On the greatness of other people

April 2013

The last sentences on the last page of the May Harvard Business Review are the following lines from Maya Angelou, in answer to a question from the Review about what makes a leader great:

A leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.

There are two separate assertions here, one about not being too focused on oneself, and the other about seeing greatness in others. This latter one interests me particularly; however, when I mentioned it to my son, he had what may be called the family response: But what if the others aren’t great? To which I offered, for purposes of discussion, an American response: Faith in the greatness of others, or in any bit of wishful thinking, could prove to be more powerful than greater realism or clear-sightedness. Seeing greatness in others may bring out whatever greatness they have or inspire greatness where there has been none. And we might note, after Camus, that there can be a sterility in life without illusion.

A sterility, but also a dynamism, une passion, as Camus would have it, a feeling of really being alive, alive to the moment, to others! Heading back farther along this contrary path, we might come to Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy and his observation that history offers plenty of examples to show that it is best to assume all men to be wicked and that they will behave in a corrupt manner at every opportunity. It seems to me, too, that Maya Angelou has long been a kind of brand, or a voice for a particular, considered-inspiring view of life. Her role circumscribes greatly what she is able to say. And furthermore, we might all think of plenty of leaders—or putative leaders, at least—who were quite self-interested and not so impressed by anyone’s abilities besides their own. Another article in the same issue of the Review noted that “the CEO population is on average more narcissistic than the general . . . population is.” A reminder that most of the time, if not always, we humans, however expert we may consider ourselves to be, are simply talking through our hats. “Truth is words and words are talk,” as the Bonzo Dog Band put it ages ago.

And yet, I still like this idea of Angelou’s: “A leader sees greatness in other people.” (My emphasis added.)


I may here be accused of double-blogging, as the first draft of these comments appeared in my 27 April 2013 post in Zeteo is Reading—a feature of the City University of New York journal I lead. My duplicity is not without ulterior motive, however. For one, I would call attention to this Zeteo feature, in which contributors—strolling les boulevards of the City of Texts, we like to think—stop to share choice extracts from novels, a sign or text message, a Times op-ed or Harvard Business Review article (even). Secondly, on 1 May Zeteo (“The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing”) will be publishing its Spring 2013 issue. Its several articles and essays I recommend to all generalist intellectual readers. (Such as you?) Visit zeteojournal.com.


Image is of cheerleaders at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1948, from a Wikipedia article on Cheerleading.


Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Julia Conaway Bonadanella and Peter Bondanell (Oxford University Press, 1997).

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