It’s Finally Time to Retire ‘Good to Great’ From the Leadership Canon
Two decades after Jim Collins’ business bestseller was published, what lessons does it really hold?
“I’m a Level 5 leader.” It’s a phrase I hear frequently from CEOs and senior executives, each assuming familiarity with Jim Collins’ Good to Great. It’s a safe bet; with sales of over four million copies, Collins’ 2001 work is one of the most widely read business books of the last 20 years. Its simple recipe was part of its allure. If you aim high, stay humble, hire the right people, confront brutal facts, and stay disciplined and focused on the metrics that matter while using technology with care, then your business will eventually go from being good to being great.
One of the most successful business books ever written, its publication followed in the wake of the dot-com bust, when business leaders who’d been gorging on indigestible meals of internet promises now hungered for the meat-and-potatoes wisdom Collins offered. That its lessons seemed simple came as a relief: Common sense was back; the status quo was sexy again.
Such simplicity flattered many who thought they did these things already. The beguiling conservatism of the message required no transformational change but persuaded many readers that they were already pretty good and therefore surely capable of greatness. But the book went beyond flattery; underpinning the narrative was a pseudoscientific language that imbued its operating principles with the power and inevitability of laws of nature. And if that wasn’t enough, Collins promised “timeless universal answers” to everything: not just business but to the social sector and even life itself. The message was “Seize the Collins lever, and you can move the world.”
Collins’ definition of greatness is bewilderingly arbitrary: Fortune 500 companies between 1964 and 1999 that achieved returns 6.9 times the stock market over 15 years. Out of 1,435 companies, just 11 meet these criteria. These exemplars might more accurately be called anomalies. Why consider only publicly traded companies and ignore private, family-, or employee-owned businesses? Would a 14-year run or returns 6.8 times the market make a business merely good? With globalization in full swing, the…