Feature                                                       Pages 40-43


Jim Collins on Mediocrity

and the Benefits of Paranoia  

An interview of the best-selling author yields surprises on how organizations overcome tumult

Jim Collins
Jim Collins 

Severe budget cuts, constituent unrest, natural disasters. All too often, school districts are faced with obstacles that are beyond the control of the chief leader. When organizations are forced into challenging circumstances, the resulting tumult proves, for some, insurmountable.

Then there are examples of organizations that not only survive uncertainty, but also somehow manage to thrive. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, spent nine years with his colleague Morten Hansen researching why. Their findings form the centerpiece of Collins’ latest book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperCollins 2011), and they hold plenty of surprises.

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech recently interviewed Collins to discuss what his research means for school leaders, the hallmark of mediocrity and the benefits of paranoia. (A complete audio version of the interview appears on AASA Radio at www.jackstreet.com/jackstreet/WAASA.Collins.cfm.)

DAN DOMENECH: With the huge economic shortfalls and increasing demands for transparency and higher test scores, the ground under many school districts is feeling pretty shaky. Tell us some of the things you found out about the companies that thrive in troubled times. Can this wisdom help schools, too?

JIM COLLINS: Well, my co-author, Morton Hansen, and I really began wrestling with this question in 2002 as a human question facing all kinds of organizations. Morton and I believe we are entering an era of chronic and permanent instability and uncertainty, with episodes of chaos, violent disruption, rapid change, globalization and big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control. This is not just a business reality; this is everybody’s reality. So we happened to use business as the lens through which we do our analysis, but the lessons are universal.

What we found in our research is that those who lead very well in these kinds of environments exemplify three very distinctive behaviors. They have what we call fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia. When they marry those three behaviors together in their leadership, they navigate episodes of uncertainty and chaos very well.

DOMENECH: Educators look to your books, particularly Good to Great, to find clues about how we can be running our schools better. You’ve actually done some research on how your findings in the corporate sector can be adapted to the school environment. What can you teach us?

COLLINS: In one of the chapters in the book, we put forth a thing called the 20-mile march. I refer to a research study that was done at the Center for the Future of Arizona looking at schools that have over-performed relative to other schools with poor Latino populations. It became known as the Beat the Odds study. And one of the things that we found is that whenever you want to perform well, you want to have a 20-mile march. That is, if you were walking across the United States, you would not try to do 50 miles one day and zero the next. You would get up every single day and march 20 miles. You don’t want external conditions, like bad weather or good weather, to prevent you from marching your 20 miles.

What we found when we looked inside the Beat the Odds study is that the principals who led these (successful) schools had a 20-mile-march philosophy. There are 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. 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.

DOMENECH: So basically we’re talking about a certain amount of consistency in your approach. You don’t want to slack off one day and try to conquer the world the next. Rather, you persist and you continue on toward your goal.

COLLINS: That’s a really good point. One of the things that we found in our research is that the signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change — although, if indeed you do refuse to change, you will eventually fall behind.

The real signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. When you look inside the Beat the Odds schools, we found they didn’t keep changing every two years to try to find another program. They never believed there was a single-purpose program. Rather, they picked a good program and then marched with fanatic, consistent, relentless discipline to improve performance. Over time, through this consistency, they produced great results.

DOMENECH: As you know, the average tenure of the American superintendent tends to be about 3½ years. So many districts, particularly the districts most in need of improvement, have sort of a revolving door. Their leadership runs one year, two years, three years, and every time a new person comes in, it’s with a new agenda. That kind of flies against the face of what you just mentioned, in terms of consistency.

COLLINS: If you just keep bringing in a new agenda every two to three years, you will be mediocre, period.

DOMENECH: You talk about the Level 5 leader. What makes a Level 5 leader, and how does one become one?

COLLINS: The really key variable, the X factor of the Level 5 leader, is not their personality or their genius or their vision. It’s their humility — humility defined in a special way. 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. 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 go into the world and contribute and lead.” And “I am in service to that end goal. I am not in service to myself.”

DOMENECH: A great point. I think of how superintendents are immersed in political issues — the job goes well beyond just managing and administering of a school district. Superintendents have to stick to what’s right and what’s best for kids, but when that flies against the local politics or another constituent, what could they do?

