In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, business management researcher Jim Collins attempts to define what separates good organizations from great ones. By researching companies that have had strong success against those who have merely been good, or only had outstanding success for a season, or simply tanked, Collins comes to the conclusion that: “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice (loc 213).” Collins then lays out several conceptual markers for success in any organization which include: Level 5 Leadership, First Who… Then What, Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith), The Hedgehog Concept (of finding the simple essence of what an organization does best and perfecting it and honing it) and The Flywheel Concept (seeing change as a long and slow process of “relentless pushing a giant heavy flywheel in one direction”) (loc 245).
Possibly one of the biggest surprises in Collins’ findings pertains to the nature and character of a leader, in what he terms as the need for Level 5 Leadership. Collins found that truly exceptional companies had leaders who were not great, charismatic and grandiose figures, but were instead actually people who blend “extreme personal humility with intense professional will” (loc 367). That is to say that great leaders are not ego driven, but are driven solely by being able to execute the success of the organization and the people around them. When things go well, they give praise to those around them who aided in the success, deflecting praise and accolades away from themselves. Conversely, they take full credit for mistakes and failures. That is not to say that these people are weak or soft, to the contrary, their ambition to succeed and to make hard sacrifices to get there is extremely high.
Much of our present day culture of course assumes that those who are out front, are comfortable in the limelight, articulate and charismatic, are automatically going to great leaders. Our culture tends to reward ego, and even reinforces it. This of course seeps into the church and para-church where often more and more we find ourselves ensconced in a culture of celebrity. But, is this good leadership? I do not mean to suggest that people gifted with amazing speaking and presentation skills, nor people of amazing personality, cannot be good leaders. Instead, what Collins suggests is that this is not enough to lead an organization into greatness. Humility certainly gains trust and loyalty, but the key is that when a leader puts his own wealth and renown over the that of the company, they will make decisions and isolate workers in a way that is detrimental to the well-being of the company. I wonder how often churches and Christian organizations have seen capable leadership rise through its ranks only to find out later that the leader truly put his own success and comfort ahead of the organization and the mission?
Interestingly, Collins seems to have stumbled onto possibly the Biblically embedded model of leadership. Humble, servant hearted leadership committed to the mission at all costs. Paul certainly embodied this type of leadership, clearly talented, privileged, and called by Jesus, he attempted to empty himself of all arrogance and pride, to become a true servant of all, and gave everything for the cause of the gospel. He only helped to launch the global Christian movement.
Collins point is that charismatic leaders can be successful, however, their success will only be good, fleeting, or it will fail to set up the successor for greatness. However, it is the Level 5 Leader which can truly lead an organization to greatness. One real life example pertains to current Egyptian national soccer team coach, American Bob Bradley. Bradley has coached successfully at Princeton University, won an MLS title with the Chicago Fire, and coached the US National Team to various milestones (beating Spain in an international tournament, finishing 1st place in CONCAF World Cup Qualifying, a Gold Cup Title, and winning their World Cup Group over England). During his tenure with the US, he was often criticized by the press and fans as being un-charismatic, stoic, too quiet, and a closed book. But, those close to the coach and the team often spoke of a man of deep commitment and gentle humility. In his new position as coach of Egypt, Bradley has taken the team on an incredible winning streak through African World Cup qualifying, all the while Egypt has descended into chaos and violence. Bradley and his wife have shown their commitment to the team, the goal, and the people of Egypt, continuing to live in Cairo through the violence and instability. Bradley has tirelessly advocated for his players and associates and the people of Egypt, even as his offices were burnt down in a riot. Through it all, Bradley now has Egypt only two games away from appearing in their first World Cup Finals in 24 years.
Extreme personal humility with intense professional will. The character of a great leader.