Jim Collins: The Case for Being Great

This is the fifth of five parts.

In a recent interview with Chief Executive, we asked Jim Collins, one of the most-admired management thinkers of our time, about the purpose and responsibility of business and business leaders in our society today. (Read part one of the interview on Leadership in America, part two on the real legacy of Steve Jobs, part three on the big question and part four on the big takeaways of his career.)

Jim Collins: So… I hesitate on answering for a simple reason, which is that as I come at the world, there’s kind of a big “if/then” gate that you go through. And I feel strongly that the gate is an invitation, but not an admonition. Let me explain. The admonition would be kind of a finger-wagging to say, “Thou shalt try to build a great and noble company that has a really big impact on the world,” as if it’s almost like a moral imperative. I actually don’t see it as a moral imperative, I would just hope that people would be inspired by the idea. Not everybody will be.

And so, I look at it as, if that idea inspires you, the idea that, “Hey, we could just have a successful business, or we could try to build something impactful, indispensable, lasting and affect a whole lot of lives, both internal and external.” If that appeals to you, then we have a lot we can share with you about how to do that, because that’s what we’ve studied. If it doesn’t appeal to you, then we’re sort of in different rooms. You haven’t signed up for the right class. So I kind of think of it as…I don’t…I view it as an invitation to pursue a higher standard, as opposed to a judgmental admonition that one must be…

And this is the question that was actually once asked you in a much more…much more brevity when someone asked you, “Well, why be great?”

Yeah. Yeah. And my answer’s always been the same, which is that, “Why would you do less?” I mean, you can, so why don’t you? I mean, if you’re going to write a book, then why not make it that when you send it off to the publisher, it is the absolute…you could not have done better? Now…and I think that at some level, it’s an internal drive to create something that is the very best that you can create. And it’s really hard to answer, because it’s just that to me, it’s just a…I feel like I’ve got a classroom of people who just accepted that if…yeah, they walked in and said, “I really would like to do that. I’d like to learn.” But why does it…but why that?

I guess the question in some ways is, why join the class?

Yeah, yeah. I think that…or…and why teach the class? Why this topic? It’s a great question.

So I guess, first of all, starting out studying companies, I ask the question about business, right? Maybe I’ll answer it more in terms of a story of what appealed to me from the business side, but then, extend it to how it became larger than that.

I was 22 or 23 years old and I was working at McKinsey & Company in San Francisco and I was a math person. Principally, I was writing computer code and doing mathematical modeling and things like that, because I’d come from a math background. So I’m working one weekend on the microcomputer, eight-inch floppies and writing spreadsheets before they were spreadsheets. I walked out in the hallway and I looked down the hallway and by the Xerox machine, there was a stack of orange binders. And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting,” because McKinsey binders are blue. And I thought, “What were these orange binders?”

So I walked down and I pick one up and it says, “The Excellence Project.” I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. That’s curious. I wonder what that is.” So I started flipping through. Well, Tom Peters’ office was right across the hall from me and Bob Waterman had hired me. In Search Of Excellence had come out in 1982, this was 1980 or 1981 and In Search Of Excellence was in its research phase. And I just was intrinsically drawn to the question of “The Excellence Project,” like somehow, excellence spoke much more to me than success or profitability. It’s just…there was just something exquisite about the word.

Jim Collins: The Chief Executive Interview
Part 1: On Leadership in America | Part 2: The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs | Part 3: The Big Question | Part 4: The Big Takeaways | Part 5: The Case for Being Great

And then, you go back to the Greek notion of excellence, it doesn’t need a justification. Hector going out there to face Achilles isn’t because he’s going to win. There’s a standard of excellence of what it would mean to be Hector and his responsibility. It’s about an excellence, even though he was going to die, right? There was just something about that word that’s so rich and so, it drew me in. So I went to the people who were doing the research and I said, “Is there any way I can get involved with this?” I mean, I’m 22 years old.

And they said, “Well, we need some background research,” and I said, “Well, what company?” And they said, “Boeing,” and I said, “Okay.” So I go and I did, just on my own time, go off and I started researching Boeing. And I find this tremendous, heroic story of this company that lost 92% of its revenues at the end of the Second World War, had built Super Fortresses that had helped sort of save the free world. And then, the company nearly dies, the CEO does die, he gets replaced by this guy named Bill Allen.

And he comes in and he starts thinking about what the company could be. I mean, he transforms that KC-135 tanker into a Boeing 707, bets the company on the future, brings the world into the jet age, does the 727, 737 and then does the 747, just like…I mean, it was a mind-blowing set of accomplishments. And I remember sitting there and thinking, “This is the grandeur of it, the audacity of it.” I mean, he just thought big. He was doing amazing things with the company, coming out of the near-death at the end of the Second World War.

I thought to myself, “This is a great, amazing, heroic story.” I was just drawn in by the humanness of it and the bigness of it and the impact of it, because I could picture myself flying a 747. As well, maybe there wouldn’t have been 747s without these people. And so, I thought…I didn’t think it was just like, “Wow, they had this great strategy for making more money.” It was like, “No, they had the audacity to build the 747. They had the audacity to bring the world into the jet age.” That appealed to me.

And then they were able to continue doing it, right? It was just this sort of…they built a company that could do this, because you can’t do this as a person sitting in a garage. You can’t build a 747 in your garage, or with 10 people doing coding. You’ve got to build a 747, right? And so, it’s just somehow, the whole thing appealed to me as this great, heroic thing that they did. And so, I thought to myself, “That’s interesting.” And it went into my head and I think what happened is, then when I took over teaching that course in “Entrepreneurship In Small Business,” that seed popped out again. And it was just…it was like, “Well, why not do something like that?” I mean, “Why not understand how that happened?”

So I think what happened is just, the word “excellence” then translated into kind of the notion of the enduring great…and really trying to rigorously understand all that, it hit me. I was 22 years old and it just hit me, but it was never about business. It was about how do people get together and do something amazing and lasting. And that was the question—that was what I wanted my Stanford students to do—and taking on the responsibility to do that.

Edited for length and clarity.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net and Boardmember.com. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.