Good to Great


I’ve been reading quite a few books about leadership lately – I can't really say that I’ve been terribly impressed with them. They read too much like that terribly American genre of books – the self-help book. Invariably, they seem to have appeared fully formed out of the research of the people behind the book itself. This is particularly amusing here, since people have been concerned with the nature of leadership pretty much forever. The other thing that I find a little odd about these books is

I’ve been reading quite a few books about leadership lately – I can't really say that I’ve been terribly impressed with them. They read too much like that terribly American genre of books – the self-help book. Invariably, they seem to have appeared fully formed out of the research of the people behind the book itself. This is particularly amusing here, since people have been concerned with the nature of leadership pretty much forever. The other thing that I find a little odd about these books is that leadership is rarely defined in them. I guess we are supposed to take the attitude that it might well be hard to say what leadership is, but we all know it when we see it – so, leadership is a bit like pornography in that sense. Given that this form of research sees itself as so ‘revolutionary’ in just about all senses, it ought to say things, you would expect, that would be more than just a series of platitudes. I didn’t really come away thinking that sense, however. Parts of this were okay – but I really didn’t come away, as the author clearly thought I ought to have, thinking that they had gone off into the great unknown and returned more or less unharmed to tell the story. If I hadn’t been reading this book for a reason, I would have stopped when the author compared himself to Lewis and Clark (and he did so without a hint of irony). This book is concerned with finding the attributes that companies have that start out average only to then move on to being exceptional. They have defined exceptional companies as those that perform at three times the market for 15 years – this is quite a good definition of exceptional, I guess. But, some of the companies have not done quite so well since this was written (not sure how many people would write a book today about the glories of Freddie Mac today, just saying) – the GFC clearly wasn’t all that kind to some companies and whether or not ‘leadership’ was the only factor at play here is an interesting question in itself, although, given the success of these firms is tied to leadership in this book, presumably failure is also to be considered a leadership issue – still, this is all beyond the psycho-babble of this kind of book. Oh, I’m jumping ahead too quickly – but that, in a nutshell, is probably one of my main concerns with books like this – organisations are essentially collections of people engaged in complex interactions, and so psychology (that is, a science focused on the individual) is quite likely to miss the point. The limits of psychology in coming to terms with human interactions beyond the individual - is, again, an interesting question and one that is not addressed here at all. And this is hardly surprising, since a book that focuses our attention on how 'leadership' accounts for a businesses success is hardly going to move too far beyond 'psychology'.The book finds that these companies all shared seven characteristics. The first of these was perhaps the one I found most interesting – that is, that their leaders all tended to be ‘anti-Trump’ type people. That is, they were all people who were much more interested in the success of the company, rather than in their own personal success and aggrandisement - they tended to be humble, they tended to be focused on their love of whatever it was they were doing, rather than on having people tell them how fantastic they are. As such, these people often remained unsung despite the exceptional achievements they made. This often meant that they had a singleness of purpose that might not be as apparent in people who want success for its own sake. They also remained unsung for their success since they generally did not attribute their success to their own actions as much as other leaders (again, think Trump) might. They understood the luck and contingency involved in success and this fed into their own humility. Having a personal preference for humble people myself – the Japanese PM’s wife who sat beside Trump for 2 hours and did not let him know she spoke English is currently one of my heroes – it is nice that some management types think that such a personality trait is worthwhile. Like I said, this was a finding I was somewhat surprised to find in a book like this.Perhaps the major benefit of such self-effacing people is that they understand that they are unlikely to be successful purely on their own. Therefore they are much more like to also see that it is essential that they surround themselves with people who are going to be good at what they do and that are, potentially, a bit like them in their dedication to the task at hand. In this book this idea is summed up by the idea of these leaders making sure they have the right people in the right place. There is lots of talk about buses thought out this book - basically, these books seem to be mostly about milking a particular metaphor or series of metaphors to death - getting people onto the bus, off the bus and in the right place on the bus being but one of those metaphors worked to death in this book. The author repeatedly says that getting the right people is more important than necessarily getting people who know what it is they are doing - the right people basically being able to learn whatever it is that is necessary for them to do and anyway, since all leadership is essentially change management, getting people who are able to learn and change is the key. Here is the notion that leadership is a particular set of skills that can be applied