Success Versus Significance

by Stephen T. Messenger

July 13, 2021

Last week I completed my Battalion Command experience—it has truly been an honor to lead America’s best and brightest. I was challenged, humbled, and encouraged by the great men and women who so diligently work on behalf of our Nation. While I learned many lessons from the job, my enduring takeaway came from a John Maxwell podcast I revisited when driving to my next duty location: “Success versus Significance.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal glory in our workplaces. Unfortunately, much of any career rests on the next job assignment, evaluation report, or school. In the military, there is an up-or-out culture where after a few years in rank, the only two options are promotion or retirement. This forces military members to work towards getting that great report card which assesses their potential favorably against their peers. I know from personal experience this culture permeates the civilian sector as well.

Maxwell would call this success: the attitude of saying it’s all about me, my success, and my performance.  Success provides a feeling of personal accomplishment and pride. Although the desire to be the best is admirable, doing so solely for personal benefit is not.

General George Patton is an example of successful leadership. He was a highly gifted leader who relentlessly fought for victory and glory. His exploits were well known: Olympic athlete, leader of America’s first motorized attack in Mexico, General Pershing’s aide in World War I, and aggressive tank Commander in Europe during World War II.

He petitioned General Eisenhower for the prestige of leading Allied forces during the D-Day invasion. He was removed, however, for mistreatment of soldiers. In Europe, he constantly asked for the resources to fuel a push towards Berlin but was denied to support the collective needs of the Allied advance. To be fair, his aggressive leadership was crucial to the Allies victory. However, it always seemed more about Patton than about an overall victory.

Significance is the legacy that one leaves behind. Long after a leader departs an organization, their impact on organizational culture, attitude, and processes will remain. Moreover, their imprint on individual followers, peers, and supervisors will ressonate for a lifetime, good or bad. We can all remember leaders from our past that have left lasting impressions on how we lead.

This quality makes me think of General George Marshall. He had every right to become the Supreme Allied Commander instead of Dwight Eisenhower in World War II. President Roosevelt was ready and willing to appoint Marshall as the one who would liberate the world from Nazi oppression. However, Marshall understood his current position as Chief of Staff in Washington was more important than his personal glory. He declined this historic position and remained in the background of the war.

In this capacity, he was the architect of the Army’s senior leadership team. He was the one prior to World War II who replaced aging, senior leaders with the next generation of Army leadership. He was in the States as the mastermind of preparing American ground forces for the invasions against Germany and Japan. And he was the one who turned down personal success for the good of the Nation—General Eisenhower eventually went on to become President. Marshall’s actions created a lasting significance of leadership through others resonating across the armed forces and America.

During my command, I attempted to be significant. I wanted to channel my inner George Marshall and make a legacy impact on the battalion. Two of our four lines of effort were the following:

– Develop leaders of strength and character

– Set conditions for future success.

Leveraging these initiatives, I met every leader to talk about their personal lives, military service, goals and dreams, and systematic improvements. I attempted to have deep conversations about the enduring success and culture of the unit along with helping them achieve their individual goals. I tried to show them that they are more than just a cog in the machine, but a valued member of the organization. Moreover, I tried to create lasting changes that will positively impact the unit years from now.

I was successful as a battalion commander, but if personal glory is the measuring post of victory, we are measuring the wrong things. Leadership is never about the leader; it is about those we lead and the organizational mission. Success may be the by-product of great leadership, but it cannot be the objective.

Success is found in myself. Significance is found through others. I pray we all are leaders who consistently leave a legacy of significance and positively impact the lives of others for decades to come.

One thought on “Success Versus Significance

  1. Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog site is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my users would really benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Appreciate it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: