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Aug. 9, 2011

Leadership expert offers a formula for greatness

Consistency, discipline and humility are key, Jim Collins tells audience at NCSL's Legislative Summit

SAN ANTONIO—Discipline and personal humility are the hallmarks of great leaders, regardless of their sphere.

Author and business consultant Jim Collins reminded the audience at NCSL’s 2011 Legislative Summit in San Antonio that although there is a great call for government to operate more like a business, “most businesses are also only average, and the critical question is what separates the truly great ones from the good ones. The critical distinction is not between business and government, but between great and good.”

The separation of excellence from mediocrity applies to all organizations. “This is not a business question,” Collins said. “It’s a human question.”

He detailed his five levels of leadership as well as the five stages of decline of an organization. Like a seemingly healthy person who has not yet discovered they have cancer, many organizations can be on the decline even when things seem to be going well. Unlike people, however, organizations self-inflict their disease. “When success is coupled with arrogance, that is the beginning of the fall,” he said.

Great leaders find a balance that helps inspire an unwavering faith in the organization’s ability to persevere through crises while also confronting the brutal facts, he said. Leaders of declining organizations may instead display a blind optimism that leads them to rely on “silver bullets” that may or may not prove effective. Disciplined attention to what the organization does well and how to improve those programs is the more likely path to organizational success.

Along the same lines, consistency and a commitment to the organization’s core values will allow sustained progress. Those core values also focus leaders on what the organization’s priorities should be and keep them from chasing short-term strategies that prove harmful in the long run. “Discipline, actually, is not about what we do; it is about what we choose to not do, and to stop doing,” he said.

Collins noted the U.S. Constitution as a prime example of that balance. The original seven articles would prove insufficient to modern society without the ability to add amendments, but constant amendments would also inhibit greatness. The “genius of the amendment mechanism was the way that we preserve the core but allow for progress,” he said.

“Level Five Leaders,” regardless of their outward personalities, also show a particular brand of humility in which their pride is based on the organization’s success without regard for personal accolades. “The truly great ones don’t care who gets the credit,” he emphasized. A key part of that business ethic is a commitment to putting the right people in the right places to breed success. The “who” must come before the “what,” Collins insisted—a truth both in successful companies and content personal lives.

Great leaders also understand the difference between bold leadership and the raw exercise of power. “People confuse leadership and power all the time,” he said, but leaders, such as those in a legislature, can get others to follow their vision even when people in the organization have other options.

That freedom to disagree or propose alternatives is only possible when the core values are shared and appreciated, an essential component of compromise in today’s political realm. “We may come from different political views. We may come from different backgrounds and conditions, but the only way we can actually in the end make progress on the right side is if we start with the values we share with the left side.”

The opening plenary session also welcomed Bobby Henline, an Iraq veteran who was severely wounded by an IED in 2007. Now a motivational speaker and stand-up comedian, former Staff Sgt. Henline has endured 45 surgeries and skin grafts but has found a calling to inspire others.

Henline was the centerpiece of NCSL’s call to support Operation Interdependence, a San Antonio-based organization that sends CARE packages to troops overseas and supports their families at home.


NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.