The “Pretty Good” Leader: Part I

In November of 1979 (yes, 38 years ago), I got a phone call on a Friday night that changed my life. OK, before I get to that, I probably need to provide some context. I was a first-year resident in surgery at the University of Michigan and had recently finished a two-month rotation on the Neurosurgery service as the surgical intern.  When I started on the service, I had no intention of considering the specialty of neurosurgery as my life’s work, but by the end of my rotation, I was strongly considering a change from General Surgery to Neurosurgery as a result of the excellent experience I had on their service. That Friday evening, the Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery called to tell me that one of the two interns previously matched in the program decided to quit for personal reasons…and, he went on to say, “Steve, the guys tell me I should take you, they say you are “pretty good”.  Since then, I have given a lot of thought to what “pretty good” means and, more recently, how the phrase might describe a particular executive leadership style. You probably noticed that the blog post title includes “Part I”, implying that I have way too much to say for the requisite paragraphs found in a single blog post.

“Pretty good” may be high praise from one person, but conversely, when compared to “great”, also could be considered to be the all too common, “damning by faint praise”.  In a recent Harvard Business Review article, James R. Bailey contrasts good leadership with great leadership. He describes “great” as a description of intensity, energy, and power. “Good” is usually reserved for virtue, ethics, or morality (good vs. bad). He goes on to state that, in the context of leadership, “great” can be powerful and dominating but has no inherent direction, and any course taken is dependent on the morality of the leader, while “good” is true north in direction and provides points of morality and value to be followed. To me, “pretty good” means a favorable combination of energy, perseverance, and commitment to execute, while also considering the best interest and welfare of others (patients, customers, employees, etc.). I also believe that “pretty good” sets a base from which one can continue to improve and learn, honing skills that support a work environment that fuels progress, constructive energy, and thoughtful navigation…and still gets excellent results.  

Recently, I had coffee with a very experienced leadership coach who pointed out to me that, while most employees want to work hard for and follow a “good” leader, many executive selection committees gravitate to, and opt for, the “high energy”, dominant, self-absorbed candidates (does the word narcissist come to mind?).  The force of “great” overshadows the direction of “good”. The confluence of high energy power coupled with an unprincipled direction can create a very combustible environment with harmful results both for the team culture and the business performance. If that scenario happens enough, perhaps there is hope for someone with “pretty good” leadership skills to attract the attention of those that select the next leaders.  

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