Book Impressions: Good to Great

If you could be great at something, what would it be?

Think on that for a moment, and hold onto it.

I picked up this Good to Great, having seen a friend of mine reading it.

He’s a business owner, this guy, whom we’ll refer to as Mr. Tien, and English not being his first language, he’s reading it in Vietnamese. Our conversations tend to be somewhat limited, with my broken Vietnamese unnecessarily filling in gaps, and his own limited command of the language often halting as I help him search for the right word.

On a side note, I feel compelled to mention Mr. Tien was my very first student in Viet Nam, more than five years ago when we were neighbors, and he’e since ‘graduated’ from student to buddy. While we meet sporadically, joy is derived from thinking of him as my oldest local friend.

So, in seeing him 1/3 into Good to Great, I decided to get myself a copy and read it for myself, to give us a conversation topic.

For the record, I listened to the Audiobook version of this. I reckon that matters only in that the display of information (which I assume came in the form of tables and charts) were a bit hard to visualize for me, but they’re always supplemented with summaries.

Good to Great revolves around data exhumed over a ten-year project, with the researchers looking for empirical evidence for why some companies made the change from good to great. The findings are interesting, some of which might be dismissed merely as “good management,” but it gets much deeper than that. What I found most useful were detailed principles of good and not-so-good management, and having been in a managerial position, I found it particularly enlightening.

It’s good, no? To recognize you’d fallen into a common pitfall, no matter what path you follow? I derive comfort from seeing mistakes I’ve made are the same as plenty of other folks, because often enough it means the solution to the problem, or a mechanism for preventing that mistake from happening again, is often readily available. If not readily apparent.

Folks who’ve read this will talk about the Hedgehog Concept, a term that has it’s origins in an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin —  who in turn got inspiration from a fable “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” by the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus.

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No, not that hedgehog and fox.

Also not to be confused with the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, about which I learned from Neon Genesis Evangelion (still waiting for 4.44). This refers to the concept that hedgehogs, prickly creatures that they are, in the cold have two options: huddle together for warmth (and get pricked by each other) or stay alone and freeze. It’s a metaphor for human intimacy and the tolerable distance we keep from each other, which often manifests in the form of politeness and manners.


Meanwhile, the Good to Great Hedgehog Concept is different, stating as a simple idea that people are either Foxes, or they are Hedgehogs. A fox, waiting outside the hedgehog’s hole, knows many things. Many tricks, many methods, many bits of assorted knowledge to reach his goals. The Hedgehog, on the other hand, knows one big important thing. (In this metaphor, the big thing being that his prickles will always protect him, no matter what the fox tries).

Thus the daily dance plays out where the hedgehog emerges from his hole and the prepares to pounce him.

“Here we go again,” says the Hedgehog, prickles bristling and ready to repel the fox once again. “Will he ever learn?”

Thus Good to Great goes on to describe how major companies, some of which you’d otherwise think of as uninteresting (who the hell cares about Circuit City or Walgreens?), who were wildly successful from a corporate viewpoint. Whether you’re a supporter of alternative medicine or otherwise against “big Pharma” is besides the point. What can’t be denied is the rather revolutionary means by which Walgreens expanded across the United States, linked their systems to a central database (allowing a person to get their prescriptions easily in one city as any other, which seems like a stupid obvious thing to do nowadays).

Good to Great describes five levels of leadership as well. For a bit of self-review, I think I can state that in recent years, I was a Level 1 here that was thrust into a Level-4 or even Level-5 managerial role ~ a small operation, yes, but one with employees I had to learn how to manage on the job, with no experience prior.


Reading this book is useful for anyone, I feel, for not only has it helped me reach a better understanding of management, by both providing a couple of do’s and don’ts, but helps illustrate how concepts within can be applied to other parts of life. Sure, the book mainly focuses on the researchers’ findings with regards to why certain companies were GREAT, and others remained simply Good.

The epilogue details an instance where someoone with a Hedgehog Concept, combined with Level Five Leadership, transformed a High School track from good to great.

While reading this book, I felt discouraged at first, because it operates on the assumption that if you’re reading it, you’re already good at something, or that you’re already the owner/manager of a good company. Like, I feel the target audience has a foundation of success already, so I almost felt like I was reading something that’s “above my level.”

But that’s how we grow. By purposefully reading something that discusses what I can only describe as top tier management, one can achieve growth. Whether you’re someone performing mediocre work who wants to become more highly valued or indispensable, or someone already doing decently but seeks to get better, or wherever you are you’ve reached a plateau and wish to surmount it, this book could be helpful for you.

This book is not for the unambitious, the undetermined, or the unmotivated.

If you’re not interested in bettering yourself, whether as a worker, a manager, an executive, or any kind of leader ~ if you’re satisfied with sub-par, mediocre or otherwise “comfortable,” ~ then this book is not for you.

But hey, by definition, not everyone can be great. And, being just good is honestly just fine.

I rather look forward to discussing this with Mr. Tien.

So, once more: If you could be great at something, what would it be?

And furthermore:

If you want to be great at that thing, why not strive to do so?


Text by Blankard

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