We’ve Forgotten What “Greatness” Really Means

March 4, 2016

By Dov Seidman

“Make America Great Again!” Donald Trump’s campaign slogan has clearly hit a public nerve.

But what, exactly, is “greatness”? This is a question very much worth asking. After all, if we’re going to aspire to greatness together, we should have a common understanding of what we’re talking about.

Often, greatness is defined by how much. How much money did I make, how much is our market share, how much is our stock worth, what’s the country’s GDP?

The easiest and most efficient method of measuring greatness is size, whether it’s revenue or gross domestic product. If you want to see a simple scoreboard of greatness, size gives you that. But there are significant problems in equating greatness with enormity. Among the many recent economic consequences of “bigger is better” thinking in business was a very bad outcome: the creation of massive financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.” And think of Enron, which, before it went bankrupt, was one of the largest and most profitable companies in the United States. Enron’s obsession with profits led senior management to focus obsessively on deceptive accounting tricks rather than managing its core businesses. In the end, the magnitude of the real losses was too large to conceal. Billions of dollars in shareholder value was destroyed and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs.

An alternative to the how much definition of greatness is how. How do we conduct ourselves in life and business? (Do we act fairly? Do we treat our colleagues, customers, and community with respect?) How do we sustain success so it lasts for decades, not just fiscal quarters? How can we all work together to build something greater than ourselves?

It’s in how that we should find our inspiration for greatness. And this is not idealistic: the individuals, organizations, and even countries that end up consistently winning over the long term are those in the grip of how, a far bigger idea than how much.

What’s the United States’s definition of a great how? In a sharply polarized country, maybe this, too, is up for (heated) debate. But it’s something I think about every time I pull out my wallet and see the motto on the Great Seal of the United States, that little phrase on every dollar bill: e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

The 13 states forming a union despite their competing agendas — that was a daring reach for greatness. The U.S.’s founders aimed to bring together a diverse population of people to make “a more perfect union,” in the famous phrase of the Constitution’s preamble. More than 200 years later, we’re still in the grip of their project. Or, at least, we should be. Much more than GDP or employment statistics or the S&P 500 Stock Index, it’s the journey toward e pluribus unum that makes the U.S. great.

And yet in both politics and business, the language of cutthroat competition can take over. So much can seem like a zero-sum game. But if one Latin phrase can stir you, try another: competere, the Latin root word for “compete.” It means to strive or, broken into its component parts, to seek together.

Greatness requires persistence and resilience, but not as solitary actors. It requires us to keep pushing toward progress as one, improving the how to sustainably increase the how much — despite plenty of evidence that we’re still far from perfect.

Originally Published on Harvard Business Review