Choosing to be great

Jim Collins has written some of the most influential books on leadership and organisational culture – Built to Last and Good to Great.  Catapult’s John Boyd provides a synopsis of his new book, Great by Choice.

The Core idea

Collins understands that professional life is full of uncertainty, with a fair amount of chaos thrown in.  The environment changes, people change, competitors do unforeseen things, things are rarely stable and plans are rarely completed unchanged. The authors researched why some companies prevail – even thrive – in uncertainty and chaos, while others do not.  From their research they debunk some myths around what it takes to lead in turbulent times, as well as identify leadership practices that work.

Five Myths busted

Myth: In turbulent times, the best leaders are bold, risk-taking visionaries.

The best leaders are in fact very disciplined.  They study the facts hard (what works, what doesn’t work) and are more paranoid (the authors’ word).

Myth: Innovation is the key to success in turbulent times.

It’s not the number of new things you do or produce well, it’s the discipline of doing a few things very well.

Myth: Fast companies are better companies.

The best leadership strategies are about knowing when to be fast, and when to be slow, or stop.  Companies that are all about speed do not travel well in tough times.

Myth: Big changes in the environment require big changes in the organisation.

The most successful organisations do not make radical changes to structure or systems when they hit turbulent times.

Myth: Some organisations are luckier than others.

Not so. Over time all organisations get the same breaks. Good leaders know a break when they see one, and know how to act on it.

Takeaways for leadership practice

The authors insist that in times of uncertainty great leaders are:

  • not more creative than other leaders
  • not more visionary
  • not more charismatic
  • not more ambitious
  • not luckier
  • not more willing to make bold moves
  • not more heroic

While they may have these qualities, what great leaders have in times of uncertainty are the following:

Fanatical Discipline

Discipline is ‘consistency of action’. Good leaders show consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, and consistency of method over time. Being consistent means not over-reacting to events or leaping at bright new opportunities.  It means not forgetting what works in favour of what might work.

Empirical Creativity

Social psychology tells us that when people don’t know what to do, they look to others or to experts for guidance.  Good leaders note what others are doing, but they focus fiercely on the facts.  They try always to act on evidence, not fashion. Facts fuel confidence, while fashions fuel hope.

Productive Paranoia

Like good chess players, good leaders consider the possible downsides before making any move.  They don’t live in the negative possibilities, but they understand them, even when things are going well.

Level 5 Ambition

Collins defines Level 5 Leadership in Good to Great as ‘a powerful mixture of personal humility plus professional will’.  Great leaders have this quality, and are passionately driven for a cause greater than themselves. They want to win, and they want to lead the people around them to shared wins.


John Boyd, is a Catapult Consultant specialising in facilitating strategic and business planning for organisations and teams. He has a passion and skill for helping organisations and teams develop clarity around where they’re heading and how to get there.