Tag Archive for Jim Collins

Do As Much As You Can Until You’re 40

When I was in my teens and early 20’s I really didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do with my life. This was a struggle for me, as I searched for what I thought should be my purpose, and where I thought I should use my gifts and abilities. I worked at a variety of jobs, went to college and graduate school, and sought counsel from others, but still felt like I wasn’t sure where I was going and what I was supposed to do. And then I had a conversation with my dad, and he shared with me a life principle that I had heard him share with others, and over the years since that time I have begun to understand the real meaning and value behind his statement. What he said to me during the time of floundering in my life was this: “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”


At the time, I only saw a lesson on the surface– do as many jobs as I possibly could for the next 15-20 years of my life, and then pick one of those and focus on that one – but that wasn’t the lesson he was trying to teach me. In reality, I did get to participate in a wide range of work experiences, including construction labor, mason’s tender, laying carpet, electrician’s apprentice, waiting tables, retail sails, meat butcher, teacher, family therapist, restaurant manager, newspaper delivery, door-to-door sales, and a number of others. All of those things were valuable for my development (which, it turns out, was part of the lesson), but his message to me wasn’t that I should do all those jobs, and he wasn’t trying to tell me to seek out as many different jobs as possible. His message was that I needed to be a learner first, learning from every experience that I would encounter, and then I could begin to apply what I learned into the life purpose that developed.


I think I may have first realized this true lesson in his statement when I studied Leadership Emergence Theory as part of my doctoral program. Leadership Emergence Theory, based on research conducted by J. Robert Clinton, views leadership development as emerging out of the stages of our life. He breaks our life experience down into several smaller stages, each characterized by particular principles and events, and it is through these stages that the combination of your experiences and the skills you develop eventually merge together in preparing you for impact and leadership in a particular way. Ironically, we usually are not able to see how these things all converge until after it has happened and we look back on the road that brought us there. It is then that we can often see the variety of events and experiences that played such an important role in shaping who we have become. This was the lesson that he was trying to show me, that every experience I would have, whether I realized it or not, would be part of shaping who I would become and how I would discover the best use and fulfillment of my gifts.


Jim Collins, in his book Great by Choice, describes the concept of firing bullets, and then cannonballs, to explain how successful organizations intentionally apply limited resources to a variety of ideas until they are confident of which one will work, and then apply great resources to that one. I believe we can make a parallel application to our lives. There is a lot of value in “firing bullets” with our lives, by shooting at a variety of opportunities and experiences, and then learning from those until we can hone in on the best use of our own specific skills and abilities. Then, once we have begun to focus in on our purpose, we can still pull many lessons from those other experiences that will help us where we are now.


So, when dad said to me, “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life,” I now know that what he was really trying to teach me was to be a learner, learning from every experience, and to apply what I learned, and that would eventually take me to the place in my life where I could do something well and lead others in the process.   Interestingly, I realized this same truth several years ago in the Bible, in a study of the book of Ezra. One particular verse in that book (chapter 7, verse 10) caught my attention, when I read, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” I was struck with the knowledge that Ezra, a leader of the people had first taken time to learn (“…to seek the Law of the Lord,…”) before he was ready to apply what he had learned (“…and to do it,…”), and it was only after that, that he was prepared to teach others and to lead.


I now pass the same wisdom on to you, even if I don’t say the same words that my father said: learn as much as you can, and apply what you learn, until that body of knowledge and experience shapes you into a person of purpose and influence. But if it helps you to remember, I will say it like he did – “Do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”

If you’re good you don’t have to tell people, they’ll tell you

A couple of months ago my family came together during a difficult time, when my father had a stroke.  As we gathered together in the hospital, often our conversations would turn to our memories of the words of wisdom he had shared over the years.  Some of it was quite funny, but all of it was wise, so I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the wisdom I have learned from him through the years.  Some are a repeat of previous posts (because I had already been sharing his wisdom), and some are topics I haven’t shared before.  My father went home to be with His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, on Sunday, May 8, 2016.  I grieve at the loss of my hero, mentor, and friend, but I rejoice at the celebration of his arrival in heaven.

