Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Where Great Leaders Go to Die

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” 

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”  

(Both quotes attributed to Jim Collins in his book, "From Good to Great...")

Back in 2001 an author named Jim Collins came out with a revolutionary book.  It has a longer title but most of us know it as "From Good to Great".  In it he focuses on companies that have become truly excellent, even dominant entities.  He also highlights some that have not.  What makes the book so interesting and powerful is that Collins gives examples and several frameworks that allow us all to understand his points. 

The biggest takeaway I had from the book was the description of the ultimate leader.  Collins describes the people who make up this rare breed as "Level 5" leaders.  I won't try to recap what he means by that term.  For the edification of all, I have included just below a picture that describes in short terms what makes up leaders from all levels, 1-5.  My source is the Harvard Business Journal, January 2001 edition, page 5.

My message to you in this post is a powerful one.  If you are a leader that cares about getting better each day, who wants to make it to the top of Collins' pyramid, you must constantly work to tune your abilities.  HOWEVER, to be a great leader you need more than just yourself. 

Every great leader needs an equally great system/company/structure to succeed.

If you believe that an individual leader can get to "Level 5" without an equally great environment in which to work, think about these examples.
  1. How many wins would Bill Belichick rack up coaching the Oakland Raiders?  Belichick is great because the Patriots organization is equally special.
  2. Would "Neutron" Jack Welch have become the iconic CEO of the 20th century at the helm of General Motors?  The answer is a resounding no - the structure of that company would have opposed him at every turn.
  3. Would Mahatma Ghandi have been able to change the world if he had lived in Nicaragua instead of India?  Of course not - the cultures, peoples, and societal structures are completely different.
If you believe that you are a good leader or even a great leader, you will have learned or will discover that your greatness is tied to where you practice your craft.  Based on many materials that I have read over the years, I have come up with a relatively simple explanation for why this is true.

Every company has an "average" level of leadership, which I call the Leadership Quotient, or "LQ" for short.  The LQ of a company is based on the simple combination of two factors.  The first is the overall average leadership ability ("LA") of every employee within the company.  The second is the average skill of all employees as measured by their collective knowledge, skills, and abilities ("KSE").  Each of these factors is measured on a scale from 1-10 meaning the the maximum LQ a company can have is 100; the minimum is 1. 

Over time, the company will always directly or unconsciously select leaders who have an LQ that is < the company average.  Occasionally great challenges will arise and the company will realize that they need "great talent" to help them succeed.  That's usually when the organization will turn to a leader that is great, or at least significantly greater than its current average LQ.  The following graphic illustrates how that works:

In this case, the company's LQ is 30.  They find a leader with an LQ of 64 - a whole 34 points higher than the organization.  This leader is typically one on the path to being a Level 4-5 leader if they are not already.  The hiring company puts them into a key position and turns them loose to solve the problem.  Inevitably, the problem is solved or otherwise handled.  Then the company is left with a leader who has an LQ that is very much different than the cultural average normal.  It's at this point that the delta of 34 points goes from being an asset to a big problem.

What was so good before now looks like this illustration:

Since the organization is not, by nature, great, the leader finds his/her self confronted with a choice.  Without a big problem to solve or a "dragon to slay", the person must either conform or face expulsion from the organization.  Doing nothing will not help because the cultural disconnect will force one of two actions:
  1. The leader "self lobotomizes" and adapts their capabilities to fit the company's LQ
  2. The leader leaves the company on their own or by "invitation" to exit
 What Jim Collins fails to mention is that great leaders must choose their structure very, very carefully.  If you want to know where Great Leaders Go to Die, it is in mediocre companies working for very average leaders.

Choose with meticulous care - your choices, as a leader, have many more ramifications for you, yourself, and your team than you may recognize.

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