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CEOs in the mirror

The path chosen by the most successful will remind you of the Gospels

Issue: "The Bush mandate," Nov. 16, 2002

My friend startled me with his immodest answer to my simple question. "Who," I had asked him, "would be on your list of the top five preachers in our denomination?" Quickly, he had mentioned a couple of obvious names. Then he squinted, looked out the window, and turned back to say to me, dead seriously: "You'd have to put me on that list, I think."

I didn't. Not that day, nor since. The fellow remains my friend, and he is a good preacher. But his self-aggrandizing effort to elbow his way to the top knocked him right off the very ladder he was trying so hard to climb. The leadership he so fervently sought has always eluded him.

That sad conversation took place 10 years ago. But I was reminded of it last week as I read Good to Great, a remarkable book on business management by Jim Collins and a research team he headed. My preacher friend should read Good to Great. So should anyone else who aspires to leadership and influence. Even folks who choose only to follow might read Good to Great with profit, in that it would help them identify the leaders they want to trail.

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What sets Good to Great apart from most management books is that it is not merely the subjective wisdom of its author and his colleagues. It is instead the result of their having identified a handful of the 11 most effective companies in the United States over the last quarter century, and then rigorously asking the question: "What specifically makes these companies so different?"

The discipline of the process is impressive. The Collins group started by looking at nearly 1,500 different companies. Who among them, the group asked, averaged cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the general market over a 15-year period? That's how the 11 companies (Abbott, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo) were selected. Then, just as severely, came the research about what produced these results. Along the way, the data forced Mr. Collins and his team to discard many of their own pet theories, and produced other explanations they had never dreamed of.

The very first thing Mr. Collins and his team point to as common to every one of the 11 companies they researched (and remember that this is a basically secular book) is the modesty of the various CEOs who led them. There is much more, to be sure. But the starting point of a "great" company, these researchers tell us, is a humble leader.

Mr. Collins talks of windows and mirrors. When these successful CEOs do something right, he says, they walk you over to a window and point to all the reasons (and especially all the other people) "out there" contributing to the success. When they do something wrong, they walk to a mirror, and assume the blame themselves. Leaders of lesser companies do it just the other way around: When things go wrong, they point out the window for alibis and explanations; when things go right, they go to the mirror to preen.

Make no mistake: The CEOs of these 11 successful companies are highly focused and even "fanatically driven" people. But their focus and their drive are never on themselves. The focus and drive are instead on the long-term good of the company. For example, American business history is full of high-achieving executives who nonetheless did little to make their successors successful. The 11 companies under the microscope in Good to Great remain strong because their leaders a decade ago were looking for more than immediate and personal fame.

"It wasn't just false modesty," writes Mr. Collins. "Those who worked with or wrote about the good-to-great leaders continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings, and so forth." Ken Iverson of Nucor is described by one of his board members as "a very modest and humble man. I've never known a person as successful in doing what he's done that's as modest.... And that's true in his private life as well. The simplicity of him. I mean little things like he always gets his dogs at the local pound."

In the climate of Enron and WorldCom, it's fascinating to note where, according to the hard data, business success starts. And it's even more fascinating to see how that hard data backs up what Jesus said over and over again in the Gospels: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." Jesus didn't condemn the motive to become great. He just outlined the path.


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