Origins of Vision

The Letter

In “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, we learn the value of what he calls “first-who-then-what” in terms of vision for an organization. In his study of companies that broke through the glass ceiling of “averageness” to “greatness”, the team was developed first, before they found their final vision and direction.

Collin’s observation, admittedly, departs from conventional wisdom—that vision comes FIRST. So, where does vision fit in? It almost seems to have become an enemy of so-called “leadership” these days. But, it all made sense this evening as I sat at McDonald’s, smothering my double quarter-pounder with cheese in ketchup—another opus of American research that has defiled all street advice.

So, what brilliant discovery popped into my mind as the [metaphoric] tomato hit me on the head? Collin’s “first-who-the-what” observation came paired with another observation he made—the “Level Five Leader”. (He didn’t think of anything better to call it, if you couldn’t tell.) This isn’t a personality type. “Level Five Leaders” are merely: humble, NOT charismatic (like Jobs, Caesar, and Napoleon were), and, most importantly.. they aren’t visionaries.

That’s why the good-to-great companies, in this blogger’s humble opinion, developed their vision AFTER they found the right team. When a group gets “chemistry” and finally gels, that TEAM gives vision to the organization.. visioning as a TEAM. They get the right people on the bus, then they figure out where they want to go—if they don’t know already. First-who-then-what works for organizations that don’t have a visionary.. probably founded by someone else, then inherited by a non-visionary level-five-leader.

Just hope that—if you’re on such a team—your leaders hold “first-who-then-what” as their priority. Get the right team—not centered on vision, but on teamwork itself. Then, be open to change. That’s what Collins saw, anyhow.

Visionary leaders are neither bad nor necessary. Apple defied the general conclusions of “Good to Great” because Jobs wasn’t a Level Five Leader. He was “Level Six”.. if there is such a thing. Steve returned to help Apple rebound unto Greatness—like a phoenix from the level-five ashes remaining after they fired their founding visionary.

So, once again, there are no absolute rules in growth. We still need vision, but it doesn’t always come from the same place. Who knows what we’ll observe next.

NOTE: This is intended to advance discussion on already existing ideas. This is neither a summary nor a critique of Jim Collins’ work. If you want to understand his ideas, I highly recommend any of his many Great books.

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