From Good to Great: Lessons Learned

From Good to Great: Lessons Learned

I recently interviewed Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and a new monograph, Turning the Flywheel.  As, I have been writing and re-writing those interview notes, I have also been eagerly applying those ideas with school districts and non-profits.

Here are some of my take-aways:

The AHA! 

The book Good to Great starts with great leaders > hedgehog (big idea) > flywheel (details).  Collins now says start with one thing you do best.  The flywheel leads to the hedgehog (big idea) and creates great leaders.

The Hedgehog

Collins defines the Hedgehog as the overlap of three circles:  a) what we can become really good at; b) what our collective team feels passionate about; and c) what will have the greatest impact.  AND Collins now says …

Start Where You Are

Find the things that you are already doing reasonably well and work to make those better.  This is part one of his hedgehog concept; find one thing that you can be the best at in your part of the world.

Steering Committee

Pull together your A Team (the right people on the bus) to think and plan together.  This is part two of the hedgehog concept; find what you and your team (including teachers and community) are passionate about.

Measure What Matters

This is part three of the hedgehog; where will have the most impact? On student learning for example?  Keep working at this until you get it right.  Schools for example, might measure percentage proficient (which might disguise equity gaps).  Or, they might measure yearly growth with progress toward proficiency. Or they might adopt a third grade reading proficiency goal and move every mountain to make that happen.

Disciplined Thinking

The Steering Committee uses “disciplined thinking” to keep evaluating everything through these three lenses. Then, eventually, the hedgehog (Big Idea) emerges.  AND the Steering Committee uses disciplined thinking to create a …

Stop Doing List

Free up energy in the system by making decisions on what to stop doing.  Stop doing the things that we do NOT: do well, have passion for, or create positive impact.

And, STOP the churn of new initiatives each year.  They sap energy and keep people from getting behind the flywheel.


It takes on average four years of turning the flywheel to gradually see how all elements of the flywheel work together to create a viable hedgehog that will move you from good to great.  Work on consistency and coherence, Collins says.  The flywheel momentum will eventually get everyone on board, not because we preach it, but because they see it working.

Growing Great Leaders

Collins identifies five levels of leadership:  competence; teaming; management; effectiveness; and “Level 5” leaders – those with humility and determination.  These Level 5 leaders have the determination to create consistency, to stop doing, to measure what matters.  And, he says, we create Level 5 leaders by doing this work.  We learn by doing.

Ware Elementary ..

is the school example cited in Turning the Flywheel.  Ware Elementary went from 35% proficient in reading to 96% in five years.  How?  They hired passionate teachers, put them on highly functional PLCs, and used formative assessments to improve results.  Success improved their reputation which meant they had a bigger pool of passionate teachers to hire from.

Take Action!

Finally, Collins says, “do something!”  Great leaders get busy.  They confront the “brutal facts” by pulling together disciplined people, to do disciplined thinking and take disciplined action.  They focus and refocus and support their team in turning the flywheel.  Companies that failed to become great ignored the brutal facts and said yes to too many magic bullets. 

Moving from Good to Great is a marathon rather than a sprint.

Pick a few things.  Do them well.  Add the next component.  Miracles follow years of disciplined work.  Turning the Flywheel, turn by turn, eventually moves us from Good to Great.

    • Larry Nyland is a leadership consultant.
      He retired as superintendent of Seattle Schools in 2018.
      Contact Dr. Larry Nyland at LarryNyland@Gmail.Com or 425-418-4398.
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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