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Jim Collins: On Leadership In America

Studying troubled schools and teaching at West Point left Jim Collins incredibly optimistic about leadership in America. Here’s what he learned, and why it matters.

This is the first of five parts.

It’s a dreary, rainy fall day in Boulder Colorado. News of the Las Vegas shooting, just hours old, adds to the gloom. At a conference table in the crisp, pure-white offices of Jim Collins, author of four of the most influential business books of the last 50 years—Built to Last, Good to Great, How The Mighty Fall and Great by Choice—our conversation starts off, perhaps unsurprisingly, with books. Turns out we have more than a few favorites in common, rich, fat tomes about power, and leadership, especially Robert Caro’s majestic The Power Broker, as well as Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. But one book that Collins says really surprised him because it made such a lasting impression was Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington.

“I used to think that no president could touch Lincoln,” says Collins as the drizzle spatters outside. “I came away from Chernow’s Washington thinking: ‘Whoa. It’s a close call.’ When you really think about how he did not want to be president. And the sense of almost sacrifice and burden that he had to carry, but he didn’t want it. He just wanted to go back to take care of the farm. But there was one person who could be the first president. There was only one. And he absolutely didn’t want to do it.

“He could have been a king. And he could have gotten us entangled in Europe and he could have, I mean, for someone who wasn’t traditionally book smart, he was incredibly wise. He was the Cincinnatus. But anyways…”

Chief Executive. No, it’s a perfect segue, because people seem hungry for leadership right now. There seems to be a real desire to understand it, a real desire to have it. What’s your take on leadership right now? On leadership in America?

Jim Collins. My views have evolved over time. As you know from our earlier work, I placed less emphasis on the importance of leadership than I do now. Essentially, when we were studying in Built to Last, we were looking at companies that were visionary through generations, which meant sometimes you had to discount the role of any individual leader. You couldn’t say that Walt Disney was Disney because Walt Disney’s walking around anymore. There’s something about the company. And I still believe that. I still believe that even if you go back to the founding of our country, we had to have a very important starting president, but nonetheless, it was the Declaration, it’s the mechanisms of the Constitution, it’s the cultural fabric, it’s a variety of other things, that its not any one president, or any one leader, and their wisdom was to recognize that we actually have to build the right mechanisms to compensate for the fact that we’re going to have variations in leaders. I still hold to that view. If you build the right kind of organization and the right kind of culture, you don’t have to depend on a singular leader.

That said, Good to Great really changed my view about the role of leaders at key inflection points. Good to Great was really about how companies made a real shift in their capabilities after years of wandering in their averageness, if you will. They were at best good, and they made a leap into at least 15 years of great performance. Well, there you really saw the pronounced role of an exceptional leader and exceptional leadership teams. But in my mind, what really stood out about it is that the critical thing—again, it goes back to Washington, or Lincoln—they were leaders who’s ambition was always first and foremost for the cause, or the country, or the company. Or whatever purpose they were engaged in. They might be flawed, or they might be ambitious—we’re human, right?—but when it came right down to it, the fundamental drives in their ambition was channeled into something that was bigger and more lasting than they were.

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

That was the “Level 5 leader” that we found in Good to Great. And I think we have Level 5 leaders in many organizations in our country. We have them in healthcare, we have them in education—I’m doing a study on K-12 education that is all about how Level 5 leaders transform schools. I think actually we have tremendous distributed leadership capability, and it is one of our great sources of resilience. And so I actually have a fairly optimistic view when I think about the entire system of our country.

I went off to be the chair for the study of leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which is an institution that has been in the business of building leaders for 210 years. I came away from that thinking that we put so much emphasis on the very top leaders, your four-star generals and whatever, and you have to have those, but it’s the unit leaders that make society work. It’s the platoon commander, it’s the special-forces leader, it’s the squadron leader. Your unit leaders are your cellular structure of a great resilient enterprise.

I came away from West Point thinking to myself, “I want to take that idea and think about it for education.” I deliberately picked the really hard places. And sure enough, what you find is Level 5 Leaders who simply would, with all the forces they face, simply decide to lead. They are Level-5 ambitious that their kids are going to succeed. As a unit leader, they basically say, “I can’t fix the whole world around me, but I’m going to make sure we succeed here.” And then they just do it.

So how do top-level leaders find those people?

I would always look at folks and say, “never underestimate how much encouraging somebody that they can lead can play in having them step up to lead.” You’ve got these amazing Level 5 leaders who simply decided to make these schools great. So how did they end up in their leadership roles? If you look at it carefully, you can’t really point to some sort of systematic program that identified and made them great leaders. But somewhere along the way you had somebody who said to a teacher, usually, “have you ever thought about running a school? You’re really good at leading your classroom. You might want to think about leading a whole building.” Just planting the seed.

Then if you look at them, and what these folks did, they simply decided to lead. How did they become extraordinary leaders? How do you become an extraordinary leader of a small company, how do you become an extraordinary leader of a school? How do you become an extraordinary leader of your unit? At some point you simply decide the cause merits you suffering to become a good leader.

That something’s got to be done about this.

