During the course of 2012 through 2014, leadership expert Jim Collins - of Good to Great fame - had the opportunity to be West Point's Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership. Collins visited West Point seven times, holding a seminar with about 30 cadets on six of those trips and delivering a final talk to the cadet corps on the last one. Speaking at the recent Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Church, Collins revealed that in the end, it was he who was schooled.
During his time at West Point, one thing in particular struck Collins. In a pressure cooker environment, known for being highly competitive, why were the cadets that he encountered not only consistently happy but also willing to serve one another - for example, giving up time to help each other prepare for the dreaded Indoor Obstacle Course Test - even with their own overburdened schedule?
Being a man who has spent his life asking questions, Collins shares his insights with these 7 questions; questions that will serve us all well as we stretch the boundaries of leadership ability.
What cause do you serve with Level 5 ambition?
West Point is a place where the ethic of service runs through the entire mechanism - service to a cause or purpose they are passionately dedicated to and are willing to suffer and sacrifice for. Now combine that will the Level 5 requirements of personal humility and an utterly indomitable will. That's some serious leadership mojo.
What's your Level 5 cause? For Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, it was the belief that every single child - no matter the ZIP code - deserves a quality education. The difference is the direction of your ambition - is it focused inwardly on your success or outwardly on the cause's success? It is ego-driven leaders who inspire people to follow them. It is Level 5 leaders who inspire people to follow the cause. Can you infuse your organizational structure with a commitment to something beyond financial gain?
Will you settle for being a good leader, or will you grow to become a great leader?
Leadership has evolved from being about well-managed organization to becoming well-led networks. It is not about personality. It's not about position, power, rank, or title. True leadership, says Collins, exists if people follow when they would otherwise have the choice not to follow. Colin Powell suggested in his book, It Worked For Me, to lead with "the most delicate touch" - that in his entire career he never used the phrase, "that's an order." As a leader, to inovke position, power, rank, or title is to abdicate leadership. President Dwight Eisenhower did not start out as "Eisenhower the General" or "Eisenhower the President." He started out as the guy that carried General MacArthur's bag. Most great leaders start out "carrying bags"- it is how they carry those bags that determines if they become great leaders. Are you ready to scale your leadership?
How can you reframe failure as growth in pursuit of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)?
When Collins asked the cadets, "how many of you have failed, have felt a profound sense of inadequacy?" 4000 hands shot up. He then shared the story of his friend rock climber Tommy Caldwell, arguably the best all-around rock climber on the planet (don't take my word for it, National Geographic said so!) who, at the time, was in the midst of attempting to scale the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in a free climb. Collins asked, "Why do you keep throwing yourself at this? All it does is give you failure upon failure. Why go back?" "Because success is not the primary point," Caldwell said. "I go back because the climb is making me better. It is making me stronger. I am not failing; I am growing." (Spoiler alert: after 2800 days of "growing," Tommy and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, completed their historic climb in January of this year.)
How can you succeed by helping others succeed?
At West Point, everyone is failing at something. There is an ethos to that organization of "let me help you." You are never alone. Your success is tethered to my success. Let's revisit the above-mentioned IOCT for a moment. Collins, at age 55, had set a goal of finishing the IOCT at the same time (3:30 minutes or less) as the male cadets were required to finish. While he is an avid rock climber, his purpose was to interact with cadets, to experience what they experience. While practicing, a cadet came over to help him, saying "No sir, not that way, you look like an old man." To which Collins replied, "I am an old man." And while it may not have been that unusual for one cadet to take the time out to help an old man, Collins could see many other cadets struggling with obstacles around the gym. Most of them had at least two other cadets standing nearby, coaching, assisting, and cheering their fellow cadets. You. Are. Never. Alone. Are you helping others succeed?
Have you found your hedgehog - your personal hedgehog?
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” ~ Greek poet Archilochus
Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what Collins came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent. So, have you found your hedgehog? It's the intersection of the passion for what you do, that which you are encoded to do, and an economic engine.
Steve Jobs was a hedgehog: he exuded passion and energy. Jobs had an idea that the most efficient man in the world was a man on a bicycle. And computers were bicycles for the mind. What if Steve Jobs had quit in 1985, when he was unceremoniously fired from the company he founded? What if Churchill had quit when asked; when Lady Astor famously observed, "Oh, Churchill - he's finished"? True creators stay in the game. It never comes down to a single hand, sometimes we’ll get good hands, sometimes not. If you play every hand you get to the best of your ability that adds up to a huge compounding effect. Oh, and here's some good news for those of us who were born on the other side of 1965. Real creative impact accelerates, if you choose, after 50.
Will you build your unit – your minibus – into a pocket of greatness?
You've heard that a key part of organizational success is "getting the right people on the bus." So, how are you leading your "minibus" the unit, the area over which you have influence and dominion? West Point produces great leaders because each unit is great. Level 5 leaders focus on their unit, ego-centric leaders focus on their career. Be rigorous about who should be in the key seats of the bus and then take care of your people. The greatest leaders and people find a way to make an impact on people... real life, flesh and blood people.
How will you change the lives of others?
Life is people. How will the lives of people with whom you've had the ability to influence be better because you were on this earth?
(H/T to Bo Burlingham for background information on Collins' West Point experience.)