CEOs: If You Don’t Go Looking for Greatness, It Just Might Find You

January 2, 2013

Who among us has not dreamed of greatness at some point?

When I was a boy, I would head out after dinner to the doctor’s office parking lot behind my house. For hours at a time in the summer twilight, I would “pitch” a golf ball against a brick wall and field the “hits” with my old Rawlings glove as they ricocheted off the wall. In my imaginary baseball game, I was nearly always playing in – and, of course, winning – Game 7 of the World Series.

In other words, I didn’t want to be simply a Major League pitcher; I wanted to be a great Major League pitcher.

Now that I’m many years removed from those days of parking lot glory, it occurs to me what a strangely elusive concept “greatness” is. What is it? Where does it come from? Did Shakespeare’s Malvolio have it right in Twelfth Night when he said that some men are born great? Or is greatness in all cases the result not of hard-wiring, but of hard work – relentless hard work – with a little sheer luck mixed in as well?

These thoughts and questions flooded my brain when I contemplated the meaning of Neil Armstrong’s life following word of his passing last summer (a death that was untimely even at age 82). I had the privilege of not only knowing but of working with Neil for several years when he served on the board of directors of a company of which I was an executive.

Most famous people have a certain aura about them. When they enter a room, you know they’re there. Not Neil. He was remarkably – indeed, almost painfully – shy and unassuming. He had a way of disappearing in a room so that if you didn’t know he was the first human in history to set foot on the moon, you might have guessed that he was the owner of the local small engine repair shop.

And what did the man who had pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in human history think of his own greatness? Judging by the way he studiously avoided drawing attention to himself, one would have to conclude: not much. Neil was unfailingly polite and gracious, but he had little patience for conversation about “his” accomplishments.

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote, “… some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” In Neil’s view, it was the hard work and dedication over a couple of decades of the thousands of men and women in the U.S. space program that enabled him to be fortunate enough to be the one chosen to take that giant leap for mankind. Neil, in other words, was much more comfortable with the last part of Shakespeare’s aphorism: he was not born great; he did not achieve greatness; any greatness had been “thrust upon him” by others.

CEOs and other business leaders who spend a lot of time worrying about their own “greatness” would do well to take a page from Neil Armstrong’s playbook. Sometimes greatness is measured not so much by individual action and accomplishment, but by the quality and the shared commitment of the team around you.

Admiral William Halsey, commander of the Pacific fleet during WWII and a giant in U.S. military history, once said that “there are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.”

Neil Armstrong couldn’t have agreed more.

Share Your Comments