Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t

by Jim Collins


It’s unusual for me to read as many “leadership” books as I’ve consumed over the past few months; however, Ryan and I as leaders of our church have committed to digest several to make sure that we’re speaking the same leadership lingo and are balanced in our approach to shared leadership.

As we read, we’re seeking to compare the principles of leadership with those of scripture and use what is refined to advance our leadership skills and cast aside what is dross.

Good to Great may be one of the single best books on leadership I’ve ever read. It speaks to leading, managing, and creating an enduring organization or business. As it applies to churches, for the most part, it is extremely applicable.

The author, Jim Collins, begins with the assertion that “good is the enemy of great.” Can we get a standing “O” for that stunning self-evident principle. There are just way too many churches settling for what is mediocre in their efforts, programs and sometimes, even staff. The church, of all places, should be one of the shining examples of joyous pride in who we represent and serve. Unfortunately, because it’s inhabited by people like you and me, it too often “settles” for what will “just get us by.” Collins urges us to press toward excellence. In the context of the church, we should never offer to God less than our best.

Here are the obeservations of the book as it relates to organizations that shed “good” and pressed on toward greatness. In this massive research project, of which the book is the result, Collins identifies these elements as what is common among “great” companies:

  • Level 5 Leadership
  • First Who, Then What
  • Confront the Brutal Facts
  • The Hedgehog Concept
  • A Culture of Discipline
  • Using Technology as an Accelator
  • Flywheel Momentum

As a summary…
Level 5 Leadership is described by Collins as dynamic leaders who realize that to be great, you have to combine “intense personal humility with intense professional will.” These are not leaders who go around reminding themselves to be humble (“I must be humble, I must be humble…) but rather who simply demonstrate a quiet humility as they lead. These leaders are attractive to those they lead because they inspire, motivate, and move aside to let others lead. They don’t see themselves as the cog that turns all the gears. However, they do have “an unwavering resolve to do what must be done” in order to lead the organization toward greatness. One interesting observation: in the companies studied that exemplifed the “Good to Great” principles, these Level 5 Leaders emerged from within the organization, rather than being brought in from the “outside.”

First Who, Then What speaks to the importance, as Collins says, of “getting the right people on the bus.” The reverse is also true: get the wrong people off the bus. In other words, the leadership must have a strong commitment to one another and must have dynamic personal character and competence. If you don’t have the right people leading the organization, the entire effort will falter. It seems elementary, but a survey of the business and church culture reveals immediately that in many places there are folks in leadership who really don’t belong there. Organizations have “settled” and promoted people into leadership that simply don’t belong there. Collins says to go after and get the very best people you can find. People of dynamic personal integrity, people who work tirelessly for the success of the organization. Once you have such people “on the bus” with you, THEN you begin to create an overarching vision for the organization.

This flies in the face of other leadership materials which urge you to develop a vision first and then invite folks to “buy into it.” However, Collins’ study found that when your lead team is committed to one another and people of great motivation, then they can not only help shape the vision, but if the the vision changes, they have no problem adapting since they’re committed to the team and the organization. On the other hand, if people are more commmitted to the vision, then if circumstances or concepts change within the organization, they have a difficult time making a transition to new ideas.

When in doubt, he says, don’t hire. Wait. The “right people” are that important.

Confronting the brutal facts is the way to honestly assess where the organization is… and isn’t. Don’t allow the organization to be self-deceived about its success or lack thereof. Rigorously scrutinize the facts. Use questions to dig beneath the surface of the organization. Even as you confront perhaps uncomfortable truth about where you are, make sure you retain “absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

The Hedgehog Concept is one of the keys to the whole process of becoming great. It is actually three perspectives:

  1. Focus on what you are deeply passionate about.
  2. Focus on what you can be the best in the world at.
  3. Focus on what drives your economic engine.

Of the three, the last is the most confusing for non-profit and church organizations. Collins recognizes that and has written an additional monograph to help these organizations interpret this step.

The Hedgehog Concept simply helps you focus. It requires the organization to urge simplicity of what you love doing and are able to do with excellence. It requires the leaders to understand what their organization can and should excel at – not what others are doing.

You cannot have any of the above if there is not a culture of discipline within the organization. This is not advocating a rigid structure but “providing freedom within a framework.” Collins says that great organizations have disciplined people with disciplined thought who follow through with disciplined action. This discipline must be evident in the leaders – in self motivation, in initiative, and in their thinking.

This discipline enables them to radically and sacrificially adhere to their Hedgehog Concept when it becomes tempting to branch out into nonessentials and activities that might dilute their impact.

The study also found that while it’s important to use technology, no “great” company bought into techonology and expected the technology alone to make them great. “If we buy this or use this, we’ll be successful…” Rather, they use technology to accelerate productivity but not be the cause of it.

The Flywheel concept is used an illustration of long-term vision and consistent effort. A flywheel is an extremely heavy disc mounted on an axis. It can’t be turned with just one push… or two… or three. Constant effort and pushing must be applied to achieve even the first revolution; however, once it begins to turn, it becomes easier and easier to build up speed and momentum. Collins uses this analogy to demonstrate that all great companies realized that they would not change overnight. It never happens in “one fell swoop.” He says, “There is no miracle moment.”

Rather than looking for a quick fix, leaders of great organizations keep their basic principles in front of them consistently and through a long, determined effort in the same direction, see the organization begin to pick up momentum and emerge as a great company.

This is no fluff piece. Collins’ work is dynamic and a must-read for anyone leading these days. It refutes the work of 80% of leadership books in print. It is a distinctly practical book, but it also at the same time unearths age-old principles that can be found in the Book of Books, the Bible.

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