It’s exactly what it is. Its “Something’s got to be done. No, no, no, you don’t understand, this has got to be done.” I puzzled for a long time [over] “what is the essence of leading?” That was a question I had when I went to West Point. I thought, “man, if there’s ever going to be a place where I’m going to learn the answer to that…”

And I walk away and I finally found what I think is the essence of it, and it came from General Eisenhower: The art of getting people to want to do what must be done.

Now think about the elements of that. Number one, you gotta figure out what must be done. And its not sort of some analytical, clinical sense. It’s like “No, you don’t understand, this has got to be done.” Like, “these kids need their education.” Like, “We’ve got to make this emergency room work better.” That clarity of what must be done that is the starting point. That means on most of the big things you pretty much [have] got to get it right. It doesn’t mean you have to have a perfect record, but part of your responsibility is to be right more than not about what must be done.

The second is it’s not about getting people to do it. It’s about getting people to want to do it. So, if you actually have to rely on power, or money, or incentives, or position or title, or any of those things to get people to do stuff, you have failed as a leader. James McGregor Burns had that great way of putting it, which is that leadership only exists if people follow when they would have the freedom to not follow. In business, people confuse leadership and power all the time. If you have a lot of power, it can look like you’re leading, but actually you’re just using power. Strip away all your power and would people still do what needs to be done? Then you know you’re leading. That’s really what leading is about.

The third is it’s not a science. It’s an art. Each leader develops his or her own artistry. So you think about it, you should learn from other leaders but you shouldn’t copy them. What you do is you stand back and say, “I’ve got my own artistry, maybe I’m really good at getting the right 10 people in the room and asking one question and that’s how I get it done.” Maybe it’s I’m really good with the written word. Maybe it’s I’m really good at creating competing forces. There’s lots of different ways to be an artist. But it still comes down to what is your art for getting people to want to do what must be done?

When you look at people who become leaders, they master that somewhere along the way. Then the really great ones master it not for their own benefit, but for a much larger benefit. That’s what the Level 5 Leaders do.

If you’re a board of directors, how do you go about finding the kind of leader that does these things you’re talking about?

Let’s take the story, I think, of one of the great chief executives of the last 20 years, and how she ended up in her role. That’s Anne Mulcahy who saved Xerox. So Anne Mulcahy, first of all, she was one of these leaders who, she didn’t, near as I can tell, want to be chief executive. It’s like we were talking about George Washington earlier. He didn’t want to be president, but was the person the country needed. And Anne Mulcahy didn’t want to be CEO, but she was the leader that Xerox needed. So how did that happen, and what role did the board play, and what role did Anne’s own behavior play in ultimately her stepping into this role to save the company and give it a shot for the future?

So they tried the savior CEO model and it didn’t work. Which it almost never does, right? The evidence is clear. Almost 90 percent of the Good to Great CEOs come from inside their company. Doesn’t mean it can’t work sometimes, its just the odds are against you. So they tried the savior and a board member basically asked the question after that, “Who would people follow?” Simple question. Who would people follow?

Anne’s name kept coming up because she had incredible internal credibility. People believed that hard decisions had to be made. They were going to have to shut down operations, there were going to have to be cost decisions. Who would you trust to make those decisions that may be really hard—you might even lose your job, right?—but somehow you would trust they were made with the right intent.

Anne Mulcahy had built credibility her entire career. Every position of responsibility she got, she led it as a Level 5 leader and did it in a way that created a little pocket of greatness. And as her responsibilities grew, more and more people trusted her, believed in her, and she built this credibility from the ground up so that when a board member asked “who will people follow?” she rose to the top and then when she stepped into the role, it was like this was going to be hard, but over the years her credibility has grown, we will trust her intent. And that allowed her to be able to make the changes.

It’s the antithesis of the hero CEO.

The cult of the charismatic genius CEO has very low statistical odds of working. And I don’t see anything that will have changed that. First of all, what happens when that leader goes away? So even if you have a charismatic genius CEO, what happens when they go away? So Walt Disney was a charismatic genius CEO. Walt died. Does that mean Disney has to die? So you have to be able to go beyond any given leader.

Second, you atrophy an organization if it’s overly dependent on a single person. Again, think back to Washington’s brilliant decision to say “two terms is all.” Nobody could step into Washington’s shoes. He had to prove to the country you don’t need me. I will prove to you that You. Don’t. Need. Me. I will go away, and you will see that you will be great anyway. That ability to say, “I may have strong self-confidence, but I don’t have the ego to believe that I am indispensable and the place will fall apart without me.”

The interesting thing is that you have to be able to prove that your company doesn’t need you. If your company cannot be great without you—let me repeat this—if your company cannot be great without you, it is not yet a great company. It is merely—underscore the word merely—a group of people who happen to have a leader. The test as to whether it’s a great company is it doesn’t need you.

Over time, if you’re truly great, you will actually make it such that history proves that you got it going, but it doesn’t need you. Are you going to be to your company what George Washington was to this country? My challenge to anyone is: Are you really going to be historically exceptional or are you going to be someone where it was great when you were there—and then it goes away?

Edited for length and clarity. Read Part 2: The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs.


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