Jim Collins on humility, the signature dimension of a great leader


What makes a great leader? We had the good fortune last week, during our SAS Global Forum Executive conference, to find out.

For me, and many conference attendees, it was an honor to interact with and listen to Jim Collins, World renowned researcher, author, and passionate keynote speaker. His groundbreaking books Good to Great, and now How the Mighty Fall, have introduced us all to countless new and innovative ideas. Jim’s writing has a way of drawing you in; It's interesting, well presented, and always based on solid research. His keynote address was no different.

From the moment Jim took the stage, we knew we were in for a treat. After all, Jim does not accept many speaking engagements, yet here he was. (We learned Jim accepted our invitation to speak because he is passionate about SAS, passionate about our core values, and passionate about the use of analytics, applied with the rigor of the scientific method, to solve problems.)

For an hour we listened to Jim. He was impassioned, clear, and memorable. Even now, as I sit on an airplane, bleery eyed, with that almost comotose post-conference feeling, I’m thinking of the key messages that stuck with me.

  1. Great leaders (what Collins calls Level 5) have only one dimension that separates them from good leaders. That "signature dimension" is humility. Jim describes many examples of how this dimension is demonstrated in his research. The one that struck me as he spoke was "the humility to confront data, even if that data is showing them something they don't believe.
  2. Great leaders in times of uncertainty are emperical. They are willing to face the brutal facts every day.
  3. Yes, great leaders of great companies do take risks in order to drive profitability. They first demand emperical validation before they bet big.

Jim Collins went on to describe the discipline of great leaders. Here is where I became inspired once again. As managers, whether in marketing or elsewhere, we are reminded to heed this advice and Jim reminded me again. GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS, then confront the brutal facts.
Six elements of getting the right people:

  1. Make sure they have the same core values as your company. Core values cannot be taught, so this is a critical first screen.
  2. The right people do not need to be managed. They are self-motivated and its the manager's job to create an environment where they do not become de-motivated.
  3. The right people understand that they do not have a "job". They are there to contribute and create success.
  4. The right people do what they say they will do, 100% of the time! That often means they do not overcommit.
  5. The right people display a "window/mirror" mentality. They never blame others, and they give credit elsewhere.
  6. The right people have a passion for the work itself.

All of this is interesting, right? But the real question is...what do we have the discipline to do? Here is my commitment:

  • I will redouble my commitment to getting the right people.
  • I will make clear the values that SAS and our marketing organization hold as core.
  • I will remind myself and my managers that it is our job to create an environment where people do not become demotivated...because it is not our job to motivate these self-motivated and talented people.

Thanks again to Jim Collins for these reminders and for the context he provided to help me understand.

What is your next step?

What and how will you look for those right people?


About Author

Deb Orton

Senior Marketing Director

Senior Marketing Director responsible for US focused Field Marketing campaign teams.


  1. I had heard about the book "Good To Great" several times over the last few months. I am always trying to improve my life and the lives of my family. Anyway I just happened to order the book Thursday. Am really looking forward to it.

  2. For me, the book Good to Great, is set apart from other business books. It defines excellence and shows us what it takes to meet the bar of "great". It's a place where mediocrity isn't accepted. Thank you for the comment!

  3. Jim words about "Get the right people on the bus" is so true. It's relatively easy to find a person qualified for the position, but it's a lot harder to find find people who share your ideals and company vision. Many managers would benefit from his teachings.

  4. I definitely agree. A great leader is not afraid of change. Whoever is unafraid of change is humble enough to admit that change is inevitable. I am wont to believe that humility is actually the springboard of all power.

  5. Jim Collins is a brilliant man. I've had a few friends write their own books on business. But I think "Good to Great" is completely different, and really hits home with me.

  6. Pingback: 12 ways to write a conference blog post - Customer Analytics

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