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“Good to Great”

Theories about leadership are plentiful. What can we learn, though, by a perceptive study of real leaders who have succeeded?
In his bestseller “Good to Great,” Jim Collins describes the characteristics of consistently high performing companies and their leaders. Of the 1435 Fortune 500 companies studied (1965 – 1995), only eleven survived his team’s rigorous selection criteria.

What I particularly relish about this rigorously researched study is just that: it is fact-based. This isn’t some theoretician’s musings about what superb leadership entails. Collins and his team have crystallized for us the shared characteristics of leaders whose achievements have demonstrated long-term substance in the real world.

Here are some of those common characteristics that were particularly striking to me. His findings are followed by my own observations (in parentheses):

1. A paradox of qualities
Collins and his team were struck by the leadership qualities among the people who spearheaded the transitions from good to great. They noted a paradoxical mix of professional will (resolve, drive), and personal humility (self-effacing, quiet, humble). Yes, they exhibited a determination that sometimes seemed obsessive, but this was masterfully balanced with an ability to listen, to ask questions stemming from genuine curiosity, and the recognition that others held pieces of truth that needed telling. Though they were remarkably talented, they carried no airs of self-importance. As one said, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

(Notable by their absence are some of the more colorful, self-promoting characters of the American economic scene, e.g., Lee Iacocca, Al Dunlap or Jack Welch.)

2. The mirror and the window
A consistent characteristic of Collins’ highly effective leaders is that they did not blame external factors for their difficulties. (This relates to the notion of humility above, but is worth separate ink!) He describes the “mirror and window” concept: when all was going well, these exemplary leaders tended to see through the window to good fortune and to all the wonderful efforts of others. They were grateful people and quick to praise. However, when times were tough, rather than looking outside and blaming, they looked in the mirror to identify what needed to change within themselves and the organization.

(The American economic graveyard is littered with companies that failed at this critical self-examination and focus. When I hear an exasperated leader bemoaning the sorry state of his/her employees, or market conditions, or the unfairness of competitors, I’ll invite them to turn from the window and look toward the mirror. When all is said and done, this is where the change needs to begin.)

3. The right people first
These leaders hired and promoted people for their character at least as much as for their knowledge. In fact, having the right people preceded a fully-constructed vision and strategy! “They first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – and then they figured out where to drive it.”

(This correlates with research on the regrets of leaders: The number one regret expressed by leaders is that they retained an incompetent person in a key position for too long!)

4. Creating a culture where the truth is told
The title of the chapter is “Confront the Brutal Facts”. Here again, a paradox emerged: “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Strong leaders in particular need to be highly conscious of the barrier to honest communication their presence can create. Unless their people are forthright with what they are seeing and sensing, and unless the leader models and promotes curiosity and truth-telling, the facts will be ignored.

(In “The Abilene Paradox”, Jerry Harvey recounts numerous business failures resulting from the collective, systemic unwillingness within companies to do just this! An “As if” culture emerges, in which we continue down the strategy path with rose-colored glasses, no one daring to mention the absence of clothes on the Emperor! Fate is sealed for companies in which the internal or external questioners are ignored or dismissed.)

5. You don’t need to motivate!
• “The good-to-great companies paid scant attention to managing change, motivating people, or creating alignment. Under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation and change largely melt away.”
• “…expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time…If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated. The real question then becomes: How do you manage in such a way as not to de-motivate people?”
• “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.”

(Again, note the link to the humility of the leader! There is another article in my archives that relates to this: “Ignorance as a Leadership Virtue.”)

Final reflection
One of the more encouraging conclusions Collins and his team offer is this gem: “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” It is a choice to turn to the mirror vs. the window. It is a choice to abide by the discipline of finding and retaining the right people. It is a choice, interaction by interaction, to create a culture in which the truth is spoken and heard. These are the simple, profound disciplines that lead from “Good to Great.”


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