From Good to Great, Part One: The Question of Motivation

The best selling business book Built to Last has decorated the desks of thousands of executives and managers over the past few years. It was a study of great companies with unusual longevity. Its co-author, Jim Collins, just came out with what he calls a "prequel" - a book about how companies can become great in the first place, called GOOD TO GREAT. This calls to mind the Star Wars series. Will there be a pre-prequel - BAD TO BETTER? With what many businesses are going through these days, maybe we also need a cautionary study entitled BAD TO WORSE.

Collins used a large research force of graduate students and young professionals to analyze the stock performance of publicly traded companies over time, and chose an easily measurable definition of "great" to guide their selection of which businesses to study further. They went looking for corporations that had stock performance three times the market average, for at least fifteen years, coming after a period of average or below average results for at least that long. A list of eleven "good to great" companies resulted. Comparable firms in the same industries who did not satisfy these elevated criteria were also studied for an understanding of how they might have differed from the star performers. The aim was to isolate the factors that make for an ascension to greatness.

In a recent review of the book in the NEW YORK TIMES, William J. Holstein has criticized Collins for defining greatness just in terms of stock performance and not considering such factors as impact on society. While agreeing with Holstein that any reasonable concept of corporate greatness would have to take that into consideration, as well as the people issues usually discussed under the heading "Great Places to Work," I don't think the Collins book stands or falls on the question of whether it must be read as propounding a comprehensive definition of what it is to be a great company. You can read it much more informally as suggesting that we take one possible criterion of outstanding financial performance, something easily measurable, and let that give us a reasonably small number of remarkable companies to analyze in detail just to see what makes for superior results of that sort. If this is a fair and charitable way to read Collins, then perhaps he should have been clearer that his work can be taken this way, and not as assuming a single, simple numerical standard for overall business greatness.

I like a lot about the book, understood in terms of the more modest task I see it as accomplishing. I even sent a colleague a gift copy when I was still just a few chapters into it. The research seems well done, and it's for the most part engagingly written, with clearly drawn conclusions. But I did have a few problems with it. Today I want to say something about its use of jargon and its views on business vision and human motivation. Then I'll finish up with more scrutiny of the book's conclusions next week. First, though, the jargon.

Are you a Level 5 Executive? Are you staying true to your Hedgehog Concept, pursuing the right BHAGs and pushing The Flywheel consistently? Are you rinsing your cottage cheese? Or are you still worried about who moved it? If you haven't read the book, I'm sure you don't have a clue what in the world I'm talking about here. Except maybe the BHAG part (Pronounced "Bee-Hag") which was unveiled earlier in Built to Last. The claim there was that enduringly great companies pursue Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that inspire everyone. The term has caught on in many circles, even though I have to admit it gives me the willies. I can understand its favor among at least some Big Hairy Audacious Guys, and perhaps among particularly Big, Hairy, Audacious Gurus, but as a philosopher, it certainly makes me want to go looking for Ockham's Razor. It would suit most of us better to be a bit less hirsute in our jargon.

The insider argot that Collins cooks up usually is developed to express very good points. I just don't see the reason for inventing obscure, however "memorable," terms for what are themselves clear and intrinsically memorable ideas. But perhaps this is just a quibble.

The overall thesis of the book is simple. Just a few things make for the transition from good to great, and they are often things not celebrated in mainstream business literature. Disciplined people, employing disciplined thought, and engaged in disciplined action do the job. What this means is spelled out in detail by the book. I'll say more about it next week. The transition from good to great tends not to be sparked by celebrity CEOs or by meglomaniacal visions. It's much more subtle than that. You need the right people guided by the right sort of leaders pursuing goals that are proper for them, facing up to the full magnitude of the challenges that stand in their way, and persisting beyond the norm as they push forward to success. That said, I can now explain one piece of the jargon.

The Level Five Executive. After counting what he considers the levels of participation any person might have in a hierarchical organization, Collins ends up with '5' being the top level of personal involvement.

Level 1: Highly Capable Individual

Level 2: Contributing Team Member

Level 3: Competent Manager

Level 4: Effective Leader

Level 5: Executive With Paradoxical Yet Powerful Traits

All companies that rise from good to great have Level 5 Leaders, Collins claims. When he explains what this means, it may sound very familiar to those who have read my book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, or who have heard me speak on that topic. In talks on the philosophical underpinnings of sustainable greatness, I have been pointing out for years that the greatest key to masterful leadership is the relatively unusual combination of humility and nobility working in tandem. Collins says that all the good to great companies had leaders who were notably humble as people, and who yet had, in his words, "ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great." He sees this as paradoxical - that a humble person could be so determined. He says later that good to great leaders are "fanatically driven." I have to take issue with the expression. True fanatics never build and sustain greatness. A fanatic is by definition unhinged, blinded to everything but the source of his passion, and notoriously prone to bad judgment. Current events display this clearly. What then makes for the heroic resolve that Collins sees among these otherwise humble leaders? Their nobility of vision. That underlies and explains the behavioral pattern he notices throughout the good to great companies. People inspired with a noble vision for what they are doing are inclined to do more. Collins gives us his formula when he says "Humility + Will = Level 5." But what is responsible for the level of will? He never says. He never even asks the question. A sense of nobility in the enterprise creates the heroic will to achieve. Digging a little deeper and getting the true philosophical explanation empowers us to understand how to do it ourselves in our own endeavors.

Up front, the most refreshing aspect of this book is the emphasis on the importance of people. When I wrote If Aristotle Ran General Motors, my main aim was to help business leaders get a deeper appreciation for the real importance of people in their operations. We can preach product quality and process efficiency nonstop, but if we don't take care of the spirit of the people who do the work, nothing will have the results we hope to achieve. Collins emphasizes again and again the importance of getting the right people into the organization. He is correct. But he infers two conclusions from this that I think are just dead wrong. First, that the issue of vision isn't really much related to results. And then that providing any resources for the purpose of motivating people is a total waste of time. First, a word about vision.

You can't overemphasize the importance of people to any business. But you can overstate it. Collins says on page 42: "Great vision without great people is irrelevant." I appreciate the sentiment, but let's think for a moment about the exact claim. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of Israel, was once a member of the most elite group within the Israeli armed forces, perhaps the most effective and most feared anti-terrorist fighters in history. In a November 29, 2001 appearance on the MSNBC show HARDBALL, while discussing the success of this unit, he said to Chris Matthews:

"Excellent soldiers with a mediocre strategy can't go very far. An excellent strategy with even mediocre soldiers can go quite far."

Perhaps he was just being humble. But I think he was being both honest and incisive. What he said seems diametrically opposed to the claim made by Collins. Collins asserts that great vision without great people is irrelevant. Netanyahu says that an excellent strategy with even mediocre soldiers can go quite far. No one, of course, would conclude from this that we should all go out and recruit mediocre soldiers. Great is of course better than mediocre. But this applies to visions and strategies as well as to people. We can appreciate the absolutely crucial importance of having the best people we can possibly recruit in our enterprises without concluding from this that vision and strategy are, by contrast, not really that important in the end. It's not a zero sum game here. Both elements are important.

But now let's dig a little deeper into what Collins claims about vision and motivating people. The book of Proverbs says that "Without a vision, people perish." Collins seems to disagree. Let me quote a few passages, beginning with a rhetorical question that he imagines someone posing, and then answers:

"'Doesn't motivation flow chiefly from a compelling vision?' The answer, surprisingly, is 'No.' Not because vision is unimportant, but because expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time. One of the dominant themes that runs through this book is that if you successfully implement its findings, you will not need to spend time and energy "motivating" people. If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated. The real question then becomes: How do you manage in such a way as not to de-motivate people?" (page 74)

"Spending time and energy trying to "motivate " people is a waste of effort. The real question is not, "How do we motivate our people?" If you have the right people, they will be self-motivated. The key is not to de-motivate them." (page 89)

