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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Garcia

Jim Collins' Rigorous Leadership

As Jim Collins describes in his book, Good to Great, to be rigorous is to do what is necessary for the team to prosper. By having high standards, recruiting the right professionals (with an unrelenting desire to excel), and eliminating the negative externalities, leaders are able to produce effective, high-performing executive teams. The contrary, a ruthless leader, is one who does not take any action, damages their own credibility, and destroys their team’s ability to perform at maximum effort. To be ruthless is to abdicate, to allow the status quo to continue, and to make decisions on-a-whim.

During the Cooley-Reichardt era (1980s), Wells Fargo outperformed the market by over 300% despite a substantial drop (59%) across the banking industry. Wells Fargo was able to perform to this degree because of the way in which they built their team in the early 1970s. Cooley focused on recruiting the most talented people available, often hiring people under any circumstance and without any specific role in mind. This is a very similar approach to how the Ford Motor Company was able to defeat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Wells Fargo team acted as a strong body of equals, able to debate any and all challenges at the same power distance (relationship between those in positions of power and the subordinates). These two companies approached their executive model by selecting the most qualified people (recruiting), and then training them to become the best managers in their respective industry (providing skills). Wells Fargo understood the importance of first recruiting the right people, and later deciding what their roles on the team would be. Having the right people on the team ensures rigorous decision making can occur (through debate, desire, and exerting one’s will) at any level.

It is more difficult to lead in a social sector (activity undertaken by organizations that are non-governmental nonprofit organizations) institution than in a business environment. The social sector requires legislative skills (the ability to create the conditions for the decision to happen despite having any power) and the business sector requires executive skills (the ability and authority to make decisions). Social sector leaders often succeed when they go to the business side, but business leaders often fail when they go from the business side to the social sector. These business executives trying to lead effectively in the social sector run into problems that can’t get resolved with their executive skills alone.

An example of leadership in the social sector is Roger Briggs. Briggs, then a department chair at a high school in Boulder, CO was determined to make an impact in the quality of education provided to the students at the school. He selected only the highest qualified and intrinsically motivated teachers. As he continued to selectively hire new teachers, the culture in the department shifted, and slowly but surely the wrong (and unmotivated) teachers found their way out. Each decision was made deliberately, until a culture of discipline and excellence became the standard.

Mother Teresa provides an example of this mentality with all that she did to help the sick and the poor. Why was Mother Teresa continually helping and caring for those around her? She had an uncompromising desire to care for the needy; nothing ever got in her way! She never avoided the challenge of serving the poorest of the poor, about the time-consuming nature of her calling, or all of the people that she couldn’t help. She did what she could, with what she had. Setting up soup kitchens, a leper colony, orphanages, and a home for the dying destitute. Her acts of kindness showed us what universal love means. These daily actions eventually led to the creation of The Missionaries of Charity, an organization founded on her behalf to continue caring for those in need.

These stories emphasize the ability to ‘bloom where you are planted’, to associate yourself with those who have an unrelenting desire for greatness, and the importance of assessing the situation as early as possible.

As a Cadet at the Air Force Academy, it is easy to just perform to the expectations and constraints outlined for us by our leadership, teachers, and upperclassmen. It is easy to wait for the perfect timing to pursue or share an idea that could be beneficial to the Air Force as a whole, or to wait until society tells you it is acceptable to share your creative light with those around you. Being a rigorous cadet (and truly grasping this concept) is being a cadet who isn’t afraid, but rather embraces the fear that comes with taking risks for the greater good of others. This mentality of making a difference regardless of the circumstances, is one I learned to embrace during my 2nd Class year. I became hungry for providing our Air Force pilots with resources that they could use to further their flying capabilities, to become better professionals, and to have a different perspective about their career available to them. A substantial percentage of these pilots have never been exposed to competitive high-level athletics, nor have they received guidance on ritual development and nutrition. When I created Grind to Fly, it would have been easy to put the entire project on hold to wait for future qualifications, operational flying experience, or more free time. Waiting for the ‘perfect’ circumstances and the ‘right’ qualifications to embark on this initiative would just be making an excuse.

The situation at hand isn’t what matters most, it is the mentality and the intrinsic drive to serve others that truly counts. God has given each one of us unique skills and passions, and it is on us to pursue them; without excuses and without complaints. This is what it means to be a rigorous leader.

Relevant Texts:

Good to Great, Jim Collins

Good to Great in the Social Sector, Jim Collins

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