Book Review: Good to Great (11/07)

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by Jim Billings


Good to Great
by Jim Collins, 2001
HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
10 East 53rd street
New York, NY 10022

Last month I spent a week in the Colorado Rockies with Don Stephens, a friend of mine since Bible school days.  Don, the founder and president of Mercy Ships, highly recommended the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins.  I am not disappointed that I made the trip to Barnes and Noble and purchased a copy.  In fact, I highly recommend the book to all of you involved in Christian Education, and/or any other ministry, if you are serious about being the best you can be for Jesus.

Now, don’t get me wrong; this is not a Christian book.  However, I found many of the ideas applicable to my personal life and to ISUM, the ministry that has captivated my interest for the past several years.  Allow me to share a few of the concepts that Jim Collins and his twenty-member team discovered as they studied hundreds of companies endeavoring to define what separated great companies from good ones.  It won’t be difficult for you to add some biblical principles to the following ideas.

“Good is the enemy of great” is a basic discovery of Mr. Collins and his team.  Could it be that our competence can actually serve as a hindrance to becoming all that God wants us to be?  To go from good to great requires transcending the “curse of competence.”

The team discovered some qualities that were found in every leader that “took the leap” in raising the level of his or her company from good to great.  The Level 5 Leader learned how to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats….then they figured out where to drive the bus!  The team modified the old adage, “People are your most important asset” to “The right people are your most important asset.”  We who work primarily with volunteer labor may find the implementation of this idea to be a special challenge, but we can learn from the findings of the team.

There were some surprise findings in the study.  For example, the Level 5 Leaders for the most part weren’t cheerleader-type personalities.  They blended extreme personal humility with intense professional will.  They tended to explain success in terms of what others had done and personally accepted the blame when things went poorly.  This doesn’t sound like most politicians (or ???) today!

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?  Hedgehogs see what is essential and ignore the rest.  They simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.  Foxes pursue many ends at the same time, “they are scattered or diffused, moving on many levels.”  You can easily see which one tends to get the job done when the day, month or year comes to an end.  The Hedgehog Concept centers on the intersection of three circles with the following ideas:  1) What you can be the best in the world at, 2) What drives your economic engine (For us this might translate into what we would do even if we didn’t get paid for it.), and 3) What you are deeply passionate about.

Mr. Collins and his group found that discipline was an important factor in the good to great companies.  Does that sound familiar to our message of making disciples?  A disciplined group does not imply that they have a dictator or strict disciplinarian for a leader.  Discipline was an inherent quality of those chosen “to ride the bus.”  Disciplined people plus disciplined thought equals disciplined action.  They learned that “stop doing” lists were just as important as “to do” lists.  The real question is, once you know the right thing, do you have the discipline to do the right thing and, equally important, to stop doing the wrong things?

Good to great companies think differently about technology.  When used right, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it.  Eighty percent of the companies interviewed didn’t even mention technology as one of the top five factors in the transition from good to great.  No technology can make you a Level 5 Leader or a great company.  If the technology fits your Hedgehog Concept, then use it.  If not, the technology will not help you reach your goals.

The Flywheel Concept captures the overall feel of what it was like inside the companies as they went from good to great.  Those on the outside might see only one important moment or transformation, whereas those on the inside see the change like a heavy flywheel that is difficult to move.  In the beginning every movement requires a lot of energy and effort. The “buildup” stage is when many give up.  However, the “breakthrough” will come if we persist.  There was no miracle moment, but a process that over time resulted in a great company.  We know that God can give us a “miracle moment”, but even then this is usually in response to long-time persistence and obedience.  Once the flywheel is in motion, it requires little effort to keep it moving.  They learned that under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation, and change just melt away.  They largely take care of themselves. 

To make the list of good to great, the company had to have reached and maintained an exceptional sustained growth for a minimum of 15 years.  This was in contrast to many companies who reached exceptional growth, but could not maintain it.  Most of the great companies continued the sustained growth even after the acclaimed CEO (missionary?) was no longer on the scene. 

If you have read to this point, you are probably already a Level 5 Leader or a good candidate to become one.  You can find this book at your local favorite bookstore or at if you are interested in obtaining your own copy.  Be sure and mention my name so that I get my cut!  I don’t have great news for you if you want a copy for your Spanish-speaking friends.  I do know that the title is:  Empresas que Sobresalen.  The price I found on the internet was $83.95!  Go figure.