Lessons from Jim Collins

Good morning everyone

I wrote today’s letter from bed. Generally, my week is made up of a trilogy of foundational habits – yoga, meditation, journaling – overlain with regular dips into great fiction. In the last 10 days, I have found it hard to get to them in my usual fashion. I limped along, keeping them going but not with the same joy that I ordinarily bring to and derive from them.

As I lay there in a funk, I reached for Namwali Serpell’s debut novel The Old Drift that I hadn’t looked at in the last fortnight (thank you Nothando for the recommendation) and was transported by her prose. How could one not be with sentences like, “He lived elsewhere, in the past, wandering in a ruin of his own making” or in a happier spirit, “Heat flurried into her cheeks and the corners of her mouth twitched, tugged by a tangle of competing strings – amusement, annoyance, attraction”?

After 40 minutes of being transported to Lusaka, I felt sufficiently energised to reach for my laptop and write to you. Although, I still did not leave the bed. Today it felt necessary to break the rules. Sometimes it’s okay to have a pyjamas day.

All of us – employees, business owners, executives, self-employed – are grappling with how to respond to an unprecedented situation. I could not find a more appropriate comment than this one from legendary management thinker, Peter Drucker to a now equally-legendary thinker and writer Jim Collins at the point that Collins was preparing to leave Stanford to strike out on his own, “It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying about if you’re going to survive. Well, you’ll probably survive. And you spend too much time thinking about if you’ll be successful. It’s the wrong question. The question is, “how to be useful?”


This Jim Collins podcast from Tim Ferriss is over two hours long but is worth every minute of listening.

Collins and Ferriss are both world famous authors with considerable success behind them. What struck me about this podcast is what decent, warm people they are. Collins spends the first 20 minutes of the podcast asking Ferriss about his interests in language. For those of you that love language and writing, it is a must-listen. Humility is not a leadership trait often written about, so it is wonderful to encounter it in these two extremely successful people.

Collins recounts how in his research for Good to Great they started to look at what differentiated the leadership of top-performing companies from the ‘also-rans’. They discovered that companies with “Level 5” leaders were more successful.

Level 5 leaders integrated individual capabilities, good team skills, great management, the capacity to lead (the first four levels), and then they added “ambition for some things bigger than (themselves) with humility and with will”.

In other words, the top-performing leaders looked beyond personal ambition. They sought to serve the greater good. They reflected it in all they did and said. Underlying this was a consistent celebration of others, not themselves, coupled with a determination to achieve excellence.

Later in the podcast (from about the 90 min mark), Collins dips deeper into what else builds a successful business.

He says, “We found that when they really focus on one or a few really big things and made very disciplined decisions over time, those would accumulate and begin to build some real results”. He notes that they would often interview the leadership of the ‘great’ companies asking them what the breakthrough moment was, and they were always puzzled. There never was a ‘breakthrough’. What there was, “was a series of good decisions, supremely well-executed, taken with disciplined thought, that added up one upon another over a very long period of time to produce a great result”.

These research results are critical to remember in this time. There will be pressure to look for a silver bullet, but the research is unequivocal – greatness gets built from a clear sense of purpose with a desire to contribute to something greater than oneself underpinned by excellent execution and humility.


I was inspired by Collins’ commitment to understanding himself.

He contrasts painting a masterpiece with a paint-by-numbers painting. The latter will be more than adequate but if you want a masterpiece you must start with a blank canvas.

Collins knew that he could follow a ‘paint-by-numbers’ career but he wanted to do more. To do that he needed to start with the blank canvas of understanding what he is uniquely encoded for.

He went as far as to keep a ‘bug book’. Quite literally he studies himself as if he were an insect. There are great tips scattered throughout the podcast about the tactics he has used to understand himself better and from there to build a life that played to his unique capabilities.

Using the insights from his company research these insights are supported with great discipline. Amongst other habits, he ensures that in any 365 period he dedicates at least 1,000 hours to creative work (research, writing, reflection) and, yes, he measures it – daily.

In my coaching work, I know that deep self-understanding and disciplined habits are key levers in creating a masterpiece of a life.


Collins reflects that a big part of any success is “Who Luck” – the people you know who come to influence your path.

In a poignant moment he says, “I didn’t really have a great relationship with my dad, and he died young. And so, I kind of decided I would create my own father by reading biographies of people that I really looked up to”.

South Africans have incredible ‘who luck’. Very few of us have an impact on the ANC’s elective conference and so having President Ramaphosa leading us in this crisis is indeed ‘who luck’.

The memes that followed his fumbling with his mask on Thursday night reflect the efficacy of his leadership. The memes were overwhelmingly good-natured. That the often-vicious world of social media responded with generosity and love is a testament to a leader who has connected to the nation’s soul and that nation’s gratitude for his stewardship. A leader who is loved is a leader who has led well.

As you reflect on your strategy for the future, do not be paralysed by the complexity instead ask, “What is the next best step that is both useful to others and uses my unique capabilities?”

If you were forwarded this letter and enjoyed it, please do subscribe here. Please also email me your comments. I love hearing from each of you.

To my South African readers, Happy Freedom Day for tomorrow.

Best wishes as always



PS: Please forward this letter to friends, family, and colleagues. You can also follow me on my LinkedIn profile.

(this letter was written on 26/04/2020)

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