COLLINS: Well, one of the things that we wrote about in a monograph called “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” in which we took some of the Good to Great ideas and applied them into the arena of non-business entities, we found there are two types of Level 5 leaders. There’s what I would describe as the executive Level 5, which is what you’d find in business corporations, where you have enough concentrated power that you, yourself, can make everything happen. If Sam Walton decided he wanted Wal-Mart to go east, he could take it east. If he wanted to go west, it would go west, because Sam had the concentrated power to do so.

But when you’re a school superintendent or university president, or you’re a city manager or you’re in some social-sector leadership, you would have to be what I would describe as a legislative Level 5 leader. As a legislative Level 5 leader, you are operating in a power situation where you do not have all the concentrated power yourself. In fact, you may have only a small slice of the power, and others have enough power to stop things, if they want to.

The key with the legislative leadership is to basically have the capacity to assemble the conditions for the right decisions to happen and to understand that leadership and power are different entities. Just because I have power doesn’t mean I’m leading. True leadership exists only if people follow when they have the freedom to not follow.

What that means is that the really outstanding leaders in a complex-diffused-power environment are the ones for whom it truly is about the school, the kids and the end results and who will stand by that even if they themselves fall as a result of it. But the reasons that works is because most people can tell when somebody is really in it first and foremost for the kids.

They’re also politically savvy, so they can assemble the points of power required to get the right things done on behalf of the kids. I would recommend that people really study great senators more than they study great presidents.

DOMENECH: You’ve also looked at how organizations survive a change in leadership. Sometimes a school or district struggles when a principal or superintendent who’s been a star leaves without really preparing the district. What should a leader be doing to set the stage for leadership change?

COLLINS: You have to be really asking do you have people in place, do you have systems in place, do you have values in place, do you have processes in place, so that if you got hit by a bus tomorrow, the enterprise would continue to operate and function well without you. That usually means designating somebody to take over, and I realize that superintendents often are brought in from the outside, but there are other members of the staff.

Jim Collins El Cap
Jim Collins trained for nearly two years to master the rigorous 2,500-feet ascent to the peak of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. 

There’s also, of course, the really critical piece of the puzzle, which is your principals. I really believe the frontline leaders are school principals. As a superintendent, if you have taken great discipline to make sure you have the right people in the key seats (which means that you have the right principals in the right principals’ seats), then you leave behind a very strong system, even if the leadership changes.

DOMENECH: I understand that you are an avid rock climber. Surely you’ve learned some survival lessons on the side of a cliff that could be useful in running an organization.

COLLINS: When writing Great by Choice, where we were really looking at why some companies thrive in the face of uncertainty and forces out of your control, Morton and I identified three behaviors necessary for success: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia.

One of the things that you learn as a climber is that you always have to have what I would describe as productive paranoia. Productive paranoia means that you always are afraid of the really big things that could kill you, the really big things that could end the game. 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.

For example, you left yourself politically exposed, or you left yourself in a position where you’d run out of cash — these mistakes could really terminate the quest you’re on. Those who exercise productive paranoia are always worried about that and are even giving themselves big margins of safety.

The other thing about that is that, in climbing, if you’re going to bet your life on something, if you’re going to bet your trajectory of what you’re leading on something, you want to make sure that it’s empirically validated, not just a shot out in the dark. That’s the empirical-creativity piece. We talk about how you fire bullets before you fire cannonballs. 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. That’s a good way to get yourself in trouble on the side of a mountain. You want to make sure your systems are empirically valid and then fire the cannonball.

DOMENECH: You’re aware of the reform movement that’s going on currently in public education. What can you tell us about that?

COLLINS: I think the big message is that every industry has forces that can hit it from outside its control. Take the airline business. They were facing deregulation and interest-rate spikes and fuel shocks and all sorts of really terrible things. In the new book, we look at how companies became great regardless. If you look at these industries, what you realize is they’re facing a lot of big obstacles out of their control. And those who led in those environments said: “I can’t do anything about that. So what I have to do is to put in place the disciplines here that keep us in our march, no matter what changes in our environment. I need to put things in place that we know are empirically validated and will work, no matter what changes hit us from afar. I need to make sure we always are giving ourselves some contingencies, in case things turn out the way we don’t want, so we can continue our march.”

Our big lesson from this work is that almost everyone faces big forces and uncertainties out of their control. But the leaders who do really well say that’s never an excuse. That’s never an acceptable excuse for failing to deliver great results. It is our job to figure out, no matter how reform unfolds, how to deliver great results for our constituents, for our kids, for our members, for whomever it happens to be.



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