Becoming great and sustaining greatness is the theme of Jim Collins’ books, Good to Great and Good to Great in the Social Sectors which the author describes as prequels to his previous work Built to Last. Unfortunately, his case studies included companies such as Circuit City which filed bankruptcy just seven years after the publishing of Good to Great and closed its doors a year later. Interestingly, Collin’s work How the Mighty Fall may be the most important read of all.
Collin’s has given himself to the study of business management at Stanford University for decades as a student and faculty member while also being a researcher of many well known corporations. His books on greatness and lasting sustainability take the approach of dispelling myths, which is always a refreshing idea, except there is a temptation to create new ones in their place. By creating “how to” concepts authors tend to date themselves often becoming irrelevant with time. Thus, the “cracking the walnut” metaphor was used in Beebe Nelson’s review of Collin’s works. “Read these books the way you’d eat a walnut. Crack them open, ignore the internal structure, and go for the meat.”
This “cracking the walnut” approach is necessary for church leaders when attempting to put Good to Great principles into practice. Collin’s work on the social sectors was a welcomed response as it gave leaders in those sectors, including church leadership more translatable concepts to consider. Attempting to utilize business principles in the church can be difficult at best and can often lead to the opposite leadership posture than Jesus intended when he defined greatness.
One of the most defeating practices for many is to read books like Collins’ and then experience anything but greatness especially when the internal structure takes precedent over the meat. Garvey Berger and Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders describe this era that often contributes to this defeat:
No matter how good leaders are, they find themselves dealing with problems – and opportunities – more difficult or complex than anything they’ve known before. Superb leaders have long known that they need to find ways to ‘think anew and act anew,’ especially as their plates become ‘piled high with difficulty’…Leadership by its very definition is about taking people and ideas to new places.
These VUCA times, as they have been described, can cause the concepts in Collins’ work to seem written for a bygone era if leaders let volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity to become overwhelming. Harvard Business Review gave a helpful perspective by defining what VUCA really means for us. Authors Bennett and Lemoine describe characteristics of these terms as follows:
- Volatility – “the challenge is unexpected or unstable and may be of unknown duration, but it’s not necessarily hard to understand; knowledge about it is often available.”
- Uncertainty – “despite a lack of other information, the event’s basic cause and effect are known. Change is possible but not a given.”
- Complexity – “the situation has many interconnected parts and variables. Some information is available or can be predicted, but the volume or nature of it can be overwhelming to process.”
- Ambiguity – “causal relationships are completely unclear. No precedents exist; you face ‘unknown unknowns.’”
What is a leader to do in these times? Crack the walnut. Look for timeless truths and principles that aid in the practice of becoming, rather than looking for prescriptions for greatness within the organization. Become the Level 5 leader Collins describes, one who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” That greatness may not always be the outcome of the organizations itself, but the person being transformed called “the leader.” In VUCA times, after almost four decades of leadership, I am more convinced and determined than ever that focusing on what I can control, me, is the most important priority. Who am I becoming and how am I influencing others in their process of becoming? That’s the meat that will build true leadership.
Beebe Nelson, and Kenneth B. Kahn. “Book Reviews.” Journal of Product Innovation Management 20, no. 3 (May 2003): 263.
Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times:Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 6-8.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001), 20.