Choosing to Be Great

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On May 15, 2012

You’ve probably picked up that “being great” is a big theme for me. I like to highlight great companies and great leaders—and the things they do that make them great. I love passing on tools and resources that can help make individuals and companies great.

One of the best resources I’ve come across pertaining to this theme is Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen. In it, Collins maintains that companies become great by choice—not by accident or by luck.  He claims that, “It is the decisions, the choices, made by companies, led by leaders who are crystal clear about what they intend, that set some companies above the others.”

This flies in the face of an increasingly prevalent view of business that assumes greatness is due to circumstance or luck, rather than action and discipline and that what happens to us matters more than what we do.


Collins combats that kind of thinking by highlighting the practices and disciplines of companies he calls “10xers”: Companies that beat their industry averages by a margin of 10 times or more.


One of the most compelling concepts for me is The 20 Mile March—inspired by explorer Roald Admundsen who led his expedition on a trek to be the first to reach the South Pole. Rather than let circumstances (such as weather or other conditions beyond his control) dictate his progress, Amundsen disciplined himself—and his team—to achieve a specific, measureable, pre-determined goal every day. This discipline paid off, and despite good and bad luck, Amundsen’s team reach the pole before their competitors.


Here (in broad brush strokes) are a few of the lessons Collins passes on about companies who embrace The 20 Mile March approach to business:

1. The 20 Mile March creates two types of self-imposed discomfort: First is the discomfort of unwavering commitment to achieving high performance despite difficult conditions, and second is the discomfort of holding back when conditions are good.

2. Most “10X” companies embraced the 20 Mile March philosophy long before they became big companies.

3. A good 20 Mile March is designed and voluntarily put into action by the company itself—rather than being imposed from the outside or copied from some other successful company.

4. The 20 Mile March can impose order in the midst of disorder and consistency in the midst swirling inconsistency. However, it only works when a company actually achieves their “march” consistently. Companies that set a 20 Mile March and fail to achieve it (or abandon the fanatic discipline it requires altogether) can end up being crushed by events unfolding around them that are out of their control.

The bottom line is that great companies are great because they choose to be great—not because they were lucky. Is your company engaged in a regular 20 Mile March? What are the specific, measurable goals you have set that you hit day in and day out without excuse?