Moving from Good to Great

Shot of a happy family holding hands on a morning walk together

Have you ever wondered if your struggle to be great at some things in your life is being hampered because you are good at those very things? Perhaps you aren’t a great public speaker because you are a good public speaker. Maybe you aren’t a great mother or father because you are already a good mother or father.

Is it possible that being good is stopping you from becoming great?

In 2001, researcher Jim Collins wrote a best-selling book titled “Good to Great.” In it, he said:

Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life. The vast majority of companies never become great, precisely because the vast majority become quite good—and that is their main problem.

It’s interesting that most of our lives are spent wanting to be good—good at something. In fact, some of our earliest memories are about trying to be good: at riding a bicycle; at playing a game; at running faster than our friends.

The aspiration to be good seems to be an in-born desire to achieve and grow and become better. That aspiration exists in all of us, whether we are children, teenagers, or adults.

Roles and responsibilities change throughout our lives, and within the span of our lifetime we will wear many hats. While our roles certainly change, what doesn’t change is our unending desire to be good—not necessarily at everything, but at least at a few things.

So how do we take that desire for goodness and transform it into greatness?

In his research, Collins spent six years with his team to study how individuals and businesses moved from good to great. In the process, he discovered 11 CEOs who had led good companies to greatness:

  • George Cain
  • Alan Wurtzel
  • David Maxwell
  • Coleman Mockler
  • Darwin Smith
  • Jim Herring
  • Lyle Everingham
  • Joe Cullman
  • Fred Allen
  • Cork Walgreen
  • Carl Reichhardt

According to Collins’ research, these good-to-great CEOs are some of the most remarkable leaders of the past century. They led 11 companies to greatness and worldwide recognition. Yet how many of these people have you ever heard of?

If you’re like most folks, you may be able to identify one or two. That’s because one of their secrets to becoming great is that they never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become household names. They were seemingly ordinary people who quietly and without fanfare produced extraordinary results.

If we’re really serious about being great in any of our endeavors, then we should look at these 11 “good-to-great” leaders as examples to follow. Collins discovered that they all share the following characteristics:
1. They didn’t like talking about themselves. They were quick to point out the contributions of team members, but reluctant to focus on themselves. Often they would say, “There are plenty of people who could do my job better than I do,” and they really meant it.
2. The people with whom they worked described them as gracious, shy, understated, reserved, mild-mannered, quiet, humble—and reluctant to take too seriously the praise constantly given to them by others.
3. They were compellingly modest.
These traits appear to run counter to our modern culture of publicity-seeking, narcisstic public figures and leaders who have mastered the ability of “seeming to be” rather than “really being.” True greatness does not seek the path of notoriety.

It’s also important to note that moving from good to great employs other important elements. It may seem to go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but greatness combines traits that seem to be contradictory. For instance, good-to-great leaders are:

  • Modest, yet willful
  • Meek, yet fearless
  • Ambitious, yet dedicated first to the company, institution, or family they serve
  • Personally humble, yet possessing intense pride in their work
  • Quiet, yet champions of their cause
  • Casual, yet extremely disciplined
  • Eager to credit others in success, yet willing to take responsibility in failure

True greatness is within the grasp of anyone who seriously wants a better life. If we just know what to look for, we can find good-to-great leaders all around us, and everyone—including ourselves—has the potential to move from good to great.

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