The forging of steel is neither pretty work nor easy work. It is dirty and sweltering and done at 3000+ degrees. The mill is usually a mammoth building, filled with suffocating heat and deafening noise. The hammering, the fire, the pressure, and the inspection are all done in the pursuit of a product of enormous importance: high-quality steel. The most minor of imperfections may not show up for years, but if they exist the results can be catastrophic. The process for forging is designed to drive out such flaws—both visible and hidden—in order to end up with a substance that can withstand pressure, weight, and stress while performing the task only it can do.
The goal of all this fiery pressure is greatness—great materials that frame great creations like skyscrapers, bridges, museums, and cathedrals. It isn’t cheap and it isn’t quick. Like greatness in any arena, it takes time and is often accompanied by pain.
No One Aspires to Mediocrity
For the last 30 years I’ve worked as an executive coach. I’ve consulted seasoned corporate executives, passionate non-profit leaders, and wide-eyed startup founders. I’ve worked with leaders of all shapes, sizes, and abilities who have experienced all levels of success and failure. I’ve never encountered a single individual or organization that wanted to be simply mediocre. Leaders and every organization aspire to greatness. It might be more quiet, private, and untapped, but the desire to be above average runs in all of humanity.
Greatness Is Something That Happens Inside an Individual
Most character formation is deeply personal, and takes place out of the line of sight of others. Unlike steel, though, the forming of a great individual is never complete. It doesn’t have a start date or an end date. It is an ever-present struggle and process that must be repeated anew each day.
Becoming great means living somewhere between being very comfortable with who you are and desperately yearning to be something different, something better. It requires living in constant tension. There is both a need to live in the moment and also to dream of another reality around the corner.
All Steps to Greatness Go Down for a While
The journey down into pain, failure, and brokenness usually plays an enormous role in an individual’s rise to greatness. The apostle Paul forged his greatness through enduring hardship and challenge. Jacob wrestled with God and lost.
All great men walk with a limp. You can sense if someone has had a battle with life and lost. They have a hitch in their walk. They evidence the scars in their life. There is a genuine humility and reverence that is carried in their eyes. They carry a sense of rugged respect for life. The path to greatness is not always attractive and adorned with the latest fashion statements.
There Is No Speed Cooking in Greatness
Becoming great won’t happen tomorrow; it is instead a long perseverance in the same direction. As Malcolm Gladwell has artfully observed, even those that we revere as geniuses and prodigies—Bill Gates, Mozart, The Beatles—all worked unbelievably hard for an incredible period of time before truly achieving greatness. The best soups simply have to sit and simmer. You cannot rush them. You cannot speed cook maturity. We must log the time.
The single most important muscle involved in this process is perseverance. It is a muscle that all great people have developed well. Perseverance keeps me on the task when it’s not easy or when I’m all alone. Perseverance pulls me back out of bed to go and endure one more day and allow one more blow from the hammer.
Greatness Can Tarnish
Like steel, great leadership is tested in the present but confirmed over time. Many people have allowed their greatness to unravel later in life. For every humble apostle who lived and died well, there seems to be an offset by a disgraced pastor and shamed clergyman. For every hall-of-fame athlete, there is a trail of drug busts and arrests. For every talented doctor, lawyer, and engineer, there is a student who never quite lived up to his or her potential.
We need more steel beams of greatness in every organization, community, and family. Forging is the only process to get it.