Do You Know the Enemy of Your Company’s Climb to Greatness?

I’m guessing some of you might answer – increasing competition. Perhaps market shifts or a restrictive economy. You might even be convinced to believe that AI, automation, and the new digital age are going to displace companies that have been the backbone of this country since the Industrial Revolution. And on all fronts, you would be wrong.

Ed Eppley
November 16, 2023

Do you know the enemy of your company’s climb to greatness?

I’m guessing some of you might answer – increasing competition. Perhaps market shifts or a restrictive economy. You might even be convinced to believe that AI, automation, and the new digital age are going to displace companies that have been the backbone of this country since the Industrial Revolution.

And on all fronts, you would be wrong.

That’s because competition, turbulent markets, good and bad economies, and disruptive innovations are part of doing business, regardless of industry. And, not surprising, many companies double-down to find ways to rethink their business strategy and thrive when conditions are less than favorable.

The real enemy of your business might come as a surprise. In fact, it’s probably lurking in your offices right now.

It’s contentment with a job well done or good enough – otherwise known as complacency.

While it appears harmless, I see it as an overlooked condition that prevents good companies from becoming great, and great companies from maintaining greatness and becoming iconic.

The “mountain climbing” metaphor

People seek to climb the highest and hardest mountains because of the challenges they present. Some who are successful write books about their climb, how the journey was fraught with risk, danger, unforeseen challenges, even peril. Yet in the face of adversity they had the will to persevere.

It is also why mountain climbing makes for such a worthy business analogy – a company’s climb to greatness requires teamwork, a trusted guide, and the ability to accept and overcome challenges in pursuit of its larger purpose.

What separates successful companies that keep finding ways to thrive from those that don’t is largely rooted in the narrative they desire to tell.

Today you can get to the mountaintop by helicopter tour, take a selfie, and imply you made the climb. Call it a business or mountain climbing hack, but it isn’t a substitute for the hard work of the actual climb. It’s a false narrative.

Further, nobody sets out to tell stories about coming down the mountain. It is a post-challenge narrative. It lacks all the learnings and intrigue of getting to the top.

Some companies desire so badly to get to the top they will do whatever it takes to get there, just to say they made it, and then abandon what got them there. When that happens, the next step is always down.

For those companies, a narrative does get penned – but it’s about their fall from the mountain, sometimes in spectacular fashion, how after achieving success they settled into mediocrity or irrelevance, without the drive to keep climbing. At best, that kind of narrative is nothing more than a fleeting footnote.

Channeling constructive discontentment

For leaders who see the climb as continuous, every achievement is just another stake in the ground – to be celebrated, for sure – while recognizing that greater heights await. The climb isn’t a means to an end, it is the job itself. There is no end to speak of.

It’s why leaders such as Phil Knight and Steve Jobs are frequently referenced. Their constructive discontentment with success in the moment was rooted in the pursuit of something bigger ahead. They knew that complacent teams would be incapable of building the future they envisioned.

Constructive discontentment might be one of the hardest personas for any leader to embody. And there is a fine line between never being satisfied and demoralizing teams charged with doing great work. It is a balancing act that few master.  

Knight and Jobs are the exception, which is why I’ve come to believe that a compelling purpose far outweighs any leader’s persona.

Being purposefully discontent

To borrow again from the mountain climber’s vernacular, what an organization needs to scale its biggest mountains is both a compelling purpose and the leadership embodiment of trusted “sherpas” – guides with expert knowledge of high-altitude climbs and treks. They know the terrain and its hazards. They have led expeditions up and down the mountain. They guide the weary and foot-tired, showing them the way forward, and helping them achieve what they set out to do. Then they do it again, and again, and again.

My friend and client Beau Necco is that kind of guide, charting a hard course with a team that believes in his company’s purpose of supporting children through foster care, adoption, counseling, and other life-affirming services to help each child experience dignity and find purpose.

He doesn’t have to flex his constructive discontentment, and it’s never a point of contention because the team rallies to its “We Build Families” purpose. They celebrate each win with every child success story, then turn right back to a mountain of challenges facing more kids, and then do it again, and again, and again.

This is the opposite of complacency, where purpose is the rudder that propels the organization forward.

And in a business world that is grappling with quiet quitting and job dissatisfaction, perhaps this is where corporations can best learn from their nonprofit and purpose-driven brethren.

When success is purely financial, companies and people can easily slip into complacency, allowing contentment to fester more regularly with the slightest uptick of profits. But that’s not a strategy for leading a company toward greatness or building a driven culture. The lack of purposeful discontentment can whittle down even the most important work to a paycheck and a punch clock.  

Put another way: if you’re satisfied, you’re slipping.

This isn’t in lieu of a strong strategy, people development, optimizing your business structure, and evaluating performance to get better. These are essential business disciplines that all companies need to practice.

Rather, in addition to those disciplines, make the decision to be discontented. Own it. Model it. Encourage the same levels of discontent within your team. Then agree to keep climbing.

Because that’s what the best companies do. Again, and again, and again.