Jim Collins’ Good To Great book has quickly become a classic…and for good reason. In this work, Collins coalesces ideas that have been floating around for a long time and places them into a narrative that is graspable and implementable.
Collins offers 6 major concepts in his text organized under three general categories. First he discusses “Level 5 Leadership” and “First Who…Then What” as part of the “Disciplined People” category. Next he discusses “Confront the Brutal Facts” and the “Hedgehog Concept” in the “Disciplined Thought” category. Finally, he covers the “Culture of Discipline” and “Technology Accelerators” concepts as part of the “Disciplined Action” category.
I will offer just some quick thoughts on a number of the concepts in this reflection.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to begin a reflection on this text without reference to the reflection that begins the text, “Good is the enemy of great.” I think this is relatively obvious for everyone once they see it, but how easy it is to get sucked into this vortex. So many things drive us to become content with lowest common denominator status quo. All kinds of systems and rules are set-up to make it extraordinarily difficult to move beyond such a state. This is why Collins book is particularly important. The book offers both the imagination and affirmation needed to give people a fighting chance to improve the way they engage with the surrounding world.
Collins’ Level 5 leaders are without a doubt absolutely vital to organizational success. He notes that these are leaders who are generally self-effacing, responsible, deeply believe in the work their organization is about and are committed to its success in the form of doggedly seeking and sustaining results. They are doubly vital for also avoiding any number of personality headaches along the way. Unfortunately, it seems that American sports franchises often do not take Collins’ research to heart. As a result, we read flabbergasting stories from this sector of society on a regular basis.
I am a people person. In fact, I have a statement that I often use, “always people before principle unless people are your first principle.” Thus, you can imagine that I find Collins’ “First Who…Then What” concept very important. This concept basically notes that you can have some of the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don’t have buy-in from people capable of implementing such vision, you’re at best going to be relegated to being “good” and may well fail completely. Contrastingly, this extended description from Collins offers a much more positive alternative option,
Members of the good to great teams tended to become and remain friends for life. In many cases, they are still in close contact with each other years or decades after working together…They enjoyed each others company and actually looked forward to meetings. A number of the executives characterized their years on the good-to-great teams as the high point of their lives. Their experiences went beyond just mutual respect (which they certainly had), to lasting comradeship…Adherence to the idea of “first who” might be the closest link between a great company and a great life. The people we interviewed fro the good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with.
So, I don’t know about you, but I’m fully on-board with this. Seems to be a pretty idyllic (and yet, realistic!) worklife vision.
I love the holistic, integrative conceptualization of the “Hedgehog Concept” combining personal passion, organization ability, and economic capacity. It makes complete sense that a company cannot pursue a Hedgehog orientation if it has not already committed itself to being a “First Who…” company. There is energy and synergy that arises in a team when the people who are part of it recognize the “potential” that is available for accomplishing the goals set before them.
This naturally leads into Collins’ “Culture of Discipline.” Discipline is a word with such negative connotations in our language and culture that – as good as this chapter and concept is – it is difficult for Collins to redeem the term. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline text at various times and places has weathered some of the same cultural blow-back resulting from previous negative application of the idea of discipline in many quarters. People would think, “Is discipline necessary? Sure. A celebration of it? That’s just sadistic.” Of course, Collins is talking about adherence to a thoughtfully responsible path made up of practices created through connection with the Hedgehog Concept that stands the best chance of maximizing strengths of a company’s ability. Perhaps another way of terming the process might be to use the Buddhist terminology of “paying attention” or of “being awake.” Persevering in following a dynamic vision has the promise of greatness in it.
Finally, employing all of the concepts that Collins writes about leads to a flywheel effect. Momentum builds slowly, but once inertia has been overcome through consistent and persistent small steps a strong, sustainable force is created that takes less energy to continue as it reaches capacity. This is an exciting stage for any organization. Let’s all be the kind of leaders and personnel to get ourselves to this point and keep ourselves there once we’ve attained it.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 12-13.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 118.
 Ibid., 142-143.
 Ibid., 186-187.