anywhere and is always just as effective. This exaggerated version of the story isn’t entirely the case, even for this author, but the differences that make a difference are never so much around the types of work expected, but rather the ‘values’ of the company and in getting employees who will live up to those. Finding people who share the company’s values is central to getting the right people.We need to talk about hindsight bias. When a company is successful it is pretty likely that it is successful because all the bits of the company work well together. If some bits of the company are actively working to undermine other bits of the company it would seem pretty likely that the company as a whole isn’t going to be successful. So, saying that very successful companies are made up of parts that work well together and that the people leading those parts are team players all seems a bit obvious to me. Perhaps saying ‘they are the right people in the right jobs’ is saying something important - but it isn’t at all clear to me how you would know beforehand. Given that everyone is an expert in hindsight, it wasn’t all that clear to me how you might go about picking the ‘right people’ - and it also seemed pretty obvious that when things stuffed up, inevitably, you could argue that it was because you had inadvertently chosen the ‘wrong’ people. The other problem I have with this idea is one I also had with Taylorism and scientific management, which also has a long section on getting the ‘right people’ - that is, that too often leaders simply don’t have the luxury of being able to make those choices and of backing out of choices once it becomes clear the wrong one has been made. To me, a great leader would be one who can succeed with what they have, rather than having to create the perfect environment first. But I’m not exactly a great world leader, so, what would I know?This problem of hindsight comes up again in the next attribute - great leaders face the brutal facts of the situation they find themselves in and are unflinching in how they stare into this particular abyss. It isn’t clear to me how you might navigate a changing environment - something all of these ‘great leaders’ here invariably did - without doing something that could be called ‘coming to terms with the brutal facts of your situation’. Look, I do understand that perhaps my shares in Hansom Cabs are never going to reach the dizzying heights they achieved in the 1870s, but I’m not sure just what ‘brutally’ facing reality means - other than it being something you will inevitably say you have done when any changes you make pay off.I have another problem with this - and that relates to the basic positivist underlying assumptions of such theories. That is, the idea that there is essentially one ‘truth’ and even though it ‘likes to hide’, if you pursue it with objectivity and determination you will certainly find it. I feel the world is much more messy than that and that while you can say that if you don’t pay any attention to the world around you then things are likely to stuff up pretty badly, you are always operating with incomplete data (something they even say at one point) and so being told to face what that data tells you with unflinching determination is either not telling us very much or possibly not even telling us anything at all.The next metaphor that gets a long run is the fox and the hedgehog. Basically, this comes from some philosopher who said there are two kinds of people (and, unfortunately didn’t go on to say, those who group people into two camps and those who don’t) - rather he felt the two groups were those who are like foxes: smart, resourceful, cunning and innovative - and those like hedgehogs, with basically one trick - to roll into a ball. This guy is particularly fond of hedgehogs. He advises companies to figure out their hedgehog concept is - that is, the basic idea they have that might allow them to become best in the world at, the idea that makes them their money, and that drives their passion (you know, just like a hedgehog is passionate about rolling into a ball) and then to make sure everything they do as a company is focused on that hedgehog concept. My problem here is that while the author has problems with foxes, it isn’t clear to me that the fox has been evolutionarily less successful than the hedgehog. In fact, the author spends quite a bit of time talking about General Electric and, well, fitting this company into the hedgehog idea seemed a bit of ‘square peg and round hole’ problem to me.That said, it is hard to see how ‘figure out what you are good at and do that’ could be bad advice. I can’t say I came away from this book thinking, ‘wow, who’d have thought you should do what you are good at if you want to succeed?’There was a nice bit of this book about technology - that it, on its own, doesn’t lead to greatness, although it always plays a role. Pretty much the advice here is to work out what you need to do to be great and then figure out how technology might help you achieve that, rather than hope putting wiz-bang technology into your systems will somehow make them good systems. This seems completely obvious to me as well, however.

As you might already know, I generally don’t read books like this, but I’ve had to as I’m doing research on Teach for Australia and they stress that teaching is leadership - and use this book to support that claim. So, I was expecting this book to be something quite different to what it turned out to be - I was expecting it to be something much more, to be honest. It is hard to be in your 50’s and have decades of working with people who have been keen to implement the kinds of ideas discussed in this book upon people in their organisations, without being somewhat cynical about such visions splendid such leadership revolutionaries present. I can’t recommend this book, but it was important that I read it, I think.

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