Good Work: 20 Mile March & Other Critical Success Factors

Blog Series, Good Work

Great leaders aren’t necessarily charismatic, they just make good decisions. “The best results are achieved through disciplined thought and action,” said Jim Collins.

In a review of Collin’s book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, Vicki Davis (@CoolCatTeacher) tells the story of two teams racing to the South Pole:

One team’s strategy was to complete a 20 mile march daily, no matter the weather. No matter what, they would march 20 miles a day… day in and day out. The other team would use good weather to their advantage and sometimes went 40-60 miles in a day. When the weather was bad, they would use that to their advantage too and rest warmly in their tents.

What happened? The 20 miles a day team won, the others all died (read more).

Collins told this story to 100 CEOs gathered at an education leadership summit hosted by GSV last week—and with remarkable effect. For two days, CEOs were talking about their 20 mile march –the long term disciplined commitment to executing against an impact agenda.

The first step, according to Collins, is getting the right people in the right seats, and only then working on building a great enterprise. Collins illustrated this by encouraging the CEOs to think and talk about their best mentor and how they handled the “grow or replace” dilemma. Almost everyone there agreed that they had waited too long to address obvious performance problems in their organization. Collins reiterated that good leaders make good—and timely—decisions.

Paradox. Scaled impact is far more than just disciplined commitment. It requires a blend of creativity and execution. Collins said everybody has a “To Do” list, but it’s the “Stop Doing” list that takes disciplined action. Making room for creativity means being disciplined about what you’re not going to do.

Lyle Kirtman said he has to coach “A” student EdLeaders that “It’s ok to get a “C” in compliance. He helps them move things off their plate and start building relationships and focus on results.

The leadership paradox starts with embracing brutal facts while maintaining the faith to prevail (what Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox). Studying the contrast between success and failure, good and great, Collins determined that greatness is not a function of circumstance), it is a function of conscious choices beginning with a clear view of reality.

Hedgehog. If you read Good to Great, you remember Jim’s hedgehog concept. It starts with what you’re passionate about, so that when suffering begins you can persevere. “It’s going to hurt to do something great, the only way to get through it is if you started with passion,” he says. The second element is only doing things you can be best at—being disciplined about saying no to distractions. And third, figuring out what drives your resource engine—even nonprofits need a business model.

“Success is a cumulative process, it’s like pushing a flywheel,” said Collins, “The compounding effect of well made decisions.” A top miler doesn’t just run a 3:52, said Collins, “It’s more, 30 years and 3 minutes, 52 seconds.”

Good questions. Great leaders ask good questions. Jim has a list of 12 questions. They’ll make more sense after you skim a copy of Good to Great and the Social Sector on your bookshelf.

  1. Are we willing to strive for Level 5 Leadership, and to embrace the 10x behaviors needed to build a great company or social sector enterprise?
  2. Do we practice the principle of First Who, with the Right People on the Bus and in the right seats?
  3. What are the Brutal Facts, and how can we better live the Stockdale Paradox?
  4. What do we understand so far about our Hedgehog Concept–what we are fanatically passionate about, what we can (and cannot) be the best at, and
  5. How can we accelerate clicks on the Flywheel by committing to a 20 Mile March?
  6. Where should we place our big bets, based on the principle “Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs” — blending creativity and discipline to scale innovation?
  7. Do we show any signs of How the Mighty Fall, and do we have enough Productive Paranoia to stay far above the Death Line?
  8. How can we do a better job at Clock Building, not just Time Telling?
  9. Do we passionately embrace the Genus of the AND–especially the fundamental dynamic of ‘Preserve the Core AND Stimulate Progress”?
  10. What is our BHAG – our Big Hairy Audacious Goal – and do we have the SMaC to achieve it?
  11. How can we increase our Return on Luck (ROL), making the most of our good luck and bad?
  12. What should be on our Stop Doing list?

Collins concluded, “Life is people, make a contribution, be of service.” He added a 13th question, “How can you change the lives of others? How will some people’s lives be different/better because you were here?

For more on personal leadership, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

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