I cannot read a business book without automatically applying its lessons to my church or ministry, because I have never worked in the business world. My initial response tends to be negative, as my mindset is: “What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem?” So I began reading Good To Great by Jim Collins with a very skeptical attitude, only to be surprised by the many gems of wisdom that filled these pages. I think the reason this book resonated with me was the underlying thesis: greatness comes from one’s character, a clear focus, keeping core values and the careful collaborations, which are all important considerations for any ministry. As Collins further writes in Good to Great and the Social Sectors, not every lesson from Good to Great will apply to non-profits and church organizations, but he masterfully shows how the most important qualities of great business practices can inform social organizations.
Let me share with you just three gems of wisdom that stood out for me. The first insight is that the essential characteristic of the good-to-great leader is that she is compellingly modesty. Collins writes, “the good-to-great leaders didn’t talk much about themselves.”[i] Those who work with them “continually use words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believer his own clippings, and so forth.”[ii] And yet, these leaders are “equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”[iii] It is understandable that the later characteristics are necessary to grow a major corporation, but it seems quite extraordinary to find in such ambitious individuals true modesty and humility. As I pondered these two seemingly contradictory characteristics, I couldn’t help but think: here are the necessary qualities of a missionary. In order to pack up your family and put yourself into unfamiliar (and sometime hostile) situations requires both a great stoicism and an even greater resolve. Yet, in order to be an effective missionary, one must be vulnerable to the people and adaptive to the culture, to act humbly and graciously as Christ’s messenger of hope and love. However, it seems in many churches and businesses, the concept of a “modest leader” has no place. Today, churches seek that charismatic, driven mover and shaker with a bigger than life personality to bring to greatness their struggling church, or at least saving it from dying. The research suggests that companies led by such egocentric and driven personalities experience only temporary greatness and short-term growth. There is much antidotal evidence to show many churches experience the same results under similar leaders. The truly good-to-great organizations are those lead by driven, but truly modest and self-effacing, leaders.
Second, Collins suggests that good-to-great companies are those who “first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”[iv] What strikes me about this point is that it emphasizes the importance of people in the process of success. There is so much talk in churches about programs and methods, about buildings and equipment. But, in the midst of all these plans and programs, few ask who is available or equipped to do actual the work. The churches I’ve been involved with have always fallen short on understanding the importance of this principle. Often, leaders are chosen because of how long they (or their families) have attended the church, without any consideration of leadership skills or even interests. Further, the “niceness principle” of many churches makes it impossible to ask anyone, no matter how ineffective or disruptive they are, to get out of the boat. So, our churches long to be great and to follow the examples of the big churches without a willingness to change their mediocre leadership that has prevent growth and vision all along. Then they wonder way their church doesn’t grow. Being highly selective in who is brought into the leadership, in both churches and business, is even more important than determining (as Collin suggests) where the organization is going. Without qualities and skills of great leadership, it won’t matter where you are heading, because you probably won’t get there anyway.
Finally, Collin suggests that good-to-great companies follow the Hedgehog Concept. Two circles of the Hedgehog Concept include knowing “(w)hat you can be best at in the world” and “(w)what you are deeply passionate about.”[v] Here are such basic and simply ideas that many of the churches have no clue about. One church where I served as an elder, I asked the church leaders (out of frustration, I admit) a simple question: “Why do you think God placed our church in this place at this time?” In short, why are we here? I got nothing but blank stares and the discussion never got off the ground. The church never did decide what it could be best at (for God or the community) or what we were passionate about (what could turn that flywheel and stir our interest to sacrificially serve). My point wasn’t to get our church to be like other churches, but to find out what was our church’s DNA, what was our purpose and focus in this small corner of the world that God placed us. What should we be the best at? Answering these questions would have made possible for our leaders to decide what the church should be doing, and what it should stop doing. If you are clear about your core, then you can throw off all the stuff that distracts from being the very best you are called by God to be.
And there is so much more wisdom to draw from Good to Great. I am now convince, “the key question is not about business versus social, but great verses good.”[vi] Shouldn’t we all be interested in seeing God’s church becoming more than just good?
[i] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 27.
[iii] Ibid., 30.
[iv] Ibid., 40.
[v] Ibid., 95-6.
[vi] Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), p.30.