Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journals on May 16, 2022
“Good is the enemy of great” are the opening words of “Good to Great,” the iconic best-selling book by preeminent leadership and management thought leader Jim Collins on “why some companies make the leap [to outstanding sustained performance] … and some don’t.”
If you think that good is good enough, you will never become great.
Published in 2001, Collins’ book presents timeless leadership principles that are even more valid in today’s challenging business environment. In January 2015, I wrote an article on this subject. This is an update of that article.
Collins and his team of researchers identified eight principles that characterize high-performing companies. Here are four of his principles that I thought were most impactful. Based on my own experience, I added a fifth principle.
Surround yourself with the right people
Get the “right people on the bus [and] the right people in the right seats … [and they will] figure out how to take it someplace great.” Collins states that leaders should start with “who,” not “where,” since the right people will decide the strategic direction of the enterprise, and when a change in direction is needed, they will decide what that change should be. By having the right people decide the strategic direction and goals for the organization, they own those goals and will be more committed to achieving them.
Level 5 leaders build enduring greatness
Collins identifies a Level 5 leader as one who “builds enduring greatness through a … blend of personal humility and professional will.” He goes on to state that Level 5 leaders are very ambitious, but “their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
Level 5 leaders are not imperial leaders. They don’t self-aggrandize and are not focused on the perks of their position. On the contrary, they are focused on building teams within their company that can achieve great results.
Level 5 leaders have an iron will to be successful, and they inspire their employees to greatness. By observing many CEOs over time, my own experience is that Level 5 CEOs are more successful in the long run than imperial CEOs.
Recognize the brutal facts of reality
Organizations that think they are great can be blinded by their hubris and not see the brutal facts of their reality. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge it. When the problem becomes glaringly apparent, it is much more difficult to fix, and perhaps becomes unfixable. The CEO loses credibility with the board because problems and issues were not addressed early.
CEOs don’t want surprises from their direct reports, and board members don’t want surprises from the CEO. Both want the brutal facts of reality acknowledged. Employees already know where the problems are, and if the CEO doesn’t address them, the employees feel that either the CEO doesn’t know about them, or the problems are so bad the CEO is afraid to tell them. The CEO loses credibility when problems are not acknowledged and addressed.
Achieving greatness is a journey, one that never ends
Once you think you are great, you have nowhere to go but down. Very few organizations ever achieve greatness, even though at times leaders and those they lead may use that term to describe their organizations.
As the CEO, I would tell our employees never to refer to our company as great. This is for third parties to do, and our response should always be, “Thank you, but we are on a journey, and have a long way to go before achieving greatness.”
Don’t tolerate toxic employees within your organization
To Collins’ list I would add a principle about not tolerating toxic employees. They hinder any group from becoming a high-performance team.
Toxic employees will throw others who stand in their way under the proverbial bus for their own purpose of advancing through the organization. They are not trusted by their peers, and without trust, very little is accomplished.
If you have a toxic employee within your organization, part company with them. Keeping them around is a negative reflection of your own leadership effectiveness.
Regardless of your position in a company, always remember you are on a journey that never ends, and that good is the enemy of great.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.