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Jim Collins: What the best leaders have in common

Jim Collins, leadership expert and author of the bestselling book Good to Great, is surprised by the findings of his latest research into what makes great companies successful, a topic he has studied for 25 years.

“To me it’s the most delightful bit of new research that we’ve done,” he says, joie de vivre crackling down the line from Boulder Colorado. That Collins and his long-time collaborator Morten Hansen found that luck does not distinguish the winners from the “others” was a huge surprise for him. “Our most successful leaders credit luck as helping them along the way. But luck itself doesn’t distinguish, it’s what you do with it. The big swing variable is return on luck. When luck hits you, whether it’s good or bad, it’s how the best leaders recognise it and are able to pivot on it in such a way that they get more out of that luck than anyone else would.”


Collins is now “puzzling on this delicious idea” and wants to know the “alchemy of the ability to get a higher return on luck”. He’s also getting ready to head to this country for a series of presentations in Sydney and Melbourne and the long-time climber also wants “to test his hands on some Australian rock”. He sees close parallels with the approach he brings to his research and the vertiginous world of rock climbing – where he has scaled frankly scary edifices such as the 914-metre south face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. The trick is to approach each challenge as if for the very first time. He declares: “I love to be a beginner and be pushed to expand my capabilities. The research journey has never been about finding what we expected to find. It was being open-minded and childlike about what the data would show.

The research journey has never been about finding what we expected to find

“In rock climbing I like picking the kind of climbs I’m not good at. I’ve been climbing for over 40 years, but every year or two I identify my two or three deficiencies as a climber. If I just did the sorts of climbing that suits me well, well that’s relatively dull.” Recently he’s been practising “off-widths”, a type of hold that’s apparently horrifying for a climber. “It’s a crack that is a really bad size – not big enough to get inside of, but it’s not small enough to wedge your hand in – it’s an in-between space. You feel like a victim of drowning when you try to climb up one of these spaces,” he adds quite gleefully.

To be able to lay down the foundations of mastering this hold Collins will have to go back to climbing basics. “There’s so much pressure, especially in the world that I walk, to always be an expert and I kind of like being a beginner and I hope I have that until the day I die.”


Collins reads widely outside the business discipline and takes courses in esoteric subjects and believes managers can benefit from letting the outside in. “If you are a manager why not understand the history of China or biochemistry, you have the joy of learning which never ends.” Another tip a former Stanford professor gave him is to “rather than try and be interesting, be interested in others”. “It was a life-changing moment, you never know who you might be sitting next to at a dinner party or on an aeroplane, discover their passion or their inner life or specialist field.

“One of the things we learned way back in Good to Great was that these great leaders had a somewhat Socratic style. They were humble enough to know that they may not have the answers, but what they were really good at was asking the questions,” says Collins, who also rates detachment as a quality of a great leader.

“I think people confuse empowerment with detachment. The best executives that I’ve studied really know the details of what their people are doing. That doesn’t mean they are directing them but they are hyper aware because they are really curious. That doesn’t mean they jump in and are micro managers, it means they are micro aware.” He cites a former student’s experience of being a product manager at Microsoft in the early 1990s. He told Collins that when he was putting the packaging information on Windows 95 together, the person most interested in the process was Bill Gates. “In the early 1990s Microsoft was already a juggernaut and he was really engaged in this particular detail. He wasn’t telling, he was asking. If he could do that while running Microsoft then we could all do that,” he says.



Celebrity CEOs is another hot button issue for Collins. He’s adamant that his research shows no correlation between personality and leadership. “People confuse charisma and leadership. Being charismatic or not is as relevant as having blonde hair or brown hair. It’s about whether you are fundamentally ambitious for the company and willing to make the hard decisions. You have an incredible passion and determination for an organisation’s long-term role in the world. And it’s about your ability to get people to do what must be done rather than it being about you.”

But then what about the late and mercurial Steve Jobs, who was considered the messiah by Apple fanatics worldwide? “Steve Jobs was dedicated to doing everything he could to make Apple an enduringly great company. If he was a genius with 1000 helpers how do you explain Tim Cook or the designers or software writers? He is someone whose great successes were pretty boring – it was about getting the right people in to build the systems and organise them into an incredible culture. He was focused on building a great company that would last beyond him. And towards the end he was racing against the clock to do that.”

Collins believes that middle managers in not-so-great-companies can even make a difference with this attitude. He says take a leaf out of the military and focus on your “unit and troops”. “If you make it a pocket of greatness you are more likely to die of indigestion of too much opportunity for responsibility, than starvation for too little. Even if you don’t, fundamentally you owe it to your people to create a great place to work, if you manage six or 20 people, it doesn’t matter.”


Level 5 Leaders:

Level 5 is about really relentless extreme ambition but it’s channelled outside yourself. That’s the essence of level 5 – it’s ambition channelled into something that’s bigger and more enduring than you are – that often shows up in more self-effacing people but it doesn’t have to.

The bus:

To illustrate how people-smart leaders work, Collins uses the analogy of the bus driver. He says most assume that these “bus drivers” start the journey by announcing to the passengers where they are going, by setting a new direction or articulating a fresh corporate vision. Not so. Great leaders start not from “where” but with “who”. “They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline – first the people, then the direction – no matter how dire the circumstances.”


“What being a hedgehog means is that you are doing something so distinctive and with sheer excellence that if your company disappeared it would leave a hole that could not be easily filled by any other institution. In an uncertain global business environment being a hedgehog is even more important not less. Push yourself to the next big thing rather than worrying about what others might do. You still need to be hyper vigilant about outside market forces and changing consumer tastes, but to truly be a great hedgehog, you are not asking ‘what’s the next big thing’, you are asking ‘what’s the next big thing we are going to do?’”


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