What Is Greatness, Really?: The Ingredients of Greatness

This is the second excerpt from my book, Unleashing the Greatness in You: The Power of Self-Leadership.


“Success without successors or a successful system is not success.”

Dr John Ng


“Greatness is a lot of small things done well every day.”

“You must remain focused on the journey to greatness.”

Les Brown


Greatness needs to be redefined. Without a proper definition, you can be misled, your priorities misplaced, your efforts misdirected, or worse, you may end up in a life of misguided legacy. Allow me to share these facets of greatness.


Greatness is Nurturing Character

If you define greatness by position, status, size, power, influence and wealth, then you are short-changing yourself. The first facet of greatness has to be character. Throughout history, truly great people are people of great character. We think of Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.

Character has to do with integrity. As my good friend Edward Ong, founder of Sutera Harbor, opined, “The world has no shortage of creativity, but of integrity.” Integrity is ‘talking the walk, walking the talk and walking the walk.’ It is the moral courage to do the right thing constantly in the midst of conflicting and confounding voices.

As author Zero Dean puts it: “Greatness takes persistence. It takes determination. It takes facing our own fears and doing that which is hard and necessary, instead of what is quick and easy. It takes skipping the mystical shortcuts and using your imagination as a map and preview of life’s coming attractions.”

This becomes more difficult when we are faced with constant pressures to meet shareholders’ expectations and bosses’ pressures to deliver results year after year.

For Edwin Soeryadjaya, the founding partner of Sarotoga Capital and heir to the Astra Group, a household name known for its integrity, greatness means voluntarily selling off Astra to repay creditors and depositors in full.

In China, it was a kindly lady, Grandma Chen, a garbage collector, who stopped and rescued Yue Yue, a two-year-old toddler, who had been run over by two trucks, after 18 passers-by had done nothing. When her compassion made headlines in China, many donated money to her. She gave it all away to Yue Yue’s mother for her daughter’s hospital bill. Unfortunately, Yue Yue did not survive the accident.

Grandma Chen did what was right and showed moral courage. When interviewed, she was asked why she had done it, and she simply replied, “I just did it because it was the right thing to do.” That is greatness in action.


Greatness is Enjoying Healthier Family Life

I am reminded of my pro-bono work in mediating between divorcing couples. The story keeps repeating itself.

I was mediating between a multi-millionaire property developer husband and a high-flying banker wife. During the caucus session, the wife confided, “My husband keeps telling my son and me, ‘I work very hard. I am building all these empires for you.’ Now he has built the empires but we are no longer there to live in them!”

The common justification for making business our number one and chief priority—“I am doing it for the family”—has left too many people family-less.

One young engineer went berserk after his wife decided to end their five-year marriage. They had a three-year-old son. He was so devastated. He wept uncontrollably and inbetween sobs, told me, “I worked so damn hard, working overtime every night, so that we could move from public housing to a private condo. Now I have no one to live with. I neglected my wife and family. The price is too high to pay.”

In recent years, we have seen how great men and women have fallen because of failures in marriage and family.

  • Oscar Pistorius, who pushed through a double-leg amputation and earned gold medals in the Athens, Beijing, and London Paralympics for his track and field events. On 14 February 2013, he was found guilty of killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
  • Ng Boon Gay, the former Central Narcotics Bureau chief in Singapore, lost his job because of alleged corrupt practices for his sexual impropriety with one female Oracle IT executive. Although he was acquitted of the charge, he was retired from the Public Service Commission.
  • Michael Palmer, Singapore’s former Speaker of Parliament and a senior partner of a prestigious law firm, stunned the nation when he made the surprising announcement that he was involved in an extramarital affair with a divorcee named Laura Ong. This brilliant lawyer, caring Member of Parliament and fair-minded Speaker had to resign because of his affair.

How tragic! Certainly, greatness cannot be measured merely by economic terms, career greatness or material success. But I also believe in recovery. These men can regain their greatness when they turn around.


Greatness is Developing Successors and Successful Systems

One of parents’ greatest joys is to see their children become better than themselves. Fulfilment for teachers is seeing their students excel and develop into men and women of character and competence. One of the greatest accomplishments for any business leader or politician is to build a system for leaders to thrive in; leaders who are able to sustain and develop a better organization than the one the leaders leave behind.

Tom Jones of Epsilon defines success in three ways: “For me, in this company, my success would be to have left three legacies: One, someone to replace me so that the company is not at risk; two, a solid value system that will transcend both them and me in terms of what the company stands for; and three, economic soundness and stability.”

Success without successors or a successful system is not success.


Question for the week:

Which aspect of greatness captures your imagination? Why?


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