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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Climbing to Greatness with Jim Collins

The management scholar put 1,435 good companies through a rigorous performance analysis and discovered only 11 became great. Here’s why.

Photo by Joel Grimes

The most prominent thing in Jim Collins’s conference room is a shelf, at eye level, holding a large framed photograph and five books in a pile. Though Mr. Collins is known as a management author, there are no business books among these five. But they are all central to understanding him.

On the bottom is an illustrated coffee-table book called Climb! Above that, a guide to the movies of Spencer Tracy. Then a group biography of the test pilots of the 1930s, pioneer aviators who embraced the risk of experimental aircraft. Next, there’s a copy of The Right Stuff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Tom Wolfe’s 1979 paean to the stoic resolve that American astronauts had inherited from test-pilot culture.

Finally, on the top of the stack is an autobiography called Test Pilot (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1935), by Jim Collins’s grandfather Jimmy Collins, for whom he was named. Jimmy Collins apparently had a fair amount of stoic resolve himself; he was chief test pilot for the Grumman military aircraft company during the 1930s, and Spencer Tracy portrayed him in the movie version of his book.

Jimmy Collins is also the subject of the framed photograph, taken in 1935, which shows him squatting in khakis by the wheels of a Grumman F3 biplane, his wavy hair parted in the middle, as handsome as a matinee idol. Next to him, bundled up apparently against the cold, is his son, a young boy in a woolen cap. The test pilot gestures at the photographer with his cigarette. He scowls mildly, perhaps irritated at the distraction of having his picture taken when there is so much work to be done. He looks ready to give his son one last quick pat on the arm and get back to his next flight. As it happened, Jimmy Collins died that day; the F3 biplane crashed while he was testing it.

The small boy in the knit cap grew up to be Jim Collins’s father, an artist who also died young, of cancer, in the early 1980s. The grandson became one of the dozen or so highest-rated rock climbers in the United States by his early 20s. (“I was never the best, but if there had been an Olympic climbing team, I probably would have qualified for the American trials,” Mr. Collins says.) He went on to become a software entrepreneur, a Stanford Business School instructor, and the coauthor (with Stanford professor Jerry Porras) of the management bestseller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, a comprehensive, intensively researched guide to the factors responsible for long, healthy corporate life, published in 1994.

Jim Collins, 43, is still in close touch with his friend and mentor Professor Porras. Fully detached from Stanford now that he has his own management laboratory, Mr. Collins published a new book in October 2001. Called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, it is another obsessively researched business book, this time on the factors common to those few companies that overcame not just the sluggishness of their industries but the complacency of their own history to sustain remarkable success for a substantial period.

In an uncanny, almost eerie, way, the spirit of Mr. Collins’s grandfather has hovered over the project since its inception. It’s most noticeable in the insights about leadership, which attracted attention even before the book’s debut, when Mr. Collins published an article on “Level 5 Leadership” in Harvard Business Review in January 2001. (Level 5 refers to the top of a five-tier hierarchy of leadership characteristics; a Level 5 Leader is someone who embodies a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.”)

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  1. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001)
  2. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 1994)
  3. Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Harvard Business Review, January 2001; Click here
  4. Jim Collins’s Web site: Click here
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