Saturday, April 30, 2011

Successful and Significant

When attending any conference we hear many thoughts, some good, some great and some that we wouldn't give a second thought. Last week I was at a conference and though it is an oversimplification, that was exactly my experience. Of the many thoughts shared with us, one distinctly caught my attention and will continue to serve as my primary take-away from the two days we spent together. Though it wasn't an original thought (most of the best ideas are not), when giving consideration to the audience it especially resonated with me. One of our Admirals simply challenged a group of Commanding Officers by congratulating us on our success and challenging us to be significant.

The difference between being successful and significant is not subtle. These officers were successful in that we have achieved rank and were specifically chosen to be Commanding Officers, the greatest honor in our Navy. The point was that the bar for success is relative and isn't always high, while the measure for significance is not on a sliding scale. A very junior Sailor may not yet be deemed a success by traditional measure, but can quickly become the most significant contributor to the team. Conversely, a senior officer may be considered successful by his collar device and positional authority, yet be an insignificant member of the team.

Sad truth is that our respective Command Tour will be deemed successful as long as we are not fired. We will enjoy a nice ceremony that will acknowledge the transfer of authority, accountability and responsibility to our relief and we will have a medal pinned to our chest, as others congratulate us "on a successful command tour." To the Admiral's point, I don't care to be successful, as success by this standard has largely become mediocrity powered by sometimes questionable motivation. Instead, I continue to be a proud member of a team focused on being significant. A team who measures significance by creating unique value for the customers, by building meaningful relationships within and beyond OUR command, by having no choice but to repeatedly say "You're welcome" to the many individuals who appreciate our extra efforts, and by ensuring everything in our wake is better than it was before we involved ourselves.

The truth is people who are focused on success are often times doing things for themselves, while people who make being significant the objective are focused on bettering the lives of others. Big houses, fancy cars, a corner office and shiny new collar devices are things that are important to people who are driven by success. Incoming thank you notes, preserved integrity, strong personal relationships, and knowing one has done his absolute best is what sustains those of us focused on being significant.

Successful people love the status quo; Significant people can't alter the order of things fast enough.

I hadn't previously given much thought to these two words that too many of us use as synonyms, but can now confidently state...

Success without significance is hollow, significance without regard to success is admirable, and success through the pursuit of making significant contributions is the only success worth having.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Sean, and matches my own experience. My command time was a "success" in the traditional sense you described. After my change-of-command/retirement ceremony, though, I got the greatest compliment I've ever received. One of my sailors came up to me and said "Thank you for the things you didn't even know you did." Blew me away. I was significant to that young sailor. Eleven years later and I'm still trying to figure out what the hell it was I did!

  2. I was mentored a bit by someone very similar to Storypainter above. He walked me through a tough IG inspection and a Congressional inquiry. And he was the first to call when I had been selected for promotion to Commander. Thanks Skip. I appreciated it more than you knew. Sometimes you have to wait 10-15 years for a thank you and recognition from others that you are indeed - SIGNIFICANT.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the view expressed in the article above and love the idea that the admiral would challenge his CO's to be more than figureheads. I would also say that I have observed the overzealous CO as well....those looking to make their mark without regard to those they are supposed to lead. I believe that to be significant you must strive to make those you lead day you may run into one of them and he or she will be the ones to thank you for your effect on them.

  4. I must say, you've made your mark of significance a long time ago, and in talking to sailors, you continue to do so even in these days.. When they asked of why a person would take on the challenge of being an Officer, I actually thought of a LT that took the time to offer constructive leadership to a knucklehead CTM3..

  5. Sean,
    Good thoughtprovoking discussion. However, there are too many examples of people making change for change sake, just to find out that the way it was done prior was the "best way to do it". Happens in every Command or Fortune 500 company. The best way to ensure that you are making change that is relevent and not going to result in your relief changing it back, would be to seek the councel of someone with many years of experience and ask them what they think. They will usually be able to provide you with examples of how it worked in the past and how it didn't work as expected in the past. Experience is relevent.

  6. Subby RMC - Thanks for the nice words and glad you saw my actions as constructive.

    Jay - I see your point and agree with you (consult my mentors regularly), but fail to see the connection to this specific post. As I often tell the team whom I currently lead, the door for change is wide open, but we will walk through it together. Forced change in which others don't believe will surely be undone upon our PCS and that's just a waste of time for all.

  7. Sir, I have just come across this blog and I am quite impressed. In your recent post "Well Rounded Mediocrity" you articulate (much better than I...) very clearly some concerns I've had for quite a while. The post above is also quite inspirational. As a Senior Chief Petty Officer, I have been on both the giving and receiving ends of "how to be successful" speeches but I rarely hear about (or discuss) how to be significant. That will change in the upcoming year.

    Thank you for the great posts and I look forward to following your blog.


    MUCS Gregory Dudzienski
    Assistant Director/Senior Enlisted Leader, US Navy Band Northeast, Newport RI

  8. This is a great point, CDR Heritage. But how do we take this idea from a theoretic standpoint to a more pragmatic one? In this day and age you have characterized two types of individuals, those that strive for significance and those that strive for success. What has me really interested are their motives for why they do what they do. It is further simplified to this: find value in themselves, or value in others.

    The world is after one thing: Happiness. It deceitfully comes in many forms that are only temporary. People seek to become successful because that is what they 'believe' will make them happy. Can we blame them? We've been bombarded with this concept since birth by our society. People that seek success need it like a drug because it makes them feel important, like they have a purpose in life. We all can relate with searching for purpose I think. But then, like a drug, the high goes away and we need it again. We need MORE success, MORE rank, MORE temporary happiness. But what are they really after? Where is the true happiness found, not this counterfeit off brand? That happiness is found through making a positive impact in others lives, a.k.a. achieving ‘significance’. It’s not some cliché idea either; it’s a nearly self-evident concept embedded in our core as human beings.

    We have to quit making it seem like a life of serving others, a life of significance to others, is a boring and tedious process; that giving to others leaves you without, showing love doesn’t make a difference, and a life of service is a life of insignificance. It’s just the opposite. Serving others is an exciting and interesting process; giving to others leaves you with more, showing love to others creates a positive difference for yourself, and a life of service is a life of true purpose and therefore true happiness. It is what we are really after in this life. We can be essentially selfish, seeking happiness in ourselves, but find happiness through finding value in others. It’s a win-win situation, and it’s almost too good to be true and yet still is. It’s because that is the way it was designed to work!

    Connecting the dots between being significant in others lives and true happiness is the formula for true success in ANY environment e.g., the military, the church, a business, etc. How do we do that? Well, I’ve brainstormed on this concept and here are a couple of ideas:

    -Create activities to where those under you can put into practice serving each other thereby being significant. Allow them to experience the happiness themselves so they will seek that feeling once again, providing an incentive for achieving significance in others lives.
    -Create an environment that notices and rewards being significant in the lives of those around you (whether it is in an office, building, group etc.). In this way we can package success and significance and show that they are essentials of each other. It’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to fail, and it’s not the end that counts but rather the means. Did you TRY to be significant? Good, that’s all that counts.
    -Consistently demonstrate and express the positive feeling of achieving significance in others lives publically. Otherwise, how will others choose between temporary happiness of success and the long term happiness of significance if they don’t know about it? They won’t. They will choose success by default.
    -Don’t endorse an environment that degrades the value of love. For example outdoing your colleague isn’t the goal; instead, it’s helping each other achieve their potential. Put value on helping each other, not out doing each other. Allow the idea of “serving others is essentially serving yourself” to become very apparent.

    Anyways, that’s just my thoughts on a great topic. Thanks again for all the helpful information.