This week, I am sharing an lesson that he taught me about humility.

One of my father’s many great attributes was the character trait of humility. As teenager and a young man, I was often in awe at his capability and competence in so many areas, and yet he was never arrogant or prideful, and would not boast about his own accomplishments or abilities. Seemingly in spite of his extroverted nature and his constant interaction with people, he never seemed to be drawing attention to his own successes, but rather, poured into others. Like many young people, I suppose, I wished that everyone else could see how great my father was, yet he never seemed to point out those things in himself.

I finally began to better understand this about him when I was a senior in high school, and was receiving a particular accolade. There was a brief mention of this accomplishment in the local newspaper, and the next time one of my aunts came to visit, she mentioned the article and said to me, in front of my dad, that she had had no idea of my level of accomplishment before. I remember my dad saying to me, “Jeff, if you’re good, you don’t have to tell people, they’ll tell you.” At first, on the surface, that seemed like a simple statement, but now I realize that my dad was trying to teach me two very important things:

  • Humility is one of the most valuable character traits a person can have. No one likes pompous arrogance. It is unattractive to brag on yourself, and makes you look needy, selfish, and insecure. In fact, Jim Collins points out in his best selling book Good to Great that humility is one of the two primary attributes of a Level 5 Leader. So my dad taught me to see my skills and abilities as gifts from God to be used for the benefit of others, not for my own recognition.
  • Your actions speak louder than your words. One of his other many sayings (one I’ve referenced in this blog before) was, “Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” He knew – and he taught me – that people would be far more affected by my actions than my words, and that it would be my actions that would make my words believable. So he taught me to let my actions speak for me.

Tom Nelson, in his book Work Matters, points out that “we are witnesses by our words, but we also witness by our work. The excellence of our work often gives us the credibility to speak of the excellence of our Lord Jesus and to share the good news of the gospel with our coworkers.” (p. 96) In saying this, he reminds us of this same truth, that people will judge us, and by extension will judge our God, by the quality and competence of the work we do.   In turn, people will draw conclusions about us based on what they see. And that’s why Dr. Henry Cloud, in Necessary Endings, states that “the best predictor of the future is the past.” (p. 93) He points out that what we have seen people do and how we have seen them act in the past gives us the best picture of what they are likely to be like in the future.

For good or for ill, people will draw conclusions about us based on what they observe. Therefore, as leaders, as workers, as followers, as husbands and wives, as students and teachers, or in whatever role we find ourselves, we ought to do our best and we ought to do it well. But we shouldn’t need to point it out; rather, we need to model humility along the way.  Your work and your actions should be such that people can see what you do, and see for themselves that you do it well, without you needing to arrogantly inflate yourself. When that happens, they will be much more likely to appreciate your gifts and accomplishments then to resent them. So I will say the same thing to you that my dad said to me: If you’re good, you don’t have to tell people, they’ll tell you.

See the Big Picture

Earlier this month, I shared a post on the importance of using a dashboard to help you keep your eye on the big picture.  That post reminded me of the equal importance of simply being able to see the big picture, which was the subject of a post that I shared about a year and a half ago.  It seemed appropriate to revisit that topic, to help us connect the value of a dashboard with the value of seeing the big picture.

I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.

It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson in a class I was teaching, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.

Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, demonstrated the same concept when he and the company of dwarves were traveling through the Mirkwood Forest. As they traveled, the troupe lost sight of the path they needed to follow and became lost, and began to be disoriented. Eventually, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree in order to get above the canopy, and when he did, two things happened: his head cleared, and he could see where they were in relation to where they needed to go (in the movie, he could see the edge of the forest; in the book, he could only see more trees).

Heifetz & Laurie address that idea in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.”   In the article, they discuss the importance and challenge of adapting behaviors and changes in order to thrive in a new or different environment, and specifically identify six principles for leading adaptive work. The first principle is labeled “Get on the Balcony,” which is explained as follows: “Get on the balcony. Don’t get swept up in the field of play. Instead, move back and forth between the ‘action’ and the ‘balcony.’ You’ll spot emerging patterns, such as power struggles or work avoidance. This high-level perspective helps you mobilize people to do adaptive work” (2011, p. 60). They go on to say that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action” (p. 60). The emphasis in on the importance of a leader being able to move between the balcony and the field of action, and the necessity of the balcony for providing perspective.

Collins & Hansen also address the idea in Great by Choice (2011), in a chapter that discusses identifying and responding to dangers and changes in the environment. Using the terms “zoom out” and “zoom in,” they point out that effective leaders, “when they sense danger, immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives” (p. 122). The authors then describe the discipline required to “zoom out for fast yet rigorous decision making and zoom in for fast yet superb execution” (p. 122). The discussion emphasizes the need for effective leaders to be able to step back and zoom out to the big picture in order to recognize and understand the changes and issues in the environment, which then makes them better able to zoom back in and focus on plans, objectives, and details.

The implication is simply this: a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Be Flexible

In the 1993 blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, actor Jeff Goldblum played a character named Ian Malcolm, who was a “chaos mathematician.” His character’s role was to apply the ideas of chaos theory to the operation of the dinosaur-themed amusement park, with the hope of being able to give approval so that the park could move forward. However, in his view, chaos theory purported that everything is unpredictable, because tiny environmental factors and influences mean that nothing ever happens the same way twice. The result was that he believed the forces that the Jurassic Park scientists were trying to control were, in fact, uncontrollable.

The reality is, life is unpredictable and constantly changing, and those changes are uncontrollable. Sure, we can maintain some semblance of control with planning and structure, but there are always circumstances and factors that are unexpected and that we can’t control, like when you drive over a nail and get a flat tire, or you get in an accident caused by another driver, or when severe weather cancels your plans, and so on. These types of things force you to change in some way, but if you cannot adapt to change, you will live a life of eternal frustration. So, since you can’t avoid it, what you must do instead is learn to navigate it, by learning to become flexible, and there are three things you can do to help you with this.

First, relinquish control. It begins by accepting the fact that you cannot control everything that happens. It’s foolish to think that you can. This truth has been reflected often in the financial industry, where unpredictable events impact the value of stocks. Malcom Gladwell, in his book What the Dog Saw (2010), discussed this in one of the book’s articles, entitled “Blowing Up.” In this article he discussed the financial practice of investors, and suggested – according to his interview with one particular advisor – that you must accept that you can’t predict the unexpected event, therefore you must always be prepared for losses.

A number of years ago, I read a book by Peter Schwartz called Inevitable Surprises (2004), in which Schwartz made the claim that certain future surprises were actually inevitable, and therefore could be predicted and harnessed. One of his primary examples was the “inevitable” impending increase of retirees from the large baby boomer generation, which he then identified as a resource to be tapped into. However, what he could not predict was the change in longevity of life, combined with a later retirement ages, which meant that the expected volunteer force of retirees has not emerged (ironically, an increase in volunteerism has occurred among the younger generation, not the older). The point is, you cannot control unpredictable events, and therefore you must be willing and able to accept that lack of control, in order to keep it from defeating you.

Second, be willing to try something different. If you know that some things will happen outside of your control that change your plans, you need to be willing to change your plans and do something different. This is a lesson I learned early in my administrative experience, in the first school in which I served as a headmaster. There was an expectation that I implement noticeable change, because the school had been struggling, and so I began to develop and initiate a strategic plan. However, as you might expect, some of my plans did not work well, because unexpected circumstances would influence the outcome, or people would resist, or it simply didn’t work the way I thought it would. I could tell that people were watching me to see how I would respond to these obstacles and unpredictable events, and so I got in the habit of saying, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different.” This was not only for their benefit, but also for mine, to reassure both them and me that it wasn’t an end, only a change. It helped them to be willing to try something different, and in the process of trying something different, we learned, improved and found the best solutions.

Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011), addresses a similar idea when he talks about firing bullets then cannonballs. The idea, he explains, is that effective leaders spend a small amount of resources trying out a variety of ideas (firing bullets), dismissing the ones that don’t work well and pouring more resources into the ones that do (firing cannonballs). We often don’t know with certainty what is going to be effective and produce the desired outcome, and we also don’t know what unexpected factors will hinder our plans, therefore we ought to be willing to try ideas and test plans with the understanding that, for various reasons, it may not work (either at this time, or in this place, or under these circumstances) and so we need to be able to let it go, change, and do something different. It may mean changing the time, or place, or circumstances, or perhaps even throwing it away and starting over, but regardless, it means being willing to do something different.

Third, develop creativity. We are not all naturally creative in our thought process or in our expression, but we can all do things that help us to become more creative. When we develop creativity, looking for new ways of thinking, doing, and expressing, we begin to startle people (in a good way), helping us to get and hold their attention. I learned a little about this when I first became a history teacher. I felt like I had had history teachers in the past who were very boring, and so I wanted to get the attention of my students and make history an enjoyable and valuable class. I remember early in the year, in an American History course, when I was teaching on Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world, trying to explain what it felt like to be on his ship sailing across the ocean with a hope but not a certainty, when I suddenly leaped on top of my desk and yelled “Land ho!” as loud as I could. The class jumped, laughed, and then engaged in an active discussion. By being unexpected, I helped to develop an interest in the course.

Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind (2006), discusses the value of creative thinking and its importance to leadership and progress. He proposes that those who can learn to think creatively will have an advantage in a global marketplace. He then offers six “senses” that are necessary for cultivating creativity, and provides practical advice on how to develop these skills. The main point is that creativity is skill that can be nurtured and grown, and is necessary for growth and leadership in the world of information and concepts in which we live.

We cannot ignore the fact that life throws curve balls, and that much of what happens around us and to us is unpredictable. Try as we might to prevent it or avoid it, change happens, and if we are not willing and able to have a degree of flexibility, we will be frustrated, disappointed, and defeated. To be an effective leader, then, you must be able to be flexible. Doing this will require that you are willing to give up control (specifically, over those things that you can’t control), willing to do something different with positive (not a defeated) attitude, and willing to learn to become more creative. Developing these characteristics will help you to have the flexibility you need, in order to lead well in a changing world.

(If you are interested in some of the biblical factors and perspective that helps us to handle unexpected challenges in the right way, you can read my lesson from Ezra on “Overcoming Obstacles and Opposition“)

Be Consistent

“Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” I heard my father say this many times when I was growing up, in his effort to teach the importance of being genuine. The lesson, which was reinforced to me on numerous occasions, was that my words (what I say) and my actions (what I do) need to match. In fact, the reality is that people will judge me more by my actions than by my words.

As I grew into an adult, I eventually realized that I had unconsciously taken on many of my father’s characteristics that I had learned by watching his “walk.” Interestingly, I think the same thing is true in organizations: people within the organization, over time, take on many of the characteristics of the leader. I’m reminded of the classic parenting line, “Do as I say and not as I do,” which we all know is not what really happens; we tend to do what we see. That same conclusion was reached by Albert Bandura in his studies on behavior modification and observational learning, most notably in his classic “Bobo doll” study (1969, 1986, 2003).

