Great is the Enemy of Good

You know what I find really funny?  That we take a really interesting concept like “Good is the enemy of Great” from the 2001 book Good to Great, and we make it law.  It’s now wildly held belief by most well-read leaders that Good is the enemy of Great.  That is you truly want to be Great, being Good hurts you because it gives you a false sense of accomplishment.

I think this is bullshit.

In fact, it’s such B.S. that I think the opposite might be a more true statement: Great is the enemy of Good!  Think about this for a moment:

  • Great performers are usually difficult to deal with:
    • They are more demanding
    • They tend to share diva qualities
    • Many will ostracize their coworkers because they don’t understand their relative ‘lower’ performance
  • Great performers tend to blow up your compensation bands and raise overall compensation of the position they’re in.
  • Great performers want preferential treatment.

From a corporate sense many great performers are a major pain in the butt.  Plus, great performers don’t raise the bar for everyone else, this is another false premise, just for themselves.  Great performers also raise the expectations of your leaders on what performance should be on average performers which tend to drop engagement of the majority rank and file.

Don’t get me wrong.  Great performers do add their value.  Remember what this post is all about, not great performers, but good performers.  “Good is the enemy of Great” sounds proactive and sexy, but it doesn’t stand up to reality.  The reality is, as corporate leaders, we want to surround out great performers with a bunch of good performers.  Saying good is the enemy, goes against this entire mindset.

To be wildly successful in any organization, I don’t need great performance,  I need good performance from everyone.  I could have a few great performers, and no good performers, and still the great performers, or more precisely our organization, will end up failing.  Give me no great performers, and everyone else are good performers, as we’ll do really, really well!

Next time you find your mouth saying “good is the enemy of great” think about what you’re really saying.  That isn’t leadership speak, it’s just being naive to your reality.

4 thoughts on “Great is the Enemy of Good

  1. Hi Tim – Interesting and thought-provoking take on the downsides of high performing employees. From my experience I’ve seen that here is often a tendency to focus on hiring “stars”, sometimes to the detriment of the balance and overall performance of the team.

    I think Nick’s comment on the importance of effective leadership being required to manage the contribution of the various personality types and performance levels reflects is key. Star performers need strong leaders, to manage the diva tendencies that can arise – if not the behavioral negatives can outweigh the otherwise great performance.

    Here’s my slightly different perspective on the “baggage” that can come with top performers –

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. All due respect, I would disagree a bit here. I think that your arguments more define the traits of a choleric personality, which we often associate with “great” because of their assertiveness. In my opinion, you missed the mark of the other three primary temperaments and their ability to be great. Great doesn’t always provide the same outcome, if it did we certainly would fail because we would never arrive at new information. I believe that in an organization you need to have a great mix of all personalities, and if all personalities are performing great, you will have success. But, a great leader must be able to recognizance, as it sounds like you do, that “great” looks different depending on the personality. In other words, if your organization is successful and you claim it to be because of a team of good performers, take their individual personalities into consideration, maybe you have a team of great melancholies, phlagmatic, and sanguine.

    • Nick,

      I’m not talking about “great” personalities, I’m talking about performance, which is considerably different than personality. What I’m trying to convey is that we (HR) focus so much on great performance and hiring great performers, when we should work on getting rid of weak or under-performing employees. I don’t need great performance to be a great organization, I just need everyone to be good.


      • Tim,

        I understand that you are talking about performance, but you mention multiple traits that we tend to associate with great performers: more demanding, diva qualities, not understanding of their “lower performing” coworkers, preferential treatments – all which are personality traits of the choleric temperament. What I was eluding to, is that because of these traits being the the most assertive and obvious, it’s easy to fail to recognize the great performance of the other temperaments. By your ‘argument’ that those are the typical traits of greatness, someone who falls at the polar opposite of a choleric can never be great and can only be viewed as good.


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