If you could pick one word to describe Jim Collins, leader extraordinaire and author of books such as “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” it would be curious. From his work in the leadership field to his current work researching K-12 education, Collins’ thirst for knowledge and especially for knowledge about what makes great companies and organizations tick has opened up opportunities that serve as the foundation of his career. “I am driven most by sheer curiosity,” says Collins. “I hope the last thing I say in my life is a question. I want to be lying there and ask, ‘How does this work?’”
“I am driven most by sheer curiosity,” says Collins. “I hope the last thing I say in my life is a question. I want to be lying there and ask, ‘How does this work?’”
That curiosity and love of discovery saved him after his parents divorced. “My family fell apart when I was in sixth grade. My parents got a divorce, and it was transformative for me,” he says. “It was a time when my world felt unstable, and I had to find my moorings. That led to two things that eventually shaped my life,” he says. The first was rock climbing, which became a way to channel his energies into something good rather than “hanging out at the mall with the wrong kids,” he laughs. Living in Boulder, Colo., he had no shortage of rocks to climb plus, he says, he liked the “realness” of climbing. “It helped me navigate out of uncertainty.”
Loving to Learn
The second thing he learned was that he loved to use his brain and learn. “I got ahold of the idea that the path out of the family chaos was to use my brain. I am on a lifelong quest for learning, and that became the path I chose to follow,” says Collins, who got his undergrad degree and Masters of Business Administration from Stanford University. “In the 1970s, there weren’t any rock-climbing gyms. One thing that appealed to me about Stanford is that they had great sandstone walls.”
“I got ahold of the idea that the path out of the family chaos was to use my brain. I am on a lifelong quest for learning, and that became the path I chose to follow,” says Collins, who got his undergrad degree and Masters of Business Administration from Stanford University. “In the 1970s, there weren’t any rock-climbing gyms. One thing that appealed to me about Stanford is that they had great sandstone walls.”
At Stanford, Collins began his research and teaching career at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. And it’s that curiosity that drove him to found a management laboratory in Boulder, where he conducts research and engages in Socratic dialogue with CEOs and senior leadership teams. By far, his greatest accomplishment, he says, is that “I realized that life isn’t about the
By far, his greatest accomplishment, he says, is that “I realized that life isn’t about the what; it’s about the who. I enjoy working with people and love spending time with people. Life is not about accomplishments and acquisitions; it’s about people,” says Collins, who has been married for 36 years to wife Joanne. “We got engaged after four days. I was 22 years old; she was 21 years old. I’m most proud of my relationship with Joanne.”
Finding Inspiration in Others
And it’s people from whom Collins draws inspiration. “Given that I didn’t have a role model for a father, I sought out role models and mentors. I had a great honing mechanism for mentors,” he says. One of his early mentors was Bill Lazier, a professor at Stanford who became a colleague and co-author of his book “Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business into an Enduring Great Company” and “Managing the Small to Midsize Company: Concepts and Cases in the 1990s.”
Lazier died in 2005; Collins says of him, “Bill gave me a real a-ha moment when he said that the most important thing is to begin everything with the questions ‘What are your values?’ and ‘Are you willing to suffer and sacrifice for them?’” Says Collins, “He taught me the value of commitment. He told me there is never an acceptable reason for failing to fulfill a commitment that you make. In fact, I once flew to Florida with a hurricane coming because I had made a commitment to get there.”
While Lazier taught Collins the value of honoring commitments, it was John W. Gardner, another Stanford professor and the sixth U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, who taught him to spend less time trying to be interesting and more time trying to be interested.
“That fundamentally rang true for me. I was 30 years old and teaching at the business school at the time. I became the guy asking all the questions rather than answering them. People are interesting. You never know what struggles they’ve overcome or that they engage in some arcane activity,” he says.
Gardner also opened the door to Collins’ work in social sectors, including education, healthcare, government, faith-based organizations, social ventures and cause-driven nonprofits. “John Gardner taught me how to study the great leaders in education, military and more. He taught me that they all have one thing in common—an off-the-charts, sustained energy level,” says Collins. “Regardless of how long they’ve been doing their job, they still are on fire.”
In fact, says Collins, that is probably one of the hardest parts of leadership—finding the cause that will bring that energy out of you. “If you were to ask these great entrepreneurs and leaders how they have so much energy, they wouldn’t understand the question. I call these Level 5 leaders. What separates them is that they are truly ambitious for something that is not about themselves and their accomplishments,” he adds.
Collins still rock climbs (he successfully made one-day ascents of the northwest face of Half Dome and the 3,000-foot south face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley), and is passionate about the outdoors, seeking experiences that take him outside. “One thing you’ll notice about me is that I’m not sure downtime is anything I’ve ever experienced. Everything comes back to my work, and I’m not very good at downtime,” he laughs.
In fact, when interviewed for a newspaper article about her husband, Joanne was asked to give one word that describes him. “She said ‘exhausting,’” laughs Collins, who says he reads between 50 and 100 books every year. “I like to take things and get better at them. I don’t have to be better than others. I want to improve and grow. John Gardner inspired me when he said we should learn more between ages 70 and 88 than ever before.”
With his untamed passion and curiosity to know as much as possible about people in all different fields, Collins is that once-in-a-lifetime leader who lives and breathes what he teaches. “It’s all about the people,” he says. And, people make life interesting.
In His Words: Jim Collins
“I don’t have a favorite; just a favorite at the time. Right now, it’s Michael J. Fox’s books. He got Parkinson’s disease after becoming a successful actor, and his cause found him. He found his Level 5 cause, and now he has unbounded energy to find a cure for the disease.”
- “Lucky Man: A Memoir.” New York: Hyperion, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7868-6764-6.
“Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.” New York: Hyperion, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4013-0338-9.
- “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned.” New York: Hyperion, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4013-2386-8.
“I like to think that instead of a bucket list, I have a rolling five-year plan. I wake up in early January and ask this simple question, ‘If you have five years to live, what do you for sure want to get done?’ For me, that is complete my K-12 education study and answer the vexing question of how I can remain renewed well past age 60 and provide that answer to others. I believe that the most creative and impactful years of your life can begin at age 60. I also fundamentally believe that all kids, no matter what ZIP code they live in, deserves a shot to get the equipment they need to actualize a choice in life.”
Can’t Live Without (excluding family and friends):
“Naps, a cup of coffee in the morning and books on tape at three times speed. I listen on Audible at 3X speed. I did the whole Harry Potter that way.”
Hardest thing about leadership:
“People struggle the most with making great people decisions. We all make mistakes, whether it be to hire the wrong person or not to notice the potential in someone. People decisions are filled with angst and emotion. To master the people aspect, you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to know who should be on and off the bus and do it in a way that is deeply respectful and provides dignity to the people you’re guiding. You must be rigorous, but not ruthless in the way you deal with people.”
Recent book that made him think:
““Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnected-ness of the Universe,” by Lisa Randall. It is about the Big Bang Theory and its relationship to dark matter and the universe. It was fascinating.”