Collins Defines ‘X Factor’ in School Leadership Greatness

 Jim Collins, speaker

 Best-selling author Jim Collins was the keynote speaker
at the 1st General Session of the AASA national conference.

by Scott LaFee

For more than two decades, Jim Collins has asked a singular question, albeit in many ways: How does one achieve greatness?

For the most part, his query has focused upon the world of business, attempting to parse the differences between companies that survive with those that thrive, between those that fail and those that excel.

As keynote speaker at Thursday’s 1st General Session of the AASA national conference, Collins, the 54-year-old former professor-turned-consultant, turned his attention to the definition and pursuit of greatness in public education. In many ways, he said the lessons he’s learned, expounded in best-selling books like Built to Last and Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, apply no less to school leaders than they do to the titans of industry.

Truly great leaders aren’t born of personality. “Some of the great leaders I’ve studied had no personality at all,” he joked. Rather, the “X-factor” of their greatness was a sense of humility “combined with an utterly ferocious will to pursue their cause or endeavor.” Everything that defined them – ego, drive, ambition, energy – was channeled into their overarching, overwhelming mission.

To illustrate his point, Collins cited an Arizona study that compared public schools of similar demographics with one exception: Students in one school excelled academically while students in the other did not.

“What was the difference,” Collins asked. “Where did they contrast?”

As it turned out, it wasn’t external factors like class size, parental involvement or funding. Instead, one of the primary differences was the role of the school principal. In the school that excelled, the principal proved to be a leading driver of success, in ways both small and large.

To achieve greatness, according to Collins, a leader needs a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. There are good ones and bad ones, he said. “A good BHAG, once you’ve achieved it, has an utterly transformative effect on every single kid in your system.”

But success carries demands, he cautioned. Great leaders live and breathe their BHAGs. “You wake up in the morning and there it is, with big, staring eyes, giant ears and hairy feet.” Great leaders must be completely focused upon their BHAGs, and pursue them with relentless, unyielding discipline. These traits must extend to those who work for and with them.

But once greatness is achieved, how does one keep it? Collins said it begins with understanding why you are successful, and then balancing twin concerns: Preserving the core values and purposes that helped achieve greatness with the unending need to stimulate progress.

“If you don’t change, you will become irrelevant. You will eventually fail,” Collins said. “But if you change too much, if you change without knowing why you are changing, then you risk the same fate.”

Greatness is not a function of circumstance, but of choice and discipline. And, to some degree, of opportunity and meaning. People can be successful without being great.

To be the latter, you must also be useful, Collins concluded. School leaders have that rare opportunity. By being useful, they shape children’s lives and change the future.