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Leadership and the Importance of Significance over Success

Leadership and the Importance of Significance over Success


By Dr. David Lawson
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University

The difference between being successful and being significant is small, yet telling, when the end results are taken into account. Each of us is successful in our own right, holding positions of authority and prestige, amassing wealth or finding great fame.

But does that definition of success alone make a person significant? The answer is no.

Being significant means having a true understanding of the things that deeply matter to us. Significance means a relentless pursuit of those things by helping others to find success and creating success for ourselves in the process. Significance is about making an impact on society and others, not focusing inwardly on ourselves.

Significance Helps Society and Others Achieve Their Goals

The humorous meaning of the National Football League’s abbreviation NFL is “Not For Long,” but it is so true. The average NFL career is about four years, along with multi-million dollar contracts and fame.

But it is heartbreaking that so many professional football players are broke and/or broken at the end of their careers. This is true in all professional sports, as well as for many talented individuals in all walks of life.

Magic Johnson Had Success, but He Became Significant

I was at a recent conference where Ervin “Magic” Johnson’s story was told as an example of the difference between being successful and being significant. Magic’s success in basketball – his  national collegiate championship at Michigan State University, his professional NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and his Olympic gold medal with the 1992 USA “Dream Team” – is a success story that anyone would envy.

If you recall, too, that great career quickly ended when he contracted the HIV virus.

Johnson was not only successful, but significant. His many business ventures have helped scores of people to start careers in music and entertainment, the food industry, finance and other businesses.

He also has a part ownership in many Los Angeles-based professional sports franchises. Many of his philanthropic activities focus on helping less-advantaged people achieve success. Most importantly, Johnson is an advocate for HIV/AIDS research and awareness.

Magic Johnson’s success on the basketball court would have been enough for most people. However, he became even more significant as a result of his focus on and desire to help others.

Making the Move from Successful to Significant

The move from successful to significant is a conscious choice that starts with understanding our greater selves. What is it that we truly want to affect? What should we do to make life better for others?

To start the move, we must do the following:

  1. Be present: We must recognize the need, be willing to investigate the need and understand it. Too often, we see things from a distant perspective, make snap judgments and expect great things to happen.

The actual results are often disappointing, perhaps even devastating. We can only affect what we truly understand. We must realize that each of us is blessed with abilities that can help others and utilize those blessings to their fullest.

  1. Be persistent: Our greatest efforts might result in less-than-desired outcomes or failures, but we must not become discouraged. Failure pushes us out from our comfort zones into unknown areas.

In the unknown, anything is possible. We can take our understanding of the present, see the needs of the future and create seemingly insignificant things that in reality are significant in the lives of many people.

  1. Be accepting: Many people will not understand or believe in what you’re doing. In some cases, they may actively work to stop your efforts.

That’s okay. Accept them for what they are. Use their negativity to your advantage to improve your efforts. Forgive those naysayers, but don’t forget them. Their time to help is not now, but they could become your greatest allies in the future.

  1. Be one of the crazy ones: In 1997, Apple was in the midst of creating its “Think Different” campaign, which resulted in the “Crazy Ones” TV commercial. In his narration, actor Richard Dreyfuss says “…those who believe they can change the world usually do.”

While they understood the present and being persistent, Magic Johnson, Steve Jobs and many others faced insurmountable odds against acceptance. In the end, however, they became significant.

About the Author

Dr. David Lawson is a futurist, strategist, economist, management consultant and organizational coach with more than 25 years of experience in business and academia. He holds a Ph.D. from Webster University in Strategy and Organizational Studies, an M.B.A. from Fontbonne University in Business Administration and a B.S. from Maryville University’s School of Business and Information Technology. He has worked with the Department of Defense, Fortune 50 organizations and many public, private and nonprofit organizations. Read more from Dr. Lawson.