But what is greatness?  At Belmont Park, on June 6, the answer was clear.  American Pharoah was the first racehorse to win the Triple Crown since 1978.  But in understanding our own work, the difference between good and great is not that easy to discern.  Often it is feedback from customers we rely on.  Is that enough? Not always. The lens we use to assess our own work, and the prisms we use to define it, makes all the difference.

Emil, a colleague from the past called me on Sunday morning.  It had been about 16 years since we last spoke.  He was leadership consultant at Richardson and someone I remember as an exceptional person and performer, loved by clients and team members alike.

In the course of our conversation he asked me, why is there so much satisfaction with mediocrity and why is it getting worse?

If I had to settle on one key answer I think it is EGO.  Ego gets in the way and causes too many people to feel they already know all they need to know.   When there is a lack of humility, openness to feedback diminishes, and the chances of seeing the difference between good and great diminishes too.  To have humility helps us see our own blind spots.

When I read Jim Collins’ now classic management book, Good to Great, while there was so much to learn, my reaction was the big step was missing as far as individuals were concerned. In his book, Collins looked at criteria such as performance on a corporate scale.

But how can a person go from good to great in his or her own work?  I have found the greatest obstacle for people in making the leap is the inability to even see the difference between good and great. If you cannot see it, you cannot strive for it. Being able to see the difference in ones work product is the first step to produce great work.  How to even know the difference could be the prequel to the book Good to Great, just as Good to Great is the prequel to Collins’ book Built to Last. 

Being able to spot the difference between good and great is not easy, or commonplace. I have found that most people who do average work really do not distinguish the difference.  Of course the concept of great is subjective, but without question good is not the same as great.

Great is not perfection, but it is 95% to 98% that is achievable.  It is knowing that one area in your work is outstanding.  Striving for greatness in work means recognizing there is no absolute finished product.   But sometimes, it is just a matter of a few percentage points – not a doubling of effort. Steve Jobs shows it is the little extra that creates greatness, and that at the same time “Genius always ships.”

If ego is one of the obstacles, then the antidote is humility – the humility to know we have a blind spot, there is something more to learn, and someone or somewhere to learn it.

Whether you are a leader or a team member, how do you look at your work?  Is it to find what is strong?  Certainly it is vital to recognize and celebrate successes, but we must be as diligent and positive about how our work can be better.  We must ask ourselves what can I improve?  Is this the best I can do?

I think the most important development question to ask is where can I go to learn more?  That question keeps the ego in check. It helps us look at our work as “rounds” – round 1, round 2 … and see failures or missteps as steps to greatness.   It acknowledges that next levels exist and feeds on feedback.  Most importantly, we learn to see the difference between good and great.  Without the lens of humility to see our work, we are destined to be stuck with mediocrity.

Whether Seattle Slew, Secretariat, or American Pharoah, great is truly great!

What do you do to move your work from good to great?  Please share your comments here or email me at linda@lindarichardson.com.