Good to Great – Reflections on the Journey

The quest to go from good to great is a chal­lenge that applies to almost every orga­ni­za­tion and at almost every lev­el. It can be a call that gives an indi­vid­ual a new and more pur­pose­ful direc­tion in his or her life. It can ral­ly a team or even a group of teams to improve their game in pur­suit of a high­er lev­el of per­for­mance – and even­tu­al­ly a cham­pi­onship. It can moti­vate a com­pa­ny to lift its lev­el of oper­a­tion and achieve more in its busi­ness per­for­mance. And, of course, it can become a ral­ly­ing cry for a city, a state, a region or even a coun­try to take what it has already achieved and aspire to more.

For that rea­son, the theme of “Good to Great” for the annu­al gath­er­ing of Acad­e­mia Supe­ri­or proved to be par­tic­u­lar­ly apt. By talk­ing with four experts in sports, sci­ence, art and pol­i­tics who have, in their work and their per­son­al lives, made the jour­ney from good to great, and by includ­ing three bright, young, tal­ent­ed stu­dents who offer the per­spec­tive of a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion, Upper Aus­tria stands to gain much in the way of prac­ti­cal and inspi­ra­tional lessons.

Where does the jour­ney from good to great begin? For a young aspir­ing artist, as well as a young sci­en­tist, it begins with being open to new expe­ri­ences: curios­i­ty is the first com­po­nent of what it takes, a will­ing­ness to learn and to expose one­self to what­ev­er chal­lenges or oppor­tu­ni­ties life may present. On the jour­ney, what first may appear as a harsh dis­ad­van­tage can, under the right cir­cum­stances and with the right atti­tude, actu­al­ly become a source of inspi­ra­tion, a source of grow­ing self-aware­ness and a reminder that being dif­fer­ent is actu­al­ly the ulti­mate com­pet­i­tive advantage.

First steps

From this van­tage point, the first step in the jour­ney is actu­al­ly inward. It requires the indi­vid­ual – or the orga­ni­za­tion – to be scrupu­lous­ly hon­est about him­self or her­self, to do an unblink­ing­ly can­did assess­ment of strengths and weak­ness­es, to take stock of what makes him or her unique. Going from good to great actu­al­ly starts by know­ing who you are as an indi­vid­ual. Once you know who you are, you can then set high­er goals and more ambi­tious targets.

If the first step in the jour­ney is to go inward, the sec­ond step is to take a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the exter­nal land­scape: what does great­ness actu­al­ly look like? Where can you find exam­ples of great­ness to learn from, to appre­ci­ate, to emu­late? In sport, as in life, “good” and “great” are com­par­a­tive terms: “Good com­pared to what?” “Great com­pared to whom?” To assess your own stand­ing, you need to find exam­ples to hold up and learn from, exam­ples that can range from the clean­est garage floor in the world of For­mu­la 1 rac­ing to the most accom­plished sci­en­tist whose work breaks new med­ical ground, to artists whose work has stood the test of time.

Honesty, transparency and integrity

Going from good to great also entails hon­esty, trans­paren­cy and integri­ty in your deal­ings with your­self and with oth­ers. No mat­ter the cir­cum­stances, no mat­ter the kind of work to be done, invari­ably the jour­ney will require hard deci­sions and dif­fi­cult judg­ments. And it will always involve seri­ous con­se­quences. For all those rea­sons, you have to be will­ing to be hon­est with your­self and oth­ers; you have to make the deci­sion-mak­ing process and the bases for the deci­sions as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble; and you have to be able to explain the con­text, as well as the con­tent, of the deci­sion. There are no short­cuts on the jour­ney from good to great.

Data and money

Data also plays a crit­i­cal role along the way. There are all kinds of data that can help assess the pace and direc­tion of progress. For an ath­lete or a sports team, it can be speed of run­ning, height of jump­ing, and, ulti­mate­ly, num­ber of medals won. For a politi­cian or gov­ern­ment offi­cial, it can be elec­toral turnout, num­ber of votes, and, again, ulti­mate­ly, elec­tions won or lost. For a sci­en­tist, data can tell whether an exper­i­ment is work­ing, whether a treat­ment has effi­ca­cy, and whether a sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery rep­re­sents a real, replic­a­ble, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based break­through. For a com­mu­ni­ty, a city or a state, data will tell you where you stand, how your cit­i­zens are far­ing, whether the econ­o­my is grow­ing or stag­nat­ing, how your stu­dents are doing at school. Good data, reli­able data are an invalu­able part of any jour­ney from good to great. With­out it, you can­not assess where you stand and where you are head­ed. With it, you can gauge both your cur­rent stand­ing and your rate of progress toward your ulti­mate goal.

Mon­ey, of course, plays a role – or rather, sev­er­al dif­fer­ent roles, with dif­fer­ent impli­ca­tions. When it comes to cer­tain kinds of activ­i­ties or projects, mon­ey can make avail­able the high­est qual­i­ty equip­ment, mate­r­i­al, and research capa­bil­i­ties. For an ath­let­ic team, mon­ey can pay for excel­lent coach­ing, advanced train­ing con­di­tions, high qual­i­ty equip­ment, and oth­er cost­ly expen­di­tures that often spell the dif­fer­ence between win­ning a com­pe­ti­tion at the high­est lev­els and being anoth­er also-ran. In sci­ence, mon­ey affords the lab­o­ra­to­ry facil­i­ties, com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy, and oth­er capa­bil­i­ties that are now absolute­ly essen­tial to pur­sue world-class exper­i­ments. In pol­i­tics, whether we like it or not, mon­ey plays a very large role: it is a mea­sure of a candidate’s via­bil­i­ty and it allows can­di­dates and par­ties to con­duct their cam­paigns and reach vot­ers. For artists, sell­ing a work of art not only con­firms the artist’s own sense that his or her work has found an appre­cia­tive audi­ence, it also allows the artist to move live and work on the basis of what he or she creates.

Between contentment and dissatisfaction

At the same time, mon­ey can have a per­verse effect: It can become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. When that hap­pens, the ath­lete, the sci­en­tist, the politi­cian and the artist no longer use mon­ey to fur­ther their pur­suit of excel­lence; they pur­sue mon­ey and do what­ev­er is required in order to get more of it.

The bor­der between con­tent­ment and dis­con­tent is sim­i­lar­ly a knife’s edge. It is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to take the jour­ney from good to great if you are con­tent with the sta­tus quo. A city, state or coun­try that feels that “good enough is good enough” is nev­er going to under­take the hard self-analy­sis or rig­or­ous improve­ment effort need­ed to get to excel­lence. With­out an inner and out­er push to go high­er, learn more, push far­ther, an ath­lete, sci­en­tist, politi­cian or artist will sim­ply rest com­fort­ably on his or her lau­rels, sat­is­fied with what is, rather than seek­ing what could be.

It’s about the journey

But the ulti­mate truth of the jour­ney from good to great is that there is nev­er a time when you actu­al­ly arrive. Good enough is nev­er good enough; win­ning medals, sci­en­tif­ic acco­lades, elec­tion-night vic­to­ries or suc­cess­ful open­ing nights are not the end.

In the jour­ney from good to great, there is no end – except for the jour­ney itself. The chal­lenge is the goal; the quest is the pur­pose. Ulti­mate­ly, at the end of the jour­ney, the per­son who is seek­ing to go from good to great makes the final, all-impor­tant dis­cov­ery – him­self or her­self. That is the real destination.