"We learned that under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation, and change just melt away. They largely take care of themselves." (page 176)

And, speaking of the lesser performing comparison companies, Collins says:

"We found a very different pattern at the comparison companies. Instead of a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done and then simply doing it, the comparison companies frequently launched new programs - often with great fanfare and hoopla aimed at "motivating the troops" - only to see the programs fail to produce sustained results." (page 178)

Here's what Collins seems not to see. We need to work so hard to get the right people involved in our enterprises not so that motivating them will not be necessary, but so that our best efforts at motivation can possibly be effective. Great people are the most fertile soil imaginable for proper motivation. They are indeed much more self-motivated than lazy people, almost by definition, but they are still human, and have normal ups and downs like all other mere mortals. They need periodic renewal. They can use a little extra inspiration now and then. Everyone needs a little lift on occasion.

In the Hebrew Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, creator of the universe, selects very special individuals for leadership positions and then still has to do quite a lot to motivate them. Jesus of Nazareth later hand picks twelve disciples, and that's where his real work starts. Getting the right people is never the end of the task, it's just the right beginning. Our need for guidance and motivation, for inspiration, and for a new puff of wind in our sails now and then, is perennial - even for the very best of us.

Who is more self-motivated than a marathoner? It's one of the ultimate volunteer activities for overachievers. It takes a masterful self-starter with the highest level of resolve to go out running five, six, or ten miles a day, for weeks or months to prepare for a marathon. And yet we hear stories from every marathon race in the country about how these runners were motivated when they really needed it by the big, cheering crowds, by individuals handing out water and shouting encouragement, or by something else they saw or heard along the way. Motivation is never a wholly do-it-yourself task.

I can't think of anyone more self-motivated than me. I'm a philosopher, doing what I love, learning every day, working at my own pace, and bringing people ideas they can use. And I think I'm perfectly suited for the enterprise that is my business. I'd hire me any day. But there are many times when I can use a little extra motivation, even when I'm not aware of the need until after that extra boost is provided.

Today, I got a letter from an inmate in a maximum security prison unit in Texas. He's incarcerated in a town I once passed through as a young man, long ago. When I stepped off the bus and walked into a gas station, I happened to notice the thermometer on the door - 112 degrees. Not a particularly pleasant location. This man just wrote to tell me what a difference my book True Success has made for him. I have no idea how he got it, but he says that it has helped change his perspective on life. He will be released in a little over a year, and with this new start wants to have the sort of success that will bring good into the lives of other people. I thought I was maximally motivated before reading his letter, but it put even more wind in my sails for what I'm doing. Plato said we're all imprisoned in illusions. It's great to hear of one man beginning to find his way out. I sent him another of my books today and soon plan on sending him The Art of Achievement as well. But I'm the one who has really benefited. Good people aren't above the need for motivation. Good people just use it well.

Motivating the troops. That's the phrase used in an almost dismissive way in the Collins book. But he acknowledges in other passages that, ultimately, there is really nothing more important than the troops. So what's the problem? Is "motivating" somehow itself a suspect activity? Only if we view it as nothing more than empty cheerleading, with hollow assurances of the most hyperbolic sort, delivered at a maximal decibel level, that we can do literally "anything we want," and that the impossible is only that which takes a little longer to accomplish. The short term manipulation of emotion that too often passes as motivational speaking almost never gives rise to positive results that last. Motivating people long term can't depend on smoke and mirrors, rhetoric and magic, or exaggeration and hyperbole. It has to be grounded in hard earned truth and conveyed with heart felt encouragement. At its best, it involves reminding people of their potential, grounded in real power, skill, and opportunity, bringing to their attention the deepest wisdom we have for utilizing our talents and resources, and inspiring them with the noblest possible construal of their actions, day to day. Are great people above the need for this? Absolutely not. Great people need it, and will benefit most from it, when it is done in the best possible way.

I hope you visit again for more on this interesting and provocative book.

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