The idea of duality emerges as a key foundation of Jim Collins’s findings. In nearly every aspect of successful companies, Collins reveals two essential truths that coexist with each other, rather than one overarching truth. Furthermore, these pairs of truths usually seem to be in opposition, which presents companies with the challenge of balancing them effectively. While having to face seemingly contradictory demands might seem like a setback for an organization or company seeking greatness, Collins instead suggests that the chance to bring together opposing qualities and ideas is actually an invaluable opportunity for growth.
The defining characteristic of Level 5 Leaders is, somewhat paradoxically, that they lack a single defining characteristic. Rather, they distinguish themselves by balancing two seemingly opposing traits: humility and extreme persistence. While Level 5 Leaders’ humility may make them seem weak, Collins demonstrates that in fact they are often forceful and decisive. Either side of this humble/forceful combination might be an asset on its own, but it is the unique combination of the two qualities that Collins sees as the reason for these leaders’ impressive results. Furthermore, the Level 5 Leaders also surround themselves with capable executives who all contribute to making decisions. Collins finds that robust dialogue and even arguments within a passionate leadership team (which he terms The Council) is a key feature of good-to-great companies. Essentially, Level 5 Leaders derive their strength in part from relinquishing their power to others, but again, Collins sees this seeming contradiction as an asset rather than a liability.
Duality also defines the roles of all the employees within good-to-great companies, as Collins describes in his discussion of cultures of discipline. In these companies, discipline is not about strict rules and total compliance. Rather, it is about balancing two equally important values: clearly defined systems and employees’ ability to work creatively within those systems. While leadership teams manage the systems that employees use to complete their work, Collins suggests that companies function best when no one needs to manage the employees themselves. Again, this principle seems like it might lead to chaos and low productivity, but Collins’s data indicates that employees who have freedom to make decisions within a clear framework actually accomplish more than those who are micromanaged.
Collins also sees this system of freedom within structure as a means of ensuring more equitable sharing of the company’s fortunes, both positive and negative. This means that employees carry more responsibility for any failures, but they also have the joy and empowerment of taking real credit for successes. By including everyone in the process of accepting the bad along with the good, companies can create a greater sense of purpose and cohesion among employees.
Collins’s data further indicates that companies that face difficult truths directly rather than avoiding them have superior long-term outcomes. However, those companies must also manage to avoid giving in to despair, regardless of how bad circumstances might seem. According to Collins, hopeless realism is unhelpful, but so is unrealistic hope. Only by holding onto realism and hope simultaneously can companies overcome adverse circumstances.
Collins calls this balancing act the Stockdale Paradox, after a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War who achieved extraordinary outcomes within dismal circumstances. Stockdale reveals to Collins that the key to his success was believing that things would someday get better, while also acknowledging that the present situation remained dire. Collins finds examples of this balance between faith in the future and understanding of the present throughout his analysis of companies facing difficult times. The Stockdale Paradox is perhaps Collins’s most vivid illustration of the need for successful companies to tolerate and even embrace seemingly impossible dualities. Believing in two opposing truths simultaneously may seem irrational, but doing so is nonetheless a crucial component of many of the successes that Collins illustrates. By viewing these impossible situations as opportunities, Collins suggests, companies use even the worst of circumstances as ways to improve their fortunes.
Duality and Contradiction ThemeTracker
Duality and Contradiction Quotes in Good to Great
The business media called the move stupid and Wall Street analysts downgraded the stock. Smith never wavered. Twenty-five years later, Kimberly-Clark owned Scott Paper outright and beat Procter & Gamble in six of eight product categories. In retirement, Smith reflected on his exceptional performance, saying simply, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”
Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of United States president Abraham Lincoln (one of the few Level 5 presidents in United States history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring great nation. Yet those who mistook Mr. Lincoln’s personal modesty, shy nature, and awkward manner as signs of weakness found themselves terribly mistaken, to the scale of 250,000 Confederate and 360,000 Union lives, including Lincoln’s own. While it might be a bit of a stretch to compare the good-to-great CEOs to Abraham Lincoln, they did display the same duality.
Level 5 Leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.
Members of the good-to-great teams tended to become and remain friends for life. In many cases, they are still in close contact with each other years or decades after working together. It was striking to hear them talk about the transition era, for no matter how dark the days or how big the tasks, these people had fun! They enjoyed each other’s company and actually looked forward to meetings. A number of the executives characterized their years on the good-to-great teams as the high point of their lives. Their experiences went beyond just mutual respect (which they certainly had), to lasting comradeship.
A&P then began a pattern of lurching from one strategy to another, always looking for a single-stroke solution to its problems. It held pep rallies, launched programs, grabbed fads, fired CEOs, hired CEOs, and fired them yet again. It launched what one industry observer called a “scorched earth policy,” a radical price-cutting strategy to build market share, but never dealt with the basic fact that customers wanted not lower prices, but different stores.
I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Does every organization have a Hedgehog Concept to discover? What if you wake up, look around with brutal honesty, and conclude: “We’re not the best at anything, and we never have been.” Therein lies one of the most exciting aspects of the entire study. In the majority of cases, the good-to-great companies were not the best in the world at anything and showed no prospects of becoming so. Infused with the Stockdale Paradox … every good-to-great company, no matter how awful at the start of the process, prevailed in its search for a Hedgehog Concept.
This creative duality ran through every aspect of Abbott during the transition era, woven into the very fabric of the corporate culture. On the one hand, Abbott recruited entrepreneurial leaders and gave them the freedom to determine the best path to achieving their objectives. On the other hand, individuals had to commit fully to the Abbott system and were held rigorously accountable for their objectives. They had freedom, but within a framework.
But the good-to-great executives simply could not pinpoint a single key event or moment in time that exemplified the transition. Frequently, they chafed against the whole idea of allocating points and prioritizing factors. In every good-to-great company, at least one of the interviewees gave an unprompted admonishment, saying something along the lines of, “Look, you can’t dissect this thing into a series of nice little boxes and factors, or identify the moment of ‘Aha!’ or the ‘one big thing.’ It was a whole bunch of interlocking pieces that built one upon another.”
The point of this story is that these ideas work. When you apply them in any situation, they make your life and your experience better, while improving results. And along the way, you just might make what you’re building great. So, I ask again: If it’s no harder (given these ideas), the results better, and the process so much more fun—well, why wouldn’t you go for greatness?