The 7 Habits of Going from Good to Great

The last 2 business books I have read are Good to Great by Jim Collins, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. There are some interesting connections between these two books that have jumped out to me as I read them that I want to share with you. The first digs into a common thread between the books on how effective leaders focus on internal issues. The second talks about the difference between and progression from management to leadership.

An Internal Focus

One of the most striking lessons from Good to Great was the concept of the window and the mirror. One of the key differences between good and great leaders that Collins and team identified came down to where the leaders placed credit and blame for their successes. A less effective leader would point blame out the window, at all of the other people, markets, or circumstances that held them back. When it came time to point the finger at successes in their career, these same leaders would look into the mirror, accepting all of the credit as the maker of their own success.

Good to great leaders however inverted this paradigm. The blame for struggles and difficulty goes into the mirror, becoming an opportunity for self reflection on how to improve. All of the credit and success is directed out through the window, mostly into other people, but also into other circumstances. When asked about their success, these good to great leaders would put all of the credit on a great team, a great market, or luck.

Covey discusses some similar topics in the first half of his book as well. He discusses the importance of developing ourselves into a stable and independent creature as a foundation for increasing our effectiveness. Basically, he wants us to recognize that we have control over our thoughts and actions, so we should figure out who we want to be, then become that person. From this principled approach to life we can unlock the behaviors that lead to true effectiveness.

I couldn’t agree more with both of these authors. In both personal life and in business, the ability to focus on improving one’s self while letting go of everything outside of our control seems to be the key to happiness and effectiveness. One of my biggest complaints of the Agile community is that they seem to lack this understanding. Obviously that paints a big community with a very broad brush, but I can’t count how many conversations I got into that could be summarized as ‘I can’t be agile because they (management, team mates, other departments, etc.) aren’t agile enough’. The most effective agile practicians were those that recognized how to take the principles of the Agile Manifesto to their own interactions with others, and to share those basic ideas with those around them.

Management and Leadership

I  have a feeling I am going to be writing about this topic a lot in the future. For some reason this topic has been coming up in my life repeatedly over the last few months. There’s something here for me to learn. Let me start by looking at the 2 very different approaches these two authors approach the topic.

Before 6 months ago, I had always considered management and leadership on 2 separate ends of a continuum. On the management side of this perceived spectrum, pointless tasks were executed with ruthless efficiency, and delivered on tight deadlines. Nobody wants to do the tasks, or even knows why the tasks are important, but they get done quickly and in order.

On the leadership side of this spectrum, leaders motivate their teams with stories and connection to values. Tasks get done as quickly as possible, because everyone understands the importance of what they are doing, and they would apply their time, talents, and energies as appropriate to complete the task.

Collins turned this model completely on its head. He discussed a pyramid shape where leadership is a higher level activity, built on the foundation of individual performance, team collaboration, effective management, team leadership, capped off with ‘Level 5 Leadership’. While explaining level 5 leadership would be a worthy goal, it is not the purpose of this post. The thing that amazed me in this 5 level pyramid was the fact that management builds a foundation of good leadership. The argument here is effectively that to be a good leader, you need to be able to get results. That ability to deliver results through delegation is captured through the label of management.

This was a challenging concept for me to face. At the time I read it, I considered myself a decent leader and not a manager, which I wore as a badge of courage. The idea that lacking management skills undermined my leadership abilities hit me like a ton of bricks. This perception was confirmed in my annual performance review last week, when my boss called out that I was a much stronger leader than a manager. I have been focussing for the last couple of months on becoming a better manager.

Covey turned this model on its head again as I read a new model this week. Continuing his approach of building from a foundation of principles, he describes good management as the natural outcome of clearly defined goals and values. When we understand why tasks need to be done, building the appropriate structures to accomplish those tasks will occur naturally.

This is a concept that is definitely a little easier for me to hear, as it lines up with my own experience better. That said, the next steps for me are the same, regardless of who I listen to. Working on my own management skills is the next big task that lies ahead of me.

One of the tactical approaches I have taken towards this end includes sending weekly status updates to all of my stakeholders. I have been involved in a critical project at work, and with all of the interest in that project I started sending weekly status updates in the place of my more typical monthly updates. The additional awareness, focus, and pace these emails have given the team has been felt both up and down our organization.

I have also recently started a similar daily recounting of goals and progress. This project however has only been published to myself, and a couple trusted accountability partners.

Both of these approaches seem to be bringing forth fruit, but it is still very early to know. I may report on these in a future post.

For now, I am enjoying the opportunity to look inward to understand how I can become better. I invite you to do the same.