Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Rinse and Pay Attention

Written by: on September 13, 2019

There are many helpful lessons in Jim Collins’ research and writing. Good to Great offers practical help to those who are looking for ways to distinguish their organizations as thriving rather than simply surviving. However, more insight is gained when this book is paired with Collins’ companion work, How the Mighty Fall. These two books together offer a more comprehensive view of the way organizations rise and fall, providing a holistic look at the patterns and behaviors necessary for what he terms “greatness.”

I found one of Collins’ analogies especially helpful in the chapter, “A Culture of Discipline.” The analogy refers to a world-class Triathlon athlete, Dan Scott, and his practice of rinsing his cottage cheese before he ate. Scott burned at least 5,000 calories each day as part of his training regimen, so he obviously did not need to lose weight. However, he believed that rinsing the fat from his cottage cheese before he ate would only make his training more effective. He viewed this as “one small step added to all the other small steps to create a consistent program of super-discipline.”[1] Collins explains this principle of rinsing the cottage cheese in this way:

Much of the answer to the question of good to great companies lies in the discipline to do whatever it takes to become the best within carefully selected arenas and then to seek continual improvement from there.[2]

This seems simple, yet it is so difficult. This radical discipline forces leaders to look at every area in order to find excess in their organizations, and even more, discipline to trim the excess they find. The level of difficulty here is demonstrated in Collins’ later book, How the Mighty Fall. There, he explores the reasons the highlighted Good to Great companies lost their way and fell into decline. Collins names one of the contributing influences on this decline as the “undisciplined pursuit of more.”[3] He takes a second look at companies that were unable to continue with the patterns of discipline required, becoming obsessed with growth at all costs.

The greatest leaders do seek growth – growth in performance, growth in distinctive impact, growth in creativity, growth in people – but they do not succumb to growth that undermines long-term value. And they certainly do not confuse growth with excellence. Big does not equal great, and great does not equal big.[4]

Even though Collins is writing to the business leader with practical, how-to steps to grow a business, I wonder if the stories he tells of leaders rising and falling according to their ability to take the long view could also be applied to the experiences of the spiritual leader. In ministry leadership, where the long view is eternity; life and death rather than simply Q4 dividends, it seems just as easy to lose sight of the value of “rinsing the cottage cheese.”

Ministry leadership, depending on the context, may or may not have a different set of metrics than the leadership described by Collins. However, it does seem that decline happens when the leader stops applying the discipline to resist the excess and succumbs to an obsession with external growth. The pace of ministry can cause leaders to be overcome by all the doing, forgetting to “rinse the cottage cheese” of their own inner life. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton says this about leaders who forget to pay attention:

We long for a word from the Lord, but somehow we have been suckered into believing that the pace we keep offers little or no opportunity for paying attention and then wonder why we are not hearing from God when we need God most…One of the downsides of visionary leadership is that we can get our sights set on something that is so far out in the future that we miss what’s going on in our life as it exists now.[5]

Perhaps ministry leaders have more to learn from Collins than how to build better organizations. It seems his call to discipline could result in better lives all together…from surviving to thriving.



[1] James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, 1. ed. (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001), 127.

[2] Ibid., 128.

[3] James Charles Collins, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (New York s.l: Jim Collins, 2009), 45.

[4] Ibid, 54.

[5] R. Ruth Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, Expanded edition. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2018), 62-63.

About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

15 responses to “Rinse and Pay Attention”

  1. Thank you for going an extra mile to bring more of Jim Collins work to bear on the current subject book of good to great. It gives more insight on the issue of sustainability of producing great results. It’s clear that some of the companies that were highlighted by Collins fell after the publishing of his book. As you have pointed out, there’s a temptation to keep growing at the expense of excellence and the discipline to resist excessive external growth which may lead for a great organization to fall. I like your your reference to the downside of visionary leadership of focusing so far out in the future that you miss what’s is happening at the current moment.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thank you, Wallace. Yes, it seems that remaining realistic about the present while thinking about the future requires discipline for many. Have you found practices that make this more natural for you?

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I love that final line you inserted in your post, “It seems his call to discipline could result in better lives all together…from surviving to thriving.” Perhaps surviving to thriving would be much more applicable and actually helpful as a construct for non-profits, churches, and even ministry leaders. While I have never read Collins’ later work, I can appreciate organizational ups and downs, particularly across successive leadership teams over time. The true test of any leadership is across the inevitable march of time and change.

    • Harry Fritzenschaft says:

      P.S. I also now know why I have never been a world class triathalon athlete. I have never rinsed my cottage cheese. If I would have only read your post sooner!

      • Rhonda Davis says:

        Ha! Yes, Harry…this is clearly the missing piece of our athletic debut. 🙂

        In your coaching, have you found trends among “great” teams that survive the test of time?

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    I appreciate your naming an excessive pace as a lack of discipline. I feel like the word discipline is usually applied to a highly ordered, high pace regimen. But discipline in the Christian sense must be about staying the course of obedience regardless of the surrounding culture. What strategies would you recommend for this? How might we, as leaders, create an environment where we can be held accountable? Thanks for your insight Rhonda!

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Jenn, I wish I could say I am consistent in practicing the discipline required to keep myself out of a frantic pace. This is definitely something I am committed to learning, though. I find myself asking these questions of rhythm much more than providing answers. I am happy to be learning with great leaders like you.

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Rhonda, I agree! I found Collins’ work in “How the Mighty Fall” actually more helpful than these readings. “Unbridled creativity” is often found in organizations who are experiencing what they deem as some modicum of success, even churches. Growth is the metric we all like to focus on, but I think what we are measuring in terms of growth is the key.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Absolutely, Tammy. Since we seem to measure what we care about, and talk about what we measure, I would be interested in conversations about new ways to measure these formative benchmarks in the life of spiritual leaders. I know there is much to consider, but it would be a rich conversation to be sure.

  5. Andrea Lathrop says:

    This is great, Rhonda. I think these practices should be added to any thoughtful leader’s life as you have pointed out – resisting the excess and not succumbing to an obsession with external growth. Stay intimate with Jesus would surely allow for that. Thank you!

  6. Mary Mims says:

    Rhonda, I like that you included sections from How the Mighty Fall by Collins, since we can learn a lot from the failure of others. I also think some of these teaching can work for churches if we take the lessons and discipline ourselves to aid in success. I think that each of us need to look internally first; I know I have a long way to go!

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Mary, I completely agree. Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered an ability to bring the discipline I should to my inner life. I am grateful to be on the journey with you. Come, Holy Spirit, and teach us to be more like Jesus!

  7. Karen Rouggly says:

    The irony of this whole thing is that people who run at a frantic pace (myself included) scoff at the idea of rinsing cottage cheese. I mean, I barely have time to eat, let alone rinse my cottage cheese! Such a good post here, friend. Thanks for the thoughtfulness!

Leave a Reply