Fourteen Indispensable Leadership Quotes from Jim Collins

The first book I read by Jim Collins was Built to Last. I was hooked immediately on his research, his insights, and his writing style. I later read Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall, Good to Great and the Social Sectors and, most recently, Great by Choice. I have savored every word and read each book at least twice. Collins has been a vital resource for my own leadership development.

Jim Collins is especially adept at writing the pithy quote. He can say more in a few words than I can say in an entire book. Allow me to share with you a few of those quotes.

Quotes about Greatness

Great companies and great leaders fascinate Jim Collins. He has devoted his life toward understanding the essence of greatness in leadership. Here are four of my favorite quotes from him on the topic of greatness (or its opposite, badness):

“Good is the enemy of great.”

“A culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness.”

“Bad decisions made with good intentions, are still bad decisions.”

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

Quotes about People with Whom We Work

Collins repeatedly addressed the issue of people on the bus. He used that metaphor to describe how great organizations got the right people on the team, the wrong people off the team, and the right people in the right places on the team. In the final analysis, we will spend more time with co-workers than many of our family members. Here are three meaningful quotes about people:

“For no matter what we achieve, if we don’t spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect, we cannot possibly have a great life. But if we spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect – people we really enjoy being on the bus with and who will never disappoint us – then we will almost certainly have a great life, no matter where the bus goes. The people we interviewed from the good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with.”

“The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake. The best people don’t need to be managed. Guided, taught, led–yes. But not tightly managed.”

 “Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions, whether in the corporate or social sectors, to advance their own interests.”

Quotes about Work Itself

Jim Collins understood that we could not have a joyous life if we had work that was drudgery and conflict-ridden. Most of us will spend more of our waking hours at work than anywhere else. Here are two good reminders of that reality:

“For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”

“The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline–a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.”

Quotes about Humility and Leadership

It seems that Jim Collins spent more time writing about humble leaders than any other topic. He found that great leaders desire for others to be recognized. A great leader loses his or her greatness when it becomes all about that leader. In almost a biblical sense, greatness comes when those who could be first decide to be last.

“We found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.”

“Consider the idea that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset. Your strength of personality can sow the seeds of problems.”

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

“Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”

“It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”

The last quote did not actually originate with Collins. It was advice given to him by John Gardner. Jim Collins took those words to heart.

And we should as well.

Posted on December 3, 2012

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Great quotes. What chapters the “… meaningful life without meaningful work…” quote from?

  • Great leaders are called, taught by God Himself, abide in Him, believe BIG, incorporate faith and most importantly pray those pre-planned blessing and that Wisdom from God , down here to earth where they were intended to be, yet waited for the gate of prayer to release them.

  • Thanks of the quotes. I enjoyed hearing Collins speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit a few months ago!

  • Great selection of quotes, Thom. Jim Collins has been a major influence on my thinking as well. I have read and reread his books, like you, throughout my various involvement in business, nonprofits, and ministry. Any organization can learn much from the research and writings of Jim. As you noted, a leader’s humility, is a lesson that more people need to hear. Thanks for sharing.