Book review: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by James C. Collins

Artem A. Semenov
4 min readSep 26, 2023

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James C. Collins’ “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” (Harper Business, 2001) offers compelling insights into the complex realm of corporate success. As an observer and analyst of the corporate ecosystem, my expectations were high, anticipating that Collins’ work would challenge established norms.

Collins’ book is an intriguing study of eleven companies that made a leap from being good to being great, outperforming the market by at least three times over fifteen years. Avoiding the pitfall of oversimplification, Collins delineates the common factors that led to these companies’ extraordinary transformations.

Collins’ rigorous research approach, involving a 21-person team over five years, underpins the credibility of his claims. His findings refute many commonly held corporate beliefs. For example, his principle of “Level 5 Leadership” — where leaders blend personal humility with professional will — is an unconventional contrast to the traditional, charisma-driven leadership model.

Similarly, Collins’ “Hedgehog Concept,” which urges businesses to focus on what they can do best, contradicts the prevalent push for diversification. Such revelations, backed by empirical data, make “Good to Great” a compelling read for anyone interested in corporate success.

The book, isn’t without its limitations. It largely overlooks external factors such as market dynamics and macroeconomic conditions that undeniably impact a company’s trajectory.

Compared to other business books, “Good to Great” stands out due to its rigorous empirical grounding. It paints a nuanced picture of corporate success, straying from the typical reliance on anecdotal evidence seen in other works.

Although “Good to Great” primarily targets corporate leaders and management enthusiasts, its lucid and engaging narrative makes it accessible to a wider audience. Whether you’re a start-up founder, a seasoned CEO, or a curious reader interested in business dynamics, Collins’ work offers valuable insights.

In sum, “Good to Great” is an incisive and thought-provoking examination of what makes companies excel. Its findings challenge conventional wisdom, offering fresh perspectives backed by rigorous research. While it doesn’t account for all factors impacting corporate success, it provides valuable lessons for those navigating the business world.

Collins’ work resonates deeply with me, shedding light on what truly differentiates great companies. As a seasoned observer of corporate dynamics, it’s refreshing to encounter a work that challenges conventional wisdom and adds depth to the understanding of business success.

Collins’ “Good to Great” may not offer a magic formula for corporate success, but it presents a stimulating discourse that is hard to ignore. For those seeking to understand the complex mechanics of corporate success, this book is a worthy read. Its thought-provoking insights may well be the catalyst that sparks your company’s leap from good to great.

Chock-full of practical advice for companies that want to transition from being good to great. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Level 5 Leadership: Collins identifies five levels of leadership, with the fifth level being the most effective. Level 5 leaders are characterized by personal humility combined with intense professional will. These leaders are focused on the success of the company, not on their personal success.
  2. First Who… Then What: Great companies first get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) before figuring out where to drive it. Ensuring you have the right team in place is critical before deciding on the strategic direction of the company.
  3. Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith): Great companies face the brutal facts of their current reality, while simultaneously maintaining an unwavering faith in their ability to prevail in the end. They create a culture where truth is heard, and they conduct autopsies without blame when things go wrong.
  4. The Hedgehog Concept: Collins presents the idea of the Hedgehog Concept, which is a simple, crystalline concept that guides all of a company’s operations. The concept is named after the hedgehog who simplifies the world and focuses on a single, overarching vision. This concept is found at the intersection of three circles: what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine.
  5. Culture of Discipline: Companies that make the transition from good to great have a culture of discipline. This involves disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls.
  6. Technology Accelerators: Collins advises companies to avoid jumping on new technology bandwagons. Instead, they should carefully select and use technology that aligns with their Hedgehog Concept and can accelerate their momentum.
  7. The Flywheel and the Doom Loop: Great companies understand that transitioning from good to great doesn’t happen overnight. It takes persistent effort, like pushing a heavy flywheel. Initially, progress may seem slow, but with consistent pushing in the right direction, the flywheel builds momentum and eventually hits a breakthrough point. Conversely, companies that chase fads rather than focusing on consistent progress can get caught in a doom loop, which can lead to decline.

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