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:
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!”