One of the primary applications of this truth is the importance of consistency in leadership. In essence, do what you say you will do. I found strong affirmation of this in a recent study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which was undertaken to identify “what separates the competent from the exceptional individual performers” using over 50,000 360-degree evaluations on 4150+ individual contributors over a five-year time period. Stated in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, they said, “Walk the Talk. It’s easy for some people to casually agree to do something and then let it slip their minds. Most people would say that this is mere forgetfulness. We disagree. We believe it is dishonest behavior. If you commit to doing something, barring some event truly beyond your control, you should follow through. The best individual contributors are careful not to say one thing and do another. They are excellent role models for others. This is the competency for which the collective group of 4,158 individuals we studied received the highest scores. That means, essentially, that following through on commitments is table stakes. But exceptional individual contributors go far beyond the others in their scrupulous practice of always doing what they say they will do.” (Zenger & Folkman, 2014)

Consistency in what you do is one of the most important factors in your credibility as a leader. It gives you trust, makes you believable. John Kotter made the same connection between consistency and credibility when he said, “Another big challenge in leadership efforts is credibility – getting people to believe the message. Many things contribute to credibility: the track record of the person delivering the message, the content of the message itself, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and the consistency between words and deeds.” (HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, 2011, p. 48) I had the opportunity to live this out in one organization that had an absence of trust between leadership and employees when I arrived. In my first year, I became very intentional about communicating publicly what I would be doing (both minor and major things), and then making sure that people saw that I did those things. I wanted them to know that I would do what I said I would do, so that they could trust me. My efforts were affirmed when, during an evaluation process at the end of the first year, the consensus of the employees indicated that “trust of leadership” was one of the most positive aspects of the year.

I also want to go one layer deeper in this principle. The consistency of doing what you say you will do is critical to effective leadership, but it will really only work well if it is genuine, and it is only genuine if it is who you are. In other words, it’s not simply about your actions matching your words, but your life matching your values. Jim Collins calls this “consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.” (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 21) Consistency begins with what you say, is demonstrated by what you do, but is validated in who you are. It is actually at this deeper level that you will find the strength and courage to resist the pressure to compromise in ways that make you inconsistent, especially when circumstances are difficult.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2003). On the Psychosocial Impact and Mechanisms of Spiritual Modeling. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(3), 167.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014, April 11, 2014). The Behaviors that Define A-Players.


HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership

HBR on Leadership coverI first saw this book, HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, on a list of recommended leadership books from Amazon.  I scanned the contents, and saw the names of several authors of other books that I have read and enjoyed; in addition, it’s put out by Harvard Business review, which has a strong reputation.  That was enough to convince me to pick up a copy and read it.

It has since become a frequently referenced book by me.  I have found useful thoughts and ideas in most of the chapters, and those thoughts (and quotes) have made their way into a number of posts that have appeared on my blog in the last several months (this month, I referenced one of the articles – The Work of Leadership, by Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie – several times). Of course, some have resonated with me more than others, but I think I found the whole book to have value.

The book contains ten chapters; each one is reprint of an article published in the Harvard Business Review sometime in the last 25 years.  The intent is that these ten articles represent some of the most important and influential articles and authors that have shaped leadership theory and practice over the last couple of decades.  It includes articles from authors such as

  • Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), in an article that introduces his thoughts on emotional intelligence
  • Jim Collins (author of Good to Great and Great by Choice), in an article that explains “Level 5 Leadership”
  • John Kotter (author of Leading Change), in an article that examines and presents “What Leaders Really Do”
  • Peter Drucker (author of The Effective Executive), in an article about what makes an effective executive
  • Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline), in an article that explains that the best leaders are the ones who don’t try to be perfect at every skill
  • And several others

I think this is a great resource to have on your leadership bookshelf.  It contains summaries and short discussions of some of the most influential leadership ideas of the last two decades, so it gives you a synopsis of these ideas without having to read the full works of the authors.  As I read through the chapters, I wrote an outline of the main ideas of each article on a separate 4×6 notecard, so that I would have my own personal quick-reference guide for each of the concepts.  Whether or not you do the same, I do think this can be a great resource for you.

Various Authors (2011). HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press:  Boston, MA.