Newsletter #549 – Jim Collins’ Leadership Lessons from West Point


Jim Collins and cadets. Inc photoIf you have an interest in leadership probably you know the name of Jim Collins. Author of Built to Last, Good to Great, and other research-based best-sellers, Collins (no relation to me) has been an astute observer of leadership and a teacher of leadership skills. An Inc magazine article (October, 2013) describes one of these teaching assignments.  Collins was invited to give lectures on leadership to West Point cadets at the US Military Academy. Not willing to use past lecture notes, Collins immersed himself in the West Point culture, made seven visits to the campus before giving his lecture, got to know some of the cadets and even joined some of their physically demanding training programs as a participant guest. This example of getting to understand his audience is a model for all of us who want to be great communicators able to connect effectively.

Among the lessons he learned and shared in the article (available online at – check on current issue) Collins concluded that if we want to lead well and build a culture of engaged leaders we need to spend time thinking about these things.

  1. Service. That’s commitment “to a cause or purpose we are passionately dedicated to and are willing to suffer and sacrifice for.” Almost everything the cadets did grew out of their desire to serve.
  2. Challenge and growth. Leaders and their followers thrive on huge and audacious challenges that push people hard and make them grow. The cadets who did best kept pushing to be better. If they failed at something they committed to doing it again until they got it right.
  3. “Communal success” Ask “what can we do to reinforce the idea that we succeed only be helping each other.”

Collins shared that the cadets were among the happiest, most engaged, and most purposeful young people he had ever met. He attributes this to living in accordance with the three issues above.

With recent events in Washington, these Collins words are insightful: “I’m convinced that every major problem we face as a country is a leadership problem. Whether it’s short-term thinking in business or a problem with government performance, every problem requires superb leadership to solve.” What do you think? Please comment.

(Above is an Inc. photo of Jim Collins and cadets)


  1. Leadership is certainly important, and we need more good leaders.

    However, we should not overlook the role of followership–engaging in worthwhile activities while following the lead of others. My opinion is that this is both important and mostly neglected. When each of us does our own thing, the big tasks do not get done.

    We need wise and dynamic leaders. We also need willing and able followers who join in and give strength to a movement.


    1. Of course you are right on followership. I once thought of writing a book (or even a short article) on being a good follower but the publisher I contacted told me what I already suspected: Nobody wants to learn how to follow – everybody wants to be a leader.

      I have often reflected on the great leaders in Scripture. If leadership seminars and books had been available do we think Moses or David or Paul would have paid much attention to them? Most of the biblical leaders were chosen and sometimes they put up a lot of resistance. But many of them had learned about following before they were ever tapped as leaders.

      And think of all the leadership gurus who never mention the difficulties of leadership when the followers don’t agree to be led.


  2. This might be simple, but it is just my thought.
    I would think that the actions of Mr. Collins (being a part of their community to the point that he would even join in on their physically challenging training sessions) made quite an impression with the cadets. This would have earned respect.
    Leaders need to have an understanding and even, a respect for those who they expect (or are expected) to lead. The leader needs to understand the culture, the passion and the heartbeat of those who are being led.
    If this is lost, the leader will begin to be self-focused, very possibly misusing his/her position for self gain, thus, hurting those who depend on their leadership.
    I believe, that a good leader will understand what it is like to be in the “trenches” and if needed, will join the fight when resistance becomes stronger.
    It would be difficult not to follow.


  3. The common sense in this essay is so stunning, that when I look up from the screen, I see a great discrepancy and lack of leadership in my country. For example, if Obamacare is so great, it is also great for the Executive and Legislative branches, as well. No. Military death benefits were not paid, but the Congress was. Does this show leadership? No.


    1. Thanks Bill. I think most people would agree. Is it surprising that Congress has an approval rating of about 10% or less? There are exceptions of course, but these people in Congress are like squabbling children in a pre-school. What is sadder is that many voters will run out and re-elect the same clowns. One problem I have is the horrible quality of candidates. I almost never vote for the best candidate any more. I struggle to determine which candidate is worst and then vote for the person on the other side. Party affiliation makes no difference when so many candidates are like selfish children and political bullies. I struggle to avoid cynicism. I know that some people in public service are honest, have sincere motives and are good people, despite the circus where they work.


  4. Thanks Gary for bringing this article to our attention. It is rich with learning. As a seasoned Toastmaster, I know how important it is to know your audience, but Jim Collins exceeded expectations. Probably why he is as successful as he is.


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