The opening line of Jim Collins’ best-selling Good to Great declares, “Good is the enemy of great” (1). There is no telling how many times over the few years immediately after the book’s release I heard that line in a presentation or read it in some sort of piece. I don’t disagree with the notion; and I won’t argue with the many examples, the piles of data, and the behaviors that Collins presents. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure Collins identifies the real enemy. The closest he comes is when he writes, “That good is the enemy of great is not just a business problem. It is a human problem” (16).
Agreed. But Collins doesn’t dig any further into the issue; in fairness, that is not really his point, as his real work lies in delineating the process for improvement. He does focus on qualities needed to make this happen, whether at Level 5 Leadership or in the various seats on the bus. Certainly important. However, the question of the real human problem lingers.
Complacency, blind spots, limited abilities, narrow bandwith, practical constraints—I’m sure you could add to the list, and all are realities. But I think there is something more insidious at work.
Hiding behind a cloak of cool, this jaded posture is quick to launch spears of negativity at new ideas, at the unfamiliar, at the original. It’s often the spawn of ego and fear, so it lashes out at any threat. And what’s required to become great—the risk, the uncertainty, the personal investment, the vision—threatens many.
Sadly, reasons abound to have become cynical. People we’ve chosen as role models and leaders seem to let us down almost daily, i.e. cheating athletes and dogmatic, uncompromising politicians. So now cynicism seems to fuel much of what passes for humor. After all, do we laugh or cry?
I cry. Mainly because of the effect on the target of the barbs, and those are the people who can move us toward becoming great. Instead, they begin to feel those tugs of doubts, to heed those cries of the lizard brain, to suffer bouts of paralysis. It also can erode the belief of those who support the move.
More dangerously than anything else, cynicism carpet bombs the realms of possibility. Ideas are reduced to rubble; dreams, burned to crispy cinders. Unless we can construct ever-taller towers, how can we become great?
Sometimes the move towards great is relatively easy, when we take small steps into the adjacent possible. The real gut-wrenching occurs when we leap into a place realized primarily in our imaginations. That calls for courage and faith.
I am sure this concept holds true for most areas, but I think it’s particularly true for education. At its essence, education depends on a steadfast, unshakable belief in the possibility of each child. It’s not just the adults who must have this belief. The child must internalize it.
We also must embrace the possibilities of education—not what it can achieve, but what it can become. I know that I couldn’t do my work without grasping that ideal. That is particularly true now. This is my thirtieth year in independent schools; and, as I plan to explain in my next post, I think this is an amazingly exciting time to be an educator. Maybe the most exciting. An era to accomplish truly great things. It’s certainly no time to be cynical. It is time to conquer the enemy.