Great by Choice is the book I’m having my leadership team at Dragon Army read in Q1 2020. It’s a top five business book for me.

Jim Collins is one of my favorite authors. In fact, one of his books, Great by Choice, is in my top five business books. Good to Great and Built to Last usually get the main stage, however, and chances are that you’ve read at least one of them. They’re great books, but I find Great by Choice the most applicable to a business like mine.

Collins was recently interviewed by Shane Parrish and it’s a terrific discussion in which you really get to go deep into the way he thinks about business. I love to hear the inner thoughts of an author and Shane does a great job of pulling out some new insights from him.

“Who” luck

One of the things I believe in is you get, not just luck in life, but “who” luck….And “who” luck is when you come across somebody who changes your trajectory or invests in you, bets on you, gives you guidance and key points.

This idea really nails something that has been incredibly impactful in my experience of running companies. The people who have believed in me and supported me are so much more meaningful than anyone one bit of “luck”. Perhaps one of the luckiest things a person can do is find a mentor who will be there for them, support them, and give them that extra boost of confidence they might need.

Level 5 leadership

“Levels of leadership” is something that honestly I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about. Maybe it’s because my leadership training has been homegrown — a combination of experience + reading about other leaders — and less Six Sigma and MBA classes. That said, I really like how Collins talks about it in this article:

And the essence of Level 5 was this strange blend of kind of personal humility and indomitable will with ambition channeled into a cause that’s bigger than you are, right? And that that’s what was different about the good to great leaders in comparison.

And

…what is the truth of your ambition? …you humble yourself to that ambition. You are in service to that ambition…But the ambition is not about them. The ambition, the burning, driving, exhausting, relentless, just like we-can-never-stop ambition is all channeled outward into the company or into a purpose that’s larger than them.

I mean, yes! Humility + an indomitable will, focused on purpose, that’s it. That is what great (or in this case, Level 5) leadership is all about!

Built to Flip vs Built to Last

This concept hits home for me in so many ways. Most interestingly, I think for the first 15 years of my career I was a Built to Flip leader, meaning my focus, ultimately, was to build my company and sell it. And I did that, twice, but felt mostly unfilled both times.

Today, however, I feel completely different. My goal is to build a company to last…forever. Something that can withstand the test of time because the people who work there, the customers that rely on us, we all believe that there is a greater purpose to what we’re doing. I want to build a company that stands for something and grows because the will of myself, the other leaders, and everyone there is too strong to let it fail.

Distinctive Impact

Here Collins is talking about what makes a great company tick…

Second is distinctive impact, which means you can actually answer the question, if our company — big or small — if what we do disappeared, would it leave an unfillable hole, or a hole that could not be easily filled by anything else on the planet? Either because of the excellence of what we do or the distinctiveness or both.

While I think this is such a great question to ask, I would add that how you do it and the impact that follows would be two additional ways to look at this question.

At Dragon Army, we don’t build our own software. We build experiences for other companies. The magic is the way we do it — with heart, with empathy, with compassion, focusing on inspiring happiness in our partners, teammates, community, and the end customer — that makes us different. That is what the world would miss if we were no longer here. And that is why it is so important that we make it.

“Who” decisions not “what” decisions

Change every “what” decision into a “who” decision. Not, “What should we do about this cybersecurity threat?” but, “Who should we have involved in it?”

So simple. This is pretty much how I think about my leadership team. My goal is not to see around every corner, not to be able to answer every question, not to have a solution to every unforeseen problem. It’s to have team members, specifically leaders, who I’m confident can navigate those decisions and make the right call.

Investing in people. People over process, over software, over everything.

Know what you’re doing, and stay the course.

In talking about the Amazon flywheel concept, he says:

It’s a million turns on the flywheel and it looks like it came out of nowhere, but actually it’s been this long cumulative process of building flywheel momentum…the most durable results happen over a series of good decisions that accumulate one upon another over a very long period of time, that create a massive compounding effect.

At Dragon Army, we use the term Consistent, Predictable Growth. Another way to say that would be Boring Growth. What happens is, enough turns on the flywheel, enough heads-down, don’t-get-distracted focus, and suddenly you create accumulated, unstoppable momentum. It can feel like an overnight success, but there’s really no such thing. And there’s no substitute for long-term, smart work. It’s not fancy, but it works. Every time.

And when you have a down period? What then?

You have companies that build flywheels and they really understood what drove their flywheel around, understood it. It’s about intellectual insight and understanding so that then even if they get a disappointing result, they can look at it with a clinical eye and say, “No, the flywheel still works. We’re going to continue to improve our execution on it.”

Return on Luck

I believe that luck is when hard work + preparation meets opportunity. Do the right thing long enough, and you will find luck. And then it’s up to you to take advantage of it.

Collins sees the multiplier to the massive success of brilliant leaders being return on luck. The great leaders are able to be ready for luck to present itself, and then they capitalize on it. And they don’t let bad luck destroy their company:

Good luck cannot cause a great company, but bad luck can be the cause of the death of a company… You make sure that the asymmetric negative bad luck never knocks you out of the game, never kills you.

Long-term thinking and slow, consistent growth are the keys.

The question is, what’s the timeframe in which you’re making decisions? And if you said we have to hit 20 more consecutive years of being ahead of the game, you’re going to make different decisions than if it’s the next two years.

And

If you’re not thinking in terms of laying foundations so the company can still be ahead a decade, two decades, three decades down the road, you don’t deserve to lead.

Yes, yes, and yes. I’m lucky in that I can build my business with this mindset. I’m looking forward trying to decide what we should be doing to last…forever. Not until we sell, or until I can be done, or until we get through a tough spot. But rather asking myself, how do we build a company that can last generations past us. It changes the frame of your decisions, and gives you confidence that you’re making the right decisions and not chasing short-term success.

And here is where I disagree…

Actually, this is a quote from Eisenhower that Collins references, so I’m not really disagreeing as much with Collins as I am with Ike.

So what is leadership? Eisenhower put it as, leadership is the art of getting people to want to do what must be done.

He goes on from there to back that up. Only, I disagree. I believe that:

Leadership is creating opportunities for people to do what they were meant to do.

The difference is that I’m not trying to get people to do what must be done, I’m trying to help them believe that it must be done, because we all decided it must be done, because our purpose dictates that it must be done, and then I’m trying to put them in a place to succeed at bringing their gifts and talents to the bear in order to accomplish it.


All of this leads me to where we are today:

At Dragon Army, we focus on purpose. We focus on building stability, on organic, healthy client growth, on less-risky, more-trusting relationships. We invest in our leaders and team members. We focus on building deep trust within our company. We do these things not for quick, quarterly profit bumps, but because we are building a company to last…forever. And we do that because we believe the world needs more companies like Dragon Army.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider signing up for my weekly email newsletter! Every Friday I will send you an email with interesting articles and books I’m reading, productivity hacks, leadership lessons, and an update from that week’s blog posts. There is exclusive content that only comes out in the email!