what’s so great about greatness?

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We’re all capable of doing great work. But are we all capable of greatness? And what’s the difference, while we’re at it? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the members of the O.C. Tanner Institute’s executive speaker team and mine their expertise for answers. Here’s what they had to say.

Kevin Ames is our first stop. As our Director of Speaking and Training, Kevin is a prolific speaker, writer, and master of gravitas, and was quick to point out the difference between great work and greatness.

“I don’t know that if every piece of great work suggests that there’s greatness. I think greatness has a lasting element to it . . . I think it has more to do with what’s inside of the person and what makes them up, and the quiet influence that they have on others, as opposed to these one-off events [of great work].”

So great work is something we do, while greatness is something we embody. Perhaps only fleetingly, as David Sturt (bestselling author and our EVP of Marketing) sees it.

There’s a shelf life to greatness. And maybe that’s part of what makes it so captivating and intriguing, because it’s always something out there. You never get there. You never can just sit and stop and say, okay.”

David also made a point of dispelling a common myth: that good is the enemy of great.

“Good is the foundation upon which great is built. You can’t just swing for the fence and try to hit great all the time.”

The core of this is the idea of greatness being something you can touch, but never grasp. It’s the mountain in the distance, pointing the way. We may climb it one day, but we can’t live on the top.

Jeff Birk, perhaps the funniest speaker at the O.C. Tanner Institute, turned to his stand-up comedy roots when thinking on greatness. To him, it’s about risk. And Jerry Seinfeld.

“Jerry had his act down pat. And then he threw it all away, and he rewrote a brand new act. He had to start right from rock bottom testing out his material, having people not laugh—at Jerry Seinfeld, right? To take that kind of risk and consistently be reinventing yourself or finding new ways to grow and develop, I think that’s greatness.”

So greatness is not only fleeting, but risky. Yet we all chase it, all want it. Frederick Herzberg, father of human motivation, said it best when he said, “Money isn’t the great motivator in our lives. It’s the opportunity to grow, to have opportunities, and to be recognized for achievements.”

Deep down, it’s greatness, or rather the opportunity to achieve greatness, that motivates us. And no matter how you pursue it, whether as a leader, a creator, a parent, a friend, a coworker, we must remember the simple truth—we are all capable of greatness.

Or as Joel Bishop, Manager of Speaking and Training at the Institute, puts it, “You don’t have to be a great star athlete to achieve greatness. You can be anyone, and achieve greatness in whatever it is you do.”

By andrew scarcella
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