Reading it forward: A review of Great by Choice

For more than a decade, Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the companion monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sector have been staples in my consulting repertoire. Words, phrases, and longer quotes ala Collins pop up with frequency as I work with boards of faith-based nonprofits.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine that Collins could top what he’s already given us. But that’s exactly what he and co-author Morten Hansen have done with Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, just out from Harper Business.

Based on a study of companies that “out-performed the norm by at least 10 times despite an unpredictable, turbulent, and fast-moving operating environment,” the advice in Great by Choice is immediately apropos for leaders in the nonprofit sector. There’s no need for an interpretive monograph this time around.

Great by Choice is an easy read. I completed it on a flight from Harrisburg to Denver, with time for a short nap. Although not as upbeat as Good to Great, it’s more optimistic than Collins’ last offering, How the Mighty Fall. In style, Great by Choice is vintage Collins in his engaging use of stories, insider illustrations  from big-name companies, and memorable metaphors. (This man knows how to turn a phrase!) Move over BHAG, flywheel, and hedgehog concept. The 20 Mile March, SMaCs, and bullets and cannonballs are the new kids in town.


The emphasis on free choice and individual determination that dominates the message of Great by Choice may be off-putting to some of my Reformed friends. However, for those of us from the Arminian side of the theological house, the concepts in Great by Choice seem straight from our play book.  As I see it, the message of self-reliance that runs throughout Great by Choice is a much-needed kick in the pants to the nonprofit community, where passing the buck for organizational decline has been honed to an art form.

Collins and Hansen write that greatness comes by “utterly rejecting the idea that luck, chaos, or any other external factor will determine success.”  When organizations falter, it has nothing to do with the fickle hand of fate. They fail for lack of superb execution. They fail because they choose poorly.  The writing duo warns that luck (dare I say, divine intervention) is not a strategy.


My only disappointment with Great by Choice is that Collins and Hansen lavish the bulk of their praise on CEOs — specifically, the titans who’ve built enterprises that beat their industry’s averages by at least 10 times. The authors refer to them as “10Xers.” I worry that in awarding all the gold stars to the men and women at the top of the heap, Collins and Hansen reinforce the notion of leader as superhero or messiah. If you’re seeking an apologetic for shared governance or a treatise on collaborative leadership, well, you’ll need to go elsewhere.

That said, Great by Choice gets my “must read” endorsement. There’s simply too much that’s helpful to let a perceived flaw get in the way. In fact, I predict that Great by Choice will be every bit as transforming to the way we think about leadership and organizational life as was Good to Great.

I plan to return to Great by Choice in upcoming posts, applying the principles to leadership of faith-based nonprofits. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear what you have to say about Great by Choice. Jot your comments in the box below for all to see.


  1. John Shultz says:

    I have it on my Kindle, but haven’t gotten to it yet…thanks for the motivation!

  2. Rebekah Basinger says:

    I look forward to your assessment of Great by Choice. Happy reading.

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