Is Jim Collins just lucky?


"Great By Choice" is the newest book by acclaimed leadership author Jim Collins.
October 27, 2011

Some would say Jim Collins has been very lucky.

After all, the famed leadership author has had a bang-up career so far, with five bestselling books, two honorary doctoral degrees and a tour schedule to rival Madonna’s. But Collins would say it is less about luck and more about what you do with it, especially when the times are volatile.

And according to Collins, the 21st century will be characterized by such chaos and change, two forces Collins examines in his new book, Great by Choice. In the book, released earlier this month, Collins explains that the best leaders are not necessarily more visionary or creative than their peers; the best leaders simply know how to adapt to whatever comes their way. Good and bad.

“You would tend to think that as the world becomes chaotic, sometimes you think you have to be more visionary and charismatic and heroic. That doesn’t distinguish the leaders we find do really well,” Collins says. “It’s not that they don’t have those qualities, but they’re not more that way than others.”

Adapting to luck has perhaps been one of the ways Collins built on the initial blockbuster success of his book Built to Last, published in 1994. It was a work from which Collins says he continues to draw personal lessons.

“It taught me that you keep your head in a world that is brutal by having a set of values, your values, and everything you do has to go back to those,” Collins says. “When push comes to shove, you can’t compromise on your values, and that will lead to the best outcome.”

When Collins’ wife was diagnosed with cancer, he returned again to internalize some of the principles from his own work—he pulled together a team of the best doctors he could find.

 “I spent hours assembling the team, and that was a direct thing from Good to Great,” he says. “If you solve first ‘who,’ you’ll get the right ‘what.’”

Now, with Great by Choice, Collins is demystifying that pesky thing called luck.

Great by Choice examines the phenomenon through quantitative analysis. Collins and his co-author, Morten Hansen, studied a variety of start-up companies that thrived in uncertain or severe circumstances. From this study, they determined that the most successful leaders were those who had a “good return on luck.”

Business leaders who capitalize on a situation—whether good or bad—can succeed even when faced with a string of events that seem to be bad luck, according to Collins. And even in cases of abnormally good luck, some companies can fail under poor “return” on the opportunities.

As a result of the study, Collins and Hansen identified four characteristics that distinguish great leaders: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, productive paranoia and ferocious ambition. “When you combine those four things, those are the building blocks of great leadership,” Collins says. “What’s new is putting all of this in one place.”

Collins’ personal desire for Great by Choice is that it will become a leadership guide for the current generation of 20-somethings, a generation whose ability to adapt to today’s current chaos and volatility will determine how well the U.S. succeeds in the “new normal” that is the future.

“I genuinely, deeply believe that building young leaders is the number one solution to the long-term problems that we face,” Collins says. “In the end I’m an optimist because of the young leaders.”

But Collins’ is not without advice for the new generation of leaders: Find a new focus away from questions of “what” and “how.”

“The most important question is: ‘Who?’” Collins says. “My own journey began by finding great people who were great models.”

Collins adds he has not risen far on his own.

“I was touched by great mentors and learned from each one. A lot of it was trying to live up to their standards,” he says. “The beauty of having great mentors is that it’s hard to live up to their standards.”

One of Collins’ first mentors was management thinker and author Peter Drucker. According to Collins, when he asked which book Drucker was most proud to have written, Drucker responded, “The next one.”

At the time, Drucker was 86 years old, Collins says.

“So I’m still very early in this game at 53. I’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years, but I am still in a start-up phase.”

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