Collins’ definitive book, the number-one bestseller Good to Great, examines why some companies make the transition from being good companies to great companies.
NACDS announced on January 11 that bestselling author Jim Collins will speak at the 2018 NACDS Annual Meeting. Collins has spoken previously at several NACDS events, including Annual in 1996 and at the inaugural NACDS Total Store Expo (TSE) in 2013. Before his appearance at TSE that year, NACD.org had the chance to interview Collins to discuss his thoughts on greatness, luck, motivation and survival—among other topics. It is a fascinating interview, worth a revisit in anticipation of his upcoming appearance at Annual.
NACDS.org’s 2013 interview with Jim Collins:
Q: In your most recent book, Great by Choice, you look at leaders who have survived extremely difficult circumstances and contrast their experiences to find out how and why they succeed in adversity. Do you think the traits that you describe in the leaders who succeed—fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia—are innate or learned behaviors?
A: My co-author Morten Hansen and I consciously chose the term “behaviors” to describe the distinguishing patterns we found; we did this because we concluded that leading a team to greatness in a context of uncertainty, chaos, disruption and turbulence depends much more upon practical actions—on what you choose to do, and to not do—than on some set of mysterious genetic or innate traits. It is much more a function of discipline and action, than of genius.
Q: Whether learned or innate, they are extraordinary characteristics. Have you found from feedback you’ve received from readers that people are able to apply these behaviors in their own lives and, in turn, find success?
A: Yes. In fact, a number of people have said to me something along the lines of ‘This will be helpful to building my company, but the ideas are ones I want my children to learn. I think they’re very valuable lessons for how they can go about building a successful life.’
For example, consider the powerful blend of ‘creativity and discipline.’ Think back to when you were five years old, and how you likely did creative things, such as inventing games, drawing pictures, imagining stories or whatever. Creativity is natural, innate and abundant; if you breathe, you are creative. But were you ‘fanatically disciplined’ at age 5? Probably not. Discipline, unlike creativity, must be learned. The great challenge is how to marry discipline to creativity, in such a way that your discipline amplifies your creativity, rather than destroying it. We write about this as a distinguishing characteristic of great companies in turbulent environments; yet it applies also to the individual: to be creative without discipline leads nowhere.
Q: The 2013 NACDS Total Store Expo will be in Las Vegas, a town consumed with luck. What role does luck play in succeeding in business or failing?
A: One of our key findings from the new work is the idea of ‘Return on Luck.’ It is the most fascinating analysis, at least to me, that we have done in a quarter of a century of research. Morten and I figured out how to define, quantify and systematically study the relative role of luck. We found that the great winners and their less-successful comparisons both got a lot of luck, good luck and bad luck. But we also found that the great winners were not luckier—they did not get more good luck or less bad luck. The question is not whether you will get luck, but what you do with the luck that you get. It is the return on luck that matters.
Great leaders seize good luck and make the most of it. And—even more important—they use bad luck as defining moments, as times where their leadership turns bad luck into the best possible learning and outcome. They live by the adage, ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger.’ Mediocre leaders, we found, tend to squander their good luck, failing to see it, failing to grab it, failing to execute brilliantly when given the chance. And worse, mediocre leaders can perform poorly when hit with bad luck, which can lead to disastrous results. Luck does not account for the difference between 10X success and 2X success, but return on luck plays a big role.
Q: You write about a 20-mile march principle. Why do steadfastness and consistent goals result in more successful outcomes, when we often tend to believe change and revolutionary upheaval—remaking ourselves—will yield the best results?
A: The 20-mile march is about having a target that you aim to hit with great consistency—like marching 20 miles a day in a long journey, every day, no matter what. When you’re facing a big, scary world, knowing –and hitting—your 20-mile march enables you to get up every day and go forward, even when facing huge uncertainties in your environment. Accomplishing a 20-mile march consistently, in good times and bad, builds confidence.
Tangible achievement in the face of adversity reinforces the perspective: ‘we are ultimately responsible for improving performance. We never blame circumstance; we never blame the environment.’ The companies we studied used their 20-mile marches as a way to exert self-control, even when afraid or tempted by opportunity. Having a clear 20-mile march focuses the mind; because everyone on the team knows the markers and their importance and they can stay on track.
Q: As a renowned, bestselling author whose books have been published all over the world, what books have influenced you most in your life?
A: Great question! I love to learn and to read voraciously. Of the thousands of books, it is very hard to pick just a few. One of the most influential on me was The Second World War by Winston S. Churchill. This 5,000 page, six-volume autobiography and chronicle of the years 1919-1945 is the best book on crisis leadership I’ve read. Churchill’s eloquence comes fully to life as he describes day-by-day the monumental task of holding Britain and, later, the allies together against the Axis powers—a burden he shouldered at age 65 and carried until age 70. I learned from Churchill the inspirational power of reframing difficult times into a broader goal. When the whole world wondered in 1940, ‘Can Britain survive?’ Churchill countered that the goal was not to survive but to prevail.
I was also significantly influenced by two social psychology books, Influence by Robert B. Cialdini and The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence by Philip B. Zimbardo. In the classics, I can never tire of The Iliad, by Homer; I love the story of Hector, and his inspired example of heroism in the face of certain defeat. I also have some favorite authors, and recommend everything they wrote: Barbara Tuchman (especially The Guns of August), Robert A. Caro (especially The Power Broker), Stephen J. Gould (especially The Panda’s Thumb), David McCullough (especially John Adams), William Manchester (especially The Last Lion) . . .I could go on forever, but that’s a good start. Oh, and I loved Harry Potter and The Hunger Games—just for fun!
Q: You have said you have a great fascination with questions—what is your next question?
A: My wife counsels me, ‘Don’t pick a question; wait for a question to pick you.’ I’m addicted to curiosity, so the hard part is figuring out which question to focus on. One area of particular interest to me right now is young leaders. For 2012 and 2013, I have had the great privilege to serve as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In this role, I’ve traveled to West Point about four times per year to conduct Socratic seminars with cadets. These remarkable young men and women, dedicated to service, have inspired me to think about the next generation of leaders who will need to step up to lead through the tough problems that lay ahead.
Q: Have you ever considered coming to Washington, D.C., and analyzing our leaders?
A: Not yet, although I think it would be a fascinating lens to explore the difference between leadership and power.