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Jim Collins on Successful Leadership in Tough Times
From the Marshall Memo #441
In this School Administrator interview with Dan Domenech, business author Jim Collins (Good to Great) describes several distinctive behaviors that effective leaders exhibit:
• Fanatic discipline – Looking at high-poverty Arizona schools that beat the odds with their predominantly Latino students, Collins found that the principals had what he called a 20-mile march philosophy. The trick to walking across the United States, he says, is consistently walking 20 miles a day, rather than doing 50 one day and zero the next. “There were going to be good conditions and bad conditions and good funding and bad funding and large class size and small class size and difficult student populations and not-difficult student populations,” he says. “But we still have the 20-mile march on student achievement, and we hold ourselves accountable for that no matter what the weather conditions might be.”
A characteristic of mediocrity, says Collins, is “chronic inconsistency.” The high-performing schools he studied didn’t keep changing their approach. “Rather, they picked a good program and then marched with fanatic, consistent, relentless discipline to improve performance,” he says. “Over time, through this consistency, they produced great results… If you just keep bringing in a new agenda every two or three years, you will be mediocre, period.”
• Humility – Collins has found that most successful leaders are humble. This is especially true in public-sector jobs where the person in charge doesn’t have the power to get things done unilaterally and leadership consists of getting people to follow when they don’t necessarily have to follow. “It is humility defined as channeling your ego and your ambition and your drive and your creativity into something that is bigger than you, more important than you,” he says. “So a true Level 5 leader would say, ‘It is not about me, it is about the schools. It is not about me, it is about how we produce young people who are able to get into the world and contribute and lead.’” Leaders have to really mean that, be willing to put students ahead of their own success – and this usually works because most people will follow someone who is authentically into the mission.
• Succession planning – Superintendents need to plan for their eventual departure, says Collins. He believes the best way to ensure future success is to have first-rate principals in schools. They are the real front-line leaders of a school district.
• Empirical creativity – If you’re going to bet your success and your career on something, says Collins, make sure it will work. That means testing it out in small trials before making a full commitment. “We talk about how you fire bullets before you fire cannonballs,” he says. “You fire bullets to get calibrated, then you fire the cannonball. My observation of a lot of reform, not just in education but other arenas, as well, is that people like to fire big cannonballs before they’ve empirically validated them with bullets.” In an uncertain environment with negative forces hitting us from all sides, the key to success is finding the empirically-validated strategies and then pursuing then with a dogged, 20-mile-a-day mindset.
• Productive paranoia – Collins is an avid rock-climber, and he’s learned a leadership lesson from that: fear “the really big things that could kill you, the really big things that could end the game,” he says. “Because the only mistakes you can learn from are the ones that you survive. So you always have to know the line that, if crossed, you’d never have a chance to come back and learn from that mistake.”
“One big lesson from this work is that almost everyone faces big forces and uncertainties out of their control,” concludes Collins. “But the leaders who do really well say that’s never an excuse. That’s never an acceptable excuse for failing to deliver and get great results.”
“Jim Collins on Mediocrity and the Benefits of Paranoia” in School Administrator, June 2012 (Vol. 6, #69, p. 40-43), http://aasa.org/content.aspx?id=23588