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Personal humility is a key ingredient for greatness

Nov 13, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

Once upon a time there was a teacher of business at a famous university far, far away. This teacher was troubled by the question: what makes a company truly great? Why do some stay mired in mediocrity for decades, yet others are able to outperform the market for many, many years? Why do some companies manage to make the transition from being merely good to becoming truly great, and others do not? Most importantly, what do the companies that become “great” for long periods have in common?

The teacher’s name was Jim Collins, and he was on the faculty at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He embarked on a five-year research project to isolate those companies that seem to defy gravity. He assembled a 20-person team, which collectively put in 10.5 people-years of work.

The team started with 1,435 companies, and applied a progressive screening process. In the end, they were left with just 11 companies: 11 organisations that had successfully made the transition from good to great. Mr. Collins’ journey, and its surprising results, are captured in the best-selling book, Good to Great. This book has achieved a greatness of its own: it has sold over 2 million copies, and is still selling in the original hardback format, more than 4 years after publication.

How great were the 11 good-to-great companies identified? Well, they made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least 15 years. In fact, they generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general market by an average of 7 times over 15 years. These results were better than twice as good as those achieved by even the world’s conventionally acknowledged ‘great’ companies (like General Electric, Intel and Coca-Cola). In other words, these were companies that you and I would be overjoyed to work for, or own shares in.

Mr. Collins’ team then began the painstaking task of finding out what factors the 11 great companies had in common – and this is where things became really interesting. They did indeed find half-a-dozen things that good-to-great companies commonly do. But let’s leave those for weeks to come. This week, I’d like to focus on what was perhaps Mr. Collins’ most unexpected result: the lesson of leadership.

The team was startled to find that it is not the high-profile, larger-than-life celebrity leaders who create truly great companies. It is in fact shy, self-effacing and humble leaders who manage to take companies to sustained greatness. They may not seek the limelight, but these leaders do not lack resolve: they display intense professional will and remarkable staying power. Mr. Collins tells us that these people are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is for the institution, not for themselves.

For a world conditioned to think that celebrity CEOs like Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca are what every company needs, this was indeed a shock. But what the research team discovered is that celebrity leaders rarely leave a legacy of sustained strength. Good-to-great companies build deep and strong executive teams; companies led by celebrities, on the other hand, follow the “genius plus a thousand helpers” model. In other words, they are platforms to showcase the talents of an extraordinary individual. And the towering business genius often drives the company to new heights and is a great asset – as long as that genius sticks around.

Great succession planning; developing the institution and its processes; laying the foundations that will deliver decades of success: these are not the hallmarks of larger-than-life leaders.

I think we need to pay great attention to this finding in Kenya, for we too are in danger of becoming infatuated with celebrity leaders. We expect our corporate moguls to be bigger and better than us in every obvious way: confident speakers; flashy dressers in customised cars; always in the cameras; always seen where it’s worth being seen. In some cases, precisely this type of leader has taken once-proud companies to ruin; still we keep hoping to be led by outspoken poster-boys.

We are doing the phalanxes of highly competent, hard-working, far-seeing executives present in Kenya a great disservice. They are actually what build greatness; the show horses may win a race or two, but will soon leave you with nothing but froth in your hands.

Lessons? For boards of directors and shareholders: beware the larger-than-life, fast-talking, well-connected personality when it comes to choosing your leaders. Beware the individual who takes the credit for all achievements, and blames the economy for all shortcomings. This person is good for the short sprint, not the marathon. And if your company is not a marathon runner, get out of it now. Beware the wannabe rock star: he or she has no place in businesses that last.

But perhaps the bigger lesson should be learned by voters. Political leaders, too, can be evaluated in this way. When you are asked to name the great leaders of recent times, which names spring to mind? Churchill and Kennedy? Winning a war and facing down the Russians did not necessarily build greatness in their respective nations. We may remember Churchill’s remarkable oratory for generations – but he was rejected by voters as soon as World War Two ended. Kennedy may have gone to an early grave, but he had already begun losing popularity.

Let’s look at China. We may all know Chairman Mao and his sayings, but it is the succession of faceless bureaucrats that have presided over the fastest and most widespread economic transformation in history. (Can you even remember the name of the current premier? I didn’t think so). We all know about the renowned Indira Gandhi, but it is the much more studious, thoughtful and anonymous Manmohan Singh who had the nerve and ambition to transform India’s economy.

The mistake we make is in confusing kelele with confidence. The loudest noises are actually made by the emptiest drums, but we become entranced by the seductive rhythm. Great leaders do not lack ambition or resolve – they are brimming with it. But, crucially, their ambitions are for entities bigger than themselves: their communities, their societies, their nations, their race. They are quiet because there is no reason to speak.

In Kenya today, as our leaders use the referendum campaigns to parade before us like preposterously adorned peacocks, let us have the discernment to understand what we are seeing. That fellow who can work a crowd with the loud voice, the confident swagger, the taste in cars with big tyres – that is precisely the person least likely to take you and this country anywhere worth going.

Keep your eyes peeled for the men and women who genuinely want to achieve something bigger in life than personal glory. They won’t need to convince you of this by way of flowery argument: you will see the passion and determination in their eyes. You will see the long-term vision in the actions they undertake: good-to-great leaders are famously impatient of “quick wins” and crowd-pleasing initiatives.

They’re not difficult to spot, these people, once you know what to look for.

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