Because we are constantly comparing things to each other. Maybe it's not as simple as that, but take another look at my statement when I'm done with the story.
It all began last week at a meeting of one of the associations I am a member of for public relations professionals. A long time friend was also in attendance and at the end we took a few minutes to catch up.
As we were talking about professional growth and learning opportunities, two of my favorite topics, I stepped back from the conversation long enough to appreciate its dynamics: Lee was sharing insights and information freely and with a manner that made me feel like a peer and still made him sound knowledgeable. So much so that had he offered me work on a project together, I would have signed on right there and then.
It suddenly hit me in the gut. Sure, I have known it all along, intellectually. Yet I wasn't prepared for the impact that this sudden realization had on the way my world changed in that exact moment. I will never be able to see things the same way again. I finally really "got" what it means to be great -- and what a huge distance there is from good to it.
Did you watch the movie The Prestige? The story goes like this:
Two young, passionate magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a charismatic showman, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a gifted illusionist, are friends and partners until one fateful night when their biggest trick goes terribly wrong. Now the bitterest of enemies, they will stop at nothing to learn each other’s secrets. As their rivalry escalates into a total obsession full of deceit and sabotage, they risk everything to become the greatest magician of all time.
They devote their lives in a quest to constantly compare themselves to each other -- and they are consumed in the process of racing to the title of greatest. The movie will involve you at many levels. Despite all the work that each of the two puts into honing his skill, they are still left with a sense of the unattainable. Their true audience is the other -- the people purchasing tickets are only there to validate one performer as greater than the other.
What happens inside organizations? The mechanisms are there for people and departments to be focused inward, to compare what they do to the others in a race for the accolades of management and thus possibly promotions and pay raises. This is not industry-specific, I have observed this in five different industries. And it is not department specific; having worked in many different structures, my role has been attached to departments accordingly.
Sometimes it happens because we want to make sure that everyone buys into an idea, so we have a series of nice long meetings where everyone asserts their opinion, and then more meetings to decide whose opinion wins. Other times it happens because, heavens, we cannot have those folks in marketing tell us what to do, we are in front of the customers day in, day out, we know how to market. You guessed it, this is the sales team thinking.
Then there are those wonderful career moves designed just to please an audience of one: your boss. I've been in two mergers and one company that eventually ceased to operate. We all have a dark side and let me tell you, those magicians were nothing compared to some of the tricks I have experienced.
The truth is that brand ownership inside an organization is extremely hard to achieve. Not necessarily painful, yet it requires plenty of focus and courage. It begins with hiring practices and never ends. Not for an instant, not for a day. I'm optimistic, I think it can be done with the right application and work. Yet we need to remain vigilant of where the work is being applied and how the energy is being used.
Sustainability also means working within known limits, resources, and funds, and still creating something enduring and beautiful. Why are organizations falling short? Too many competing agendas. On the inside, we keep looking at the world outside with glasses colored by our own perceptions of what we are. The market could not care less about many of the things that use up our collective attention inside a company.
We are constantly comparing things to each other, instead of asking ourselves the hard questions and doing the work it takes to bridge the enormous gap that stretches from good to great out there. Angier and Borden could each have been great, yet they chose to diminish all that incredible work by constantly comparing to the other.
Greatness by definition is inimitable -- its own point of differentiation. Instead of relying on the image they see reflected by their own perceptions, companies should find their identity in other ways. How about in their relevance to clients? How about in keeping their promises in the marketplace? How about in being truthful and authentic?