The first potentially problematic area of Jim Collins' work is the idea of “greatness”. It is his major focus across his whole canon of work – Built to Last was about the features of a company which lead to enduring greatness, Good to Great about how a company can change from being good to being great, How the Mighty Fall about how a company can cease to be great and Great by Choice about the role of luck in greatness, and how to lead well in turbulent times.
Collins' research methodology is generally to find sets of two comparison companies, one of which did better than the other from similar starting points, and to study what makes the “great” company different from the other one, then identifying common themes between all of his examples. In Great by Choice, Collins chooses “great” companies to study based on the following criteria:
- They need to have out-performed their industry average on the stock market by a factor of 10x over a period of 15+ years.
- They achieved those results in a particularly turbulent environment, with lots of potential for disaster.
- They began their rise to greatness from a position of vulnerability, being young or small at the start of the study.
Probably the most famous corporate example he takes is Microsoft v Apple prior to 2000, and then examining Apple's resurgence under Steve Jobs. He also uses the recurring example of Scott v Amundsen in the race for the South Pole, observing that most of the same principles apply there as well.
This rather raises the question “Should we as Christian leaders seek greatness as understood by Collins for our churches?” In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins discusses what greatness means for a non-profit organisation.
A great organisation is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time. For a business, financial returns are a perfectly legitimate measure of performance. For a social sector organisation, however, performance must be assessed relative to mission, not financial returns. In the social sectors, the critical question is not “How much money do we make per dollar of invested capital?” but “How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?”
He goes on to break down his definition into three factors – superior performance, distinctive impact, lasting endurance, and then to show that many of the principles he advocated in Good to Great still apply, albeit with slight modifications.
I think it is important to draw a distinction here between the calling of God's Church, the calling of the congregations we serve, and our calling as individuals. We are called neither to greatness nor to seek greatness – we are called to seek God and serve faithfully. The congregations we are called to serve may be called to greatness, but they may not. It is far too easy as pastors for our egos to become entangled with the health of the congregations we serve. But superior performance, distinctive impact and lasting endurance are most certainly features of the Kingdom of God, far beyond what any company or organisation could achieve. And that is because it is led by the perfect leader – Jesus Christ. True greatness is to be found in following him, and his kingdom is truly great, whether by Jim Collins' definition or any other.
“Great by Choice”
An even more troubling theme of Collins' work is the idea of choice. Collins' basic thesis in the book is that there is a set of 4 behaviours which, taken together, ensure that one thrives in difficult and unpredictable situations. He examines the role of luck, and finds that the successful companies did not have better luck than their unsuccessful counterparts, but their behaviour during the period ensured that they made the most of their good luck and did not suffer as much from the effects of bad luck – these behaviours ensure a better “return on luck”.
There are several major problems with this from a Christian (and a logical) point of view.
- Firstly, just because those behaviours might lead to a better “return on luck” does not mean that they can be chosen. We are not always free to act in the way that we might want to. Indeed, in Good to Great, he speculates as to how level 5 leaders come about and isn't sure beyond pointing to possible causative factors such as near-death experiences or conversion to Christianity.
- Secondly, he largely ignores the role of catastrophically bad, unavoidable events – events which would ensure that the company closes down no matter how they had behaved beforehand, or which could not have been forseen. He might respond to this by pointing out that such events are by definition unavoidable and hence do not change the fact that one set of behaviours has a better return on luck. However, that misses the point that such events show that it is not merely a “choice” to become great - there are still plenty of factors beyond our control.
- Third, luck does not really exist – it is a matter of the providence of God - The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33, NIV)
- Finally, as a result of these, Collins' suggestion that one could become “Great by Choice” is hubristic. It doesn't allow for the fact that it is God who gives the ability to become great. It doesn't allow for the fact that God could easily stop them from becoming great via either changing their character or bringing along an unavoidable catastrophic event, in the way that he did in Daniel 4.
By saying that greatness is a result of choice, Collins commits a logical fallacy. Many companies may have chosen the same course as the “great” companies, but failed. All winners of the men's Olympic 100m final for the past 20 years have been Afro-Caribbean, but that does not mean that ++Sentamu is a good sprinter.
He also undermines some of his own past work by creating the danger of letting the “will” aspect of the level 5 leader undermine the “humility” aspect. He notes that level 5 leaders tend to credit others for their success – how then would they respond to reading his work and learning that becoming great was their choice? How would someone who knew that they had chosen to become great attain the level of humility required for level 5 leadership? The counterpart of being able to choose greatness is that if an organisation lacks greatness, it is the fault of their leader for not choosing it. In some cases, doubtless, that is true. But in others it isn't. Was Jeremiah less than great? Situations and providence play a far greater role than Collins allows them.
Having criticised both the notion of greatness and the idea of choice, it might seem that there is little hope for Great by Choice. However, that isn't necessarily true. What Collins has done is present four behaviours which help people and organisations to thrive in uncertain conditions, even if he has framed it in ways which we might not find helpful. We can still potentially learn from treating those behaviours as examples of research-based wisdom...