Humility and Exceptional Leadership: Excerpts from an Interview with Good to Great Author, Jim Collins

Well known for his work on recognizing and fostering transformational leadership for organizations, Jim Collins (author of Good to Great, among other titles) turns his attention to school leadership in his next project. Collins wanted to learn from exceptional school leaders who have had success in all types of different school environments and communities.

In a recently published interview for Independent Schools magazine, Collins refers to education as “the most compelling” of the social sectors, and he attempts to find the common factors that make a school great, whether it’s public or private, rural or urban, small or large, elementary or high school.

“We have to have exceptional teachers,” Collins said in the interview. “But the school leader is the one who has the most profound influence on the culture in the building, the one who can create a culture of performance within the environment.”

As he approaches this new project, Collins and his researchers are building on what they already know about “great” organizations. These organizations are unified in focusing on their mission, have a distinctive impact that would be missed if it no longer existed, and are built for lasting endurance through all types of changes – including leadership.

So how does Collins surmise that schools can transform from good to great?

With exceptional leadership at every level, he predicts that success is achieved through the application of some common leadership principles no matter what type of school environment, whether they are well-run or riddled with crises.

In order for school leaders to transform their schools to greatness, Collins advises:

Building a culture around a set of core values. If the staff embodies the values, “people will have the ability to make independent decisions in the context of those values.”
Developing talent – investing in an exceptional staff. “How well a leader cultivates and develops people” is crucial in creating an environment of multi-level leaders that don’t depend entirely on the leader. They are self-motivated by the leader’s established values, focused on the common mission, and confidently autonomous.
“Preserving the core,” while at the same time stimulating progress. Exceptional leaders recognize what is working and what can be improved. He or she can answer the question, “Is the reason we’re in trouble because our recipe no longer works and we need to completely change it, or is it that we’ve lost discipline with the recipe that, in essence, still works?”
But Collins concludes that all other principles rely on the paramount need for what he calls a “Level 5” leader, which is a humble leader with high ambitions for the mission, and not him or herself.

“Level 5 leaders have high levels of humility and will. All their ambition and drive are channeled outward into a cause. It truly is not about them … it’s about the mission.”

Collins believes that an exceptional leader can focus his or her team on a mission so that they don’t simply do what they’re told – they have a strong desire to do it. He quotes Dwight Eisenhower to drive his point home; “Leadership is the art of getting people to want to do what must be done.”

Collins wraps up the interview explaining that principles of great leadership are multi-generational. The practices of leadership may change depending on the generation, but the core principles are consistent.

“I believe that we need legions of Level 5 leaders in our schools. I am increasingly inspired and impressed by the young leaders I meet. Let’s get out of their way and let them lead!”

The interview was with Michael Brosnana, editor of Independent School, for the Spring 2015 issue. Click here to read the full interview online.

The Alabama Best Practices Center also recommends reading The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner.