Applying Jim Collins’ Good to Great to Human Service Organizations

I found Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great to be an interesting, surprisingly-applicable book for social workers. I began reading the book with a slightly cynical attitude, which I admittedly struggle with when reading about or discussing information related to Big Business. My pessimistic attitude was unwarranted, though, and in this book I found helpful insight into human qualities that allow corporations to thrive.

According to its book jacket, Good to Great is a “#1 bestseller, with two million copies sold.” There are many possible reasons for this, ranging from the book’s relevance to a wide scope of classroom material, as well as its power to shed light on workings of the business world. When reading this book, I was stricken with how concise and clear-cut Collins’ examples were. He presented potentially complex business vignettes in laymen’s terms, allowing his insight to be available to a broader audience. I suspect it is Collins’ effective use of language, easily-understandable examples, entertaining, inspiring anecdotes, and applicability of the material to many social sectors that pulled Good to Great to the top of the bestsellers list.

One of Good to Great’s most notable relevancies to human service agencies lies in Collins’ concept of “Level 5 Leadership.” According to Collins, Level 5 Leadership is that leadership that “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will” (Collins, 2001). Collins incrementally outlines his concept of leadership hierarchy as follows:

  • Level 5: A Level 5 Executive builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.
  • Level 4: An Effective Leader catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.
  • Level 3: A Competent Manager organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of pre-determined objectives.
  • Level 2: A Contributing Team Member contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.
  • Level 1: A Highly Capable Individual makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits” (Collins, 2001).

Collins’ concept of Level 5 Leadership was drawn from notable factors standing out in hundreds of interviews, conducted through research for this book, with management of successful companies, which his research defined as companies which had performed at consistently mediocre levels, then made “the leap” from good to great, and maintained that “great” status for at least fifteen years (Collins, 2001).

The Level 5 Leadership hierarchy was the management concept that most stood out as adaptable by human service organizations. The qualifiers of Collins’ Level 5 Executive is conceptually similar to that of managerial competency, as outlined in the Lewis et. al text, Management of Human Service Programs. This text divides management into a hierarchy triad, offering similar managerial requirements as Collins: a combination of technical skills, human skills, and conceptual skills, with the need for each respective skill becoming more stringent as one rises up the managerial triad of supervisory management, middle management, and top management (Lewis et. al, 2001). One of the most helpful things about Collins’ Good to Great is its malleability. Its concepts seem applicable across a broad range of disciplines, from high-yield Fortune 500 companies, to small non-profit agencies. Collins’ emphasis on managers’ need for strong human skills and personal humility allow many of his management concepts to be applicable to many types of agencies, including human service agencies.

Despite the fact that many of Collins’ concepts are easily related to human service agencies, one concept that I find difficult to adapt is A Culture of Discipline. While human service agencies, like most institutions, require some degree of discipline within their staff members in order to function, the overarching goal of Collins’ brand of discipline appears to be advancement, while human service agencies generally exist to serve human need rather than compete with one another. As Collins explains in chapter six of Good to Great, “Everyone would like to be the best, but most organizations lack the discipline to figure out with egoless clarity what they can be the best at and the will to do whatever it takes to turn that potential into reality. They lack the discipline to rinse their cottage cheese” (Collins, 2001).

My current field agency, Sycamore Community Unit School District #427, also differs from Collins’ researched companies and most human service agencies in that it is a public school district, with differing management, goals, and means to those goals than other types of agencies. Some of the managerial concepts mentioned in Good to Great could be useful to this school, however, particularly the ideals behind Level 5 Leadership. From my experience, much of the administrative staff in District #427 rely on strict state guidelines in implementing their supervisory duties. There is a cookie-cutter “type” of each administrative position across the schools in the district, with little apparent emphasis on human skills and competency. All focus is on pleasing the superintendent and other executives, with little regard paid to the relationship between administrators and staff.

For instance, there was recently a referendum passed in Sycamore, and it was announced privately to administrators that the district will be opening three new schools and one large school addition over the next five years. Unfortunately for the district’s students and employees, severe classroom crowding is anticipated in the meantime, and the district will be converting building rooms (not intended for students) into classrooms, as well as bringing mobile classrooms to the school property. Teachers can expect significantly larger class sizes in the near future, and support staff can expect larger case loads (and no new hires). This decision was made without notifying teachers or support staff, and was finally announced as an addendum during a routine staff meeting. The response was overwhelmingly panicked and angry, while the principal, who read the addendum during the meeting, passively took the brunt of the resentment, while offering no solace or explanation of the executives’ decision to drastically reform the district. Were this district to utilize more humanistic managerial approaches, such as Collins’ concept of Level 5 Leadership, the emphasis would likely shift toward an all-inclusive democratic process, rather than the current trickle-down of important decisions that leaves so many employees frustrated and threatening to leave the district. Along these lines, social workers can play a role in the process of advancing an agency like Sycamore from good to great by assisting, in focusing on human interest aspects of management, and advocating for employees, making for a more comfortable workplace, which often drastically alters the morale of employees. When employees feel secure, competent, and involved in their workplace, it is logical to speculate that they will work more ardently for their agency.

I feel that the hedgehog concept and the three circles are already an undefined aspect of many human service agencies. Larger agencies offer clear examples of this phenomenon. For instance, my internship agency from last year was at Hope Haven homeless shelter in DeKalb county. Each staff member, while working toward the common mission of providing social justice to homeless individuals in DeKalb county, had a clearly-defined, highly specialized role within the agency. Because of my education and experience with children, I worked as the children’s case manager, and handled the entire caseload of 30 children in the shelter. I was hired into this position because of my “hedgehog” tendency toward child work. I was the only employee in the shelter with a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology, and with experience dealing with children in social service agencies. This “big thing” of knowledge also fulfilled my “three circles”: Working with children was what I did best in the world, was what drove my economic engine, and was what I was most passionate about (Collins, 2001). By hiring employees along these specialized guidelines, Hope Haven inadvertently employed the concepts of the hedgehog and the three circles.

I feel that it would be possible to create a research project similar to Collins’ if the goals used to define “good” and “great” were reformatted to involve service to people rather than making money or surpassing other companies in output/fiscal worth. As mentioned above in relation to the Culture of Discipline, human service agencies cannot always be plugged into the same equations Collins uses to evaluate corporations, as their differing goals and missions conflict with Collins’ definitions of success.

Jim Collins’ Good to Great was interesting to me because it showed me a side of business with which I was unfamiliar. I had not realized how similar the managerial concepts of larger corporations could be to the smaller human service agencies with which I was familiar. Perhaps the most interesting concept I took away from Collins’ book was the frequently-mentioned Level 5 Leadership. Its catchy name, clear values, and cross-discipline applicability make it a concept that I feel will assist me in my future with human service agencies, in any context that may be presented to me.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t.

New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Lewis, J.A., Lewis, M.D., Packard, T., & Souflée, F., Jr. (2001). Management of human service programs. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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