Favourite Leadership Resource #2: Good to Great

My favourite Christmas film is The Sound of Music. To this day, simple, everyday statements like “so long” or “favourite things” starts Julie Andrews singing in my head. When I think of where I started my reading in leadership, I’m therefore comforted to hear Julie approving that I started “at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start!”

The first leadership book I read seriously was Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Harper Business, 2001).The book is so foundational, it’s really a “must start” place for anyone entering senior leadership. Reading it for me felt something like a baptism into the world of leadership and management.

Collins’s work builds on years of solid research. His team researched what moved certain companies from being simply good to becoming great (hence the title) and reported not only on these findings but on their findings of direct comparison companies that did not fare as well.

Through their research, Collins’s team introduces us to some of the most foundational concepts for best business practices:

  • “Good is the enemy of great”;
  • “Level 5 Leadership” – Consistently, good-to-great leaders are not flashy, charismatic outsiders, but typically insiders who embody modesty and fearless resolve;
  • “First who, then what” – Get the right people on the bus, get the wrong people off the bus, then figure out where to drive;
  • “The Stockdale Paradox” – Confront the brutal facts facing your industry, but never lose faith in apparent no-win scenarios;
  • “The Hedgehog Concept” – Identify:


  • Create a “Culture of Discipline” – Not just the company’s leader, but the entire company develops a culture of disciplined people exercising disciplined thought leading to disciplined actions;
  • Carefully select “Technology Accelerators” – Avoid the bandwagon approach to new technologies, but use technology selectively to accelerate your hedgehog concept;
  • “The Flywheel and the Doom Loop” – Consistent, committed effort in the right direction exercised again and again and again will build momentum and lead to dramatic results. There are few shortcuts to breakthrough.

Through the book, Collins takes us from buildup to breakthrough:

good to great build up breakthrough flywheel-resized-600

I gobbled up this book, applying it immediately to our college context.

Overall, we were blessed with having the right Whos and an ability to face facts and keep the faith in an industry in decline. (We are a faith-based college, after all!)

We could identify our Hedgehog concept and have embraced a culture of discipline (meaning, among other things, adopting a model of shared governance and the arduous task of developing much needed policy in many areas!). I was able also to communicate Collins’s “Flywheel” concept to our wider constituency (see here), and the results are beginning to show (reported here).

Later, I discovered that Collins had self-published an addendum more particularly geared to our non-profit context: Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Among its more helpful social-sector applications is Collins’s modification of the “Hedgehog concept” to replace the “economic engine” (= profit) with the “resource engine” (= time, money, and brand). Although Collins summarizes key differences between the social and business sectors, however, he concludes that “Great business corporations share more in common with great social sector organizations than they share with mediocre businesses…the key question is not business versus social, but great versus good” (p. 30).

Perhaps significantly, Collins reports in Social Sectors that he hopes to see results of matched-pair research using non-business entities as the data set, indicating that “such research studies – done right – require up to a decade to complete” (p. 3). Since he published this work in July 2005, I wonder if we can anticipate a more substantial publication by July of next year?

Good to Great is so foundational that anyone who’s been in leadership for much time at all will already have – or will have intended to have – read it. For those who haven’t, “it’s a very good place to start!”

Favourite Leadership Resource #1: Start with Why

I mentioned last post that over the next few weeks I’ll blog on some of the resources I’ve found most influential on my recent journey into leadership. My criteria in selecting these particular resources is not only that they’re good, but that I implemented them immediately. The first such resource is Simon Sinek’s Start with Why.

Favourite leadership resource #1:


Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Toronto: Portfolio/Penguin, 2009. (Download a free chapter here.)

Sinek’s book expands on his extremely popular TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (here) and, for anyone in leadership, watching that talk is eighteen minutes well invested!

Sinek introduces “The Golden Circle,” what he identifies as a biological success formula:


In short, whereas most people and corporations begin by explaining WHAT they do – make computers, fly aeroplanes, teach mathematics -, successful people and corporations routinely begin by articulating WHY they do what they do. So Apple doesn’t “make computers” – that’s WHAT they do. Instead, Apple believes in challenging the status quo; in thinking differently. That they happen to make computers (their WHAT) is really only a particular expression of their WHY. This is why we’re also happy to buy from them cell phones and tablets and Apple tvs.

Sinek roots the success of beginning with WHY in biology, namely, the brain’s development. WHY takes place in the most ancient part of the brain, the pre-linguistic limbic region; WHAT occurs in our most developed part of the brain, the neocortex. WHY is from that part of us that is pre-rational, instinctual, giving us gut-level, deep-down beliefs, and it’s from that area that most of us still make most decisions about life.

Why Brain

Successful individuals and corporations tap into that basic region of human belief, making their products or services infinitely more attractive to consumers who share their basic beliefs than any rationalization or manipulation could achieve. This leads to Sinek’s often repeated mantra: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

So WHY functions as an almost un-articulable belief. HOW consists of the actions taken to realize that belief, and WHAT is the results of those actions.

Interestingly, and apparently completely independent of Sinek, Patrick Lencioni prescribes a similar path in his book, The Advantage.


Partrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (Jossey-Bass, 2012).

Lencioni prescribes six critical questions that leaders must answer to build healthy organizations. Significantly, these start with WHY, HOW, and WHAT:

Question 1: WHY do we exist?

Question 2: HOW do we behave?

Question 3: WHAT do we do?

Lencioni’s remaining three questions really amount to particularizing the first three. That is, whereas the first three questions identify something constant and almost timeless, the last three produce answers that are temporary and variable, strategies for successfully achieving WHY, HOW, and WHAT in particular – and regularly changing – contexts.

Question 4: How will we succeed?

Question 5: What is most important, right now?

Question 6: Who must do what?

Starting with WHY has been essential to our development as a Christian college. It gets us out of bed in the morning to realize that we don’t exist “to teach people.” That may be WHAT we do, but WHY we do it is to participate in God’s project of advancing His Kingdom in a hurting and broken world. It drives us to offer the highest quality training (WHAT) in ways that emphasize competency in Kingdom workers (HOW) because we believe God invites us into His Kingdom project (WHY).

To see more from Sinek, including the diagrams used in this post and free powerpoint presentations, see his website, here.