rare occasion we allow them to) could actually have something more to offer than that which simply ‘works’. Unfortunately,

we have replaced our creative yearning with market research, popular opinion, and projections of estimated outcomes. Innovation is deemed too risky if this holy-trinity of marketing is not in alignment therefore willing us to continue.

Furthermore, feeding this image conscious psyche is our incessant pursuit of perfection. Creativity and innovation on the other hand are usually far from perfect. It can be a messy and sometimes un-measurable process. As a result the average person finds it very difficult to put themselves out-there and attempt something that might come off as less than perfect. And who can blame them? After all, we are constantly bombarded by high quality creativity. Think about it… The music aired on commercial radio has been designed rehearsed recorded edited produced market-tested and refined… TO PERFECTION. Only then is it shared with others. And so it goes for most creative endeavours in our society. The art on display, the fashion we buy, the movies on show, the technology we use – it is all manufactured to perfection long before it becomes available to the public.

The effects of this is that we have come to believe that something with humble, less than perfect beginnings, is simply not worth pursuing. Of course the flow on effect for those of us in leadership is obvious. We pick and choose from the seemingly perfect range of products and apply them to our situation at will. Do we consider the possibility that there might be a better way? An original response? One that serves the need and inspires others by its own merit?

The influence of the must-fit-in culture of our age demands we take on a persona that is tried, tested and current.  We may well desire the creative but in actual fact we have settled for conformity. This is a shame, because very few things in life begin as ‘perfect’. But who is to say that perfect is the goal anyway?

If we are looking for perfection in creativity (by the worlds standards) we are missing the point. Creativity is meant to be experienced first hand as much as it is observed. We are meant to create because within this process the creator is offering something truly original, and this is a reflection of the beauty and imagination of The Creator. This unique expression of the true self is in essence innovative. No one has done it before, it is inspired and it cannot be replicated as it is first experienced.

The ministry we are entrusted with invites us to enter the creative mind of God and partner to see The Kingdom come. It is important to learn to think this way because all ministries will be faced with future challenges that current forms of thinking are simply inadequate to address. The core values and ministry priorities may not change, but the method will change in response to our rapidly changing context and culture. Indeed one cannot solve a problem with the same mode of thinking that helped to create the problem in the first place! It will require a new set of eyes, a new way of thinking, and a different approach altogether.

One of the best ways to begin the process of creative expression is to spend time with fellow imagineers. As the adage goes ‘when the elements are right, a spark ignites into a flame’. It’s vitally important to have people who will dream with you and encourage you to take risks for His sake. There are many places this can happen. I am particularly thankful for the support and encouragement I receive through the Youth Vision network, and the inspiration shared as I spend time with like-minded people at events like The Road, AND festival, and The National Youth Ministry Convention. These are great places to connect with others on similar journeys and be inspired with creative thinking and innovative practice.

So… when was the last time you did something new? Maybe it is time you for you to put aside time and energy to explore some new possibilities? Maybe it’s time you tapped your creative well? Maybe it’s time you inserted this four-letter word into your vocabulary? Maybe it’s time to put your good (albeit risky) ideas into practice? It’s time to get started… This short clip might help you.

**This is a rework of an article I wrote for YV.Q published October 2011