The Mythology of Greatness

It’s not human nature to be great. It’s human nature to survive, to be average and do what you have to do to get by. That is normal. When you have something good happen, it’s the special people that can stay focused and keep paying attention to detail, working to get better and not being satisfied with what they have accomplished. Nick Saban

One of the most common misconceptions I hear from leaders is the following: “I am a vision, big picture person, I’m not a details person.”  In that same vein, I often also hear, “I am not a manager type, I’m more of a leader type”, relegating management of the details to lesser mortals, while interfacing with the gods Zeus, Mercury or Poseidon to divine a 12.5-year strategic vision. I’m no Poseidon, but I tend to think in order to be a great leader, we first have to be a great manager.

Please re-read the Saban quote above. It will come as no surprise to you that Saban is one national championship game away from matching Bear Bryant, the only individual in history to win six college football championships. He may not be Zeus, but Alabama does have a statue of him on campus. But I digress.

Coach Bryant was obsessed with doing the small things right. Saban, as evidenced above, had a similar ilk for mastery of the details. John Wooden, former UCLA’s men’s basketball coach, is famous for his, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Coincidentally [read: sarcasm], Wooden won ten national titles in twelve years during his tenure at UCLA. Jack Welch, considered by many of his colleagues and peers to be “the” or “one of the” greatest CEOs of all time, was also a so-called “lesser mortal.” During his tenure at General Electric, the value of the company rose 4,000% under his watch. A 1998 Fortune article, “Revealed at last: The secret of Jack Welch’s Success”, states “Now you have the secret of Jack Welch’s success. Not a series of brilliant insights or bold gambles, but a fanatical attention to detail.” Steve Jobs, ranked the #1 CEO in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article titled, “The Best-Performing CEOs in the World” was once quoted as saying, ““Everything is important- that success is in the details.”

It is often said that “the devil is in the details.” Now while I tend to prefer the origin of this idiom, “God is in the details” – I do tend to think that unless the gods Zeus, Mercury or Poseidon  had Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, John Wooden, Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs doing their bidding, perhaps it is worth learning a thing or two from these mere mortals. They seemed to have removed the practice of rabid attention to managing the details out of the ranks of ancient mythology.

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