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What I Really Think: The Best is Too Low a Standard

In 1997, Stuart Crainer met me at Heathrow Airport as I arrived overnight from Montreal. It was the only time we could connect, to interview me for a book he was writing with Des Dearlove about management ideas and gurus.

This guru business must be very competitive, Stuart suggested. Not at all, I said: I never felt any competition. And then I blurted this out in my jet-lagged stupor (words I remember clearly): “I never set out to be the best. It’s too low a standard. I set out to be good.”

This may sounds arrogant, but I did not mean it that way at all. I was not claiming to be better than the best, just beside the very quest for being the best. How can anyone tell the best anyway? (Was Mozart better than Beethoven?) What I meant is that exceptional work is done by people who compete with themselves, not anyone else. They do their best.

Was Edith Piaf the best? Who knows? But was she ever good! Indeed, she was incomparable, and so in no danger of being labelled the best. Michael Porter, the Harvard strategy guru, has written extensively about how to be competitive in business and health care. With whom was Mike himself competing when he wrote his landmark books Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage?

The best story about this—well, actually a really good one—comes from Sylvie Bernier, who won the gold medal for diving at the 1984 Olympic Games. I got to know Sylvie when she did our International Masters for Health Leadership. One day I asked her what really distinguishes those athletes who win such high honors.

Sylvie told me an extra-ordinary story–not about other Olympic medalists, but about her own experience. When she got into the finals, she blocked off everyone and everything: her coach, her parents, journalists, TV and radio–any source that could possibly tell her how she was doing. Sure she wanted to be the best—that’s in the nature of such an event (there is, after all, only one gold medal)—but her means to get there was by doing her best, competing with herself above all.

As she came up from that last dive, Sylvie could not have known whether she won gold or nothing. Maybe that’s why she won gold.

So let’s drop, not our standards, but our obsession with being the best, so that we can get on with being as good as we can possibly can.

Stuart and Des now run the prominent Thinkers50. Since 2001 it has been ranking these gurus of the management world. I used to be on that list, but eventually, with we older guys dropping down (the likes of Tom Peters, Warren Bennis, and Phil Kotler), they kicked a bunch of us upstairs, to their Management Hall of Fame, and thus no longer eligible to be ranked among these best.

That caused a bit of a fuss on the part of one of our colleagues, who had a new book coming out and could have used the publicity. So on his behalf, I had some correspondence with Stuart and Des, wondering if the voting component of the ranking was flawed. (One person, who ranked somewhat high but in my opinion deserved to be low, was writing to everyone he knew to vote for him. People obsessed with being “the best” tend to do such things.)

Stuart and Des wrote back to me, explaining that voting was “just one element” of the Thinkers50 selection process, and that the list should reflect “current trends, preference and favorites.” Noted too was that ”the business world is moving fast. Managers are relentlessly interested in what is new and fashionable.” True enough—unfortunately.

Anyway, I survived that. And now, today to be specific, Stuart and Des are announcing that I have been chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at their gala in London next month. They have explained that “The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to someone who has had a long-term impact on the way people think about and practice management.” It has only been given twice before, to Charles Handy of the UK in 2011 and Jiro Nonaka of Japan in 2013.

So thank you Stuart and Des for honoring me, alongside your best, for being good.

Best

Henry

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