The One Leadership Trait That Separates Good From Great.

I recently read an article by a career coach who claimed that she specifically encourages her clients to brag. She correctly points out that our society has become so hell-bent on not offending others that it has become taboo to brag. She went on to claim that being proud of your accomplishments and satisfied with your performance is a way to ensure repeat success. While I agree with these comments, I disagree with the approach towards doing so.

The ultimate goal of any top performer should be to lift up the needs of their organization above themselves. In a world of work-life balance and increasing narcissism this is a difficult concept to agree with. This need for humility was appropriately portrayed to me by one of my former mentors who was a General Officer in the Marine Corps. He mentioned the initial address he received from the Commandant of the Marine Corps (At the time General Neller). My mentor had recently had his first star pinned on his collar and General Neller’s audience was all of the newly minted 1 star Generals.

The school-bus analogy.

General Neller walked in and began telling these gentlemen how special they all were. He had a miniature school bus handed out to each one of them during this speech. General Neller then pointed out that they were members of an extremely elite few. He went on to say that to make it this far was quite an accomplishment. Then he paused for effect and said, “this school bus I have given you is to remind you of something. There are so few of you that I can fit you all onto this one vehicle. If I did, that vehicle could get hit by a freight train today and I would have you all replaced tomorrow.”

The Marine Corps has and continues to win our nation’s wars due to multiple factors. Not the least of which is the humility they embody in their leaders. Historians say that in ancient Rome a slave known as an Auriga was required to follow around victorious Generals and hold a golden crown over their head in military parade. It is rumored the Auriga’s second job was to continuously whisper “memento mori” into the General’s ear. This phrase roughly translates into “remember you are mortal.” It was intended to prevent the celebrated commander from “losing his sense of proportion.”

This requirement for humility in area’s of leadership is not restricted to military or political office. Jim Collin’s pointed out in his book “Good to Great” that there is a requirement for this trait in the commercial world as well. He studied the most successful organizations who made the leap from good to great and tirelessly pursued the single factor that allowed them to do so. Collins found that the one thing that took an organization from good to great was someone known as a Level five leader. He points out that leaders exist across the spectrum from Levels 1-5 but one distinguishing trait elevates an individual into Level 5 leadership. That trait is humility.

So when I read about a career coach telling people to brag about themselves (outside of a situation where you need to sell yourself) to others I turn my nose up in disgust. The greatest leaders I have known and admired did not act for personal gain. Instead they acted out of service to their organization with a fervent desire to leave it better than they found it. Another mentor, an uncle of mine, pointed out to me that it is necessary to take pride in our accomplishments to prevent the belief that we are failing to accomplish our goals. His strategy was a much humbler approach to understanding our previous accomplishments and perpetuating a pattern of success.

How to maintain humility and a winning mindset.

Sit down and write out everything you have accomplished in life thus far. Start small. Waking up today and choosing to be happy is a huge accomplishment. Many people wake up angry and irritated throughout their lives. Ensure you are in an area free of distraction as you develop the list and allow it to build on itself. Come back to the list daily and continue to remind yourself of all that you have done to make it to this point in your life. You most likely have poured your blood, sweat, and tears into certain things in life. To forget all you have done is to do yourself a disservice.

While I think it may be impossible for your list to be lacking in worthwhile achievements there is a positive to this. If you see a gap in your list you have now identified an objective to work towards. I know that for myself prior to writing this list I feared it would breed complacency. I was worried that feeling satisfied with my previous actions would grant me the permission to slow down. To stop working hard. To get old and fat. I have a strategy to combat that but I think we need to first acknowledge that high achievers are not happy unless they are working towards a goal. This list will not force you to grow complacent. If it does temporarily, I promise those feelings will pass and you will begin working toward your next goal.

Preventing complacency.

What is my safety-net to prevent complacency? Five words. You have never made it. While we need to be careful with these words forcing us to question our self-worth and accomplishments they can be the catalyst for continued work. At the Infantry Officer’s Course my class advisor forced us to write these words in our notebook every day. He didn’t do so to make us believe we were worthless. He did it to follow the same steps as Marcus Aurelius and General Neller. I pray we all accomplish great things. That we change the world. In order to continue doing so we must be reminded that there is always another mountain to climb, challenge to take, and job to be done. Bragging to others is for chumps. Taking pride in accomplishments and knowing you must push forward is for winners.

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About the Author

John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.

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