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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
 James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, 1. ed. (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001), 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 James Charles Collins, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (New York s.l: Jim Collins, 2009), 45.
 Ibid, 54.
 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.