I have the good fortune to scale the walls at the same climbing gym as one of the great modern business authors of our day, Jim Collins. I recently finished reading his 2001 book, Good to Great, and thought the lessons about how to transform businesses could apply to organizations within the animal movement.

I’m going to give you a rundown of the six big takeaways of this book, but if you have a solid reading habit this is a good book to read in full.

If you don’t have a solid reading habit, build one. 😉

The Main Idea

Jim takes a strictly research- and data-oriented view to his studies of business. For this book, he identified companies that had a long period of average (“good”) performance—as measured by stock market returns—followed by a long period of exceptional (“great”) performance.

He and his research team identified eleven companies that fit the bill, across all kinds of industries. For each of these eleven, they then identified a comparison company in the same industry that hadn’t made the transition to great performance.

The main question they asked was: What makes these two groups of companies different? Why did the one group reach outstanding performance while the other group failed to do so?

They identified six primary components that all of the “good to great” companies had that none of the comparison companies did:

  1. Level 5 Leadership
  2. First Who… Then What
  3. Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
  4. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles)
  5. A Culture of Discipline
  6. Technology Accelerators

I’m going to talk about the main idea behind each of these principles, and then offer some brief thoughts on what takeaways there are for the animal movement.

Since we are, relatively speaking, still a very small and young movement, I think there’s a lot we can learn from books like Good to Great that conduct very rigorous analyses of much larger and more established entities.

So what does it take to become great?

1—Level 5 Leadership

Main Idea

Jim and his research team didn’t even want to discover that executive leadership mattered.

“Make sure not to overemphasize the role of the CEO,” Jim told his team, because of how much the CEO is often over-emphasized as being a key part of an organization’s success. But over and over again, they kept seeing something they came to call Level 5 Leadership.

A Level 5 leader has two major qualities:

  • Personal Humility. These leaders don’t have giant egos, and they aren’t celebrities. They share credit with others, and accept responsibility when things go wrong.
  • Professional Will. Despite their humility, they will do anything and everything necessary to make the organization successful. They care deeply about results and success—not their own personal success, but the success of the organization.

These leaders embodied the window and the mirror: They looked “out the window” at everyone around them to allocate successes, but they looked “in the mirror” at themselves when things went wrong. They shared credit and took blame. This is in contrast to many leaders at the comparison companies, who did the opposite: taking credit for successes and putting blame on the staff, the industry, or “bad luck”.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

We should be careful about our use and fondness of charismatic leaders with big egos. We should also be wary of the “lone genius” who has all of the great ideas that an organization then simply executes.

Charisma can motivate people for a short time, and lone geniuses can be very effective while they’re around. But to have an outstanding long-term impact, a culture of results and intelligent decision-making have to be baked into the fabric of the organization. People at all levels need to know how to act in order to have the greatest impact for animals, rather than simply following the directives of a single commander. This is unlikely to happen if those in leadership are driven by their egos and want to take all of the credit for success.

Whatever success an organization has under the leadership of a highly ego-driven, lone genius leader, that success is sure to evaporate once they are no longer at the organization. (And it often evaporates because of the charismatic leader’s failure to have good successors in place and failure to set up the rest of the organization for future success.)

When choosing new leaders for organizations—and when thinking about what kind of leader you can be—think of the combination of personal humility and professional will.

2—First Who… Then What

Main Idea

Don’t start with what exactly you’re going to do. Start with who you’re going to do it with.

First, get the right people on the bus. (Also, get the wrong people off the bus.) Then get the right people in the right seats. Then figure out where to drive it. “First who, then what.”

There are three practical lessons the research team found:

  1. When in doubt, don’t hire. Limit your organizational growth based on how many good people you can find, and hire good people even if you don’t have anything for them to do yet.
  2. When you know something needs to change regarding people, act quickly. But before letting someone go, make sure they’re not just in the wrong seat on the bus.
  3. Put the best people on big opportunities, not big problems.

One idea that’s brought up again and again in this book is that good teams will debate and argue passionately about decisions in order to find the best path forward, but once a decision is made everyone gets behind it (essentially “disagree and commit”).

Lessons for the Animal Movement

As a movement, we’re often very focused on the what—what we want to do to change the world for animals. Having this vision is incredibly important of course, but how exactly we get there can look like a million different things.

I think we should prioritize who conversations more often. How can we find the best people and get them included? (“Get the right people on the bus.”) How can we move people around in the movement until we find a place where they fit in best? (“Get the right people in the right seats.”)

We should also encourage more vigorous debate in search of truth. We can’t just nod along in agreement, unwilling to challenge or explore ideas. To discover the best way forward, we’re going to need critical thought. We can’t incorporate everyone’s perspectives and knowledge unless we’re willing to be critical and challenge each other.

But for that to work, we also need more “disagree and commit” in our movement’s culture. I’ve seen many instances where people do disagree but aren’t willing to commit once something has been decided.

In brief:

  • Find the right people, and get them in the right seats.
  • Debate vigorously, then “disagree and commit”.

3—Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)

Main Idea

The main lesson of this chapter can be summed up in what Jim calls “The Stockdale Paradox”:

Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time

Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The idea here is that we need to seek and know the truth about our situation. If we’re drowning in debt and out of shape and hate our job, we need to confront those things.

But, at the same time, we need to always, always have hope that we will prevail—that no matter what the difficulties are, we will eventually be successful.

Confront the brutal facts and retain faith.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

I loved this chapter because of how applicable this idea is to the movement.

The facts of the situation are indeed brutal. Animals are kept in horrible conditions and killed in horrifying ways. There are more animals killed by humans for food now than at any point in the history of the world. (Trillions of individuals, including fish.) We’re not exactly winning the war just yet.

…just yet.

And that’s where the unwavering faith comes in.

We need to believe that we will be successful, no matter how difficult it is. No matter how long it takes, or how many challenges we have to overcome, we will end animal farming and we will create an infinitely better world for animals.

The combination of the two is incredibly important.

I see people who only do one or the other. Maybe they confront the brutal facts of reality, but there’s no faith in our eventual success. Without that faith, the facts themselves are incredibly demoralizing and demotivating. Why should we try hard or relentlessly seek the best path forward if we don’t think we’ll be successful?

Or, maybe they have faith that we’ll be successful…but they never confront the facts. They go around believing that animal liberation is just a year or two away, but they aren’t willing to look at the actual data, ask the hard questions, and make a realistic plan for how to get from point A to point B. I’ve been guilty of this one, definitely—being a prophet of the good news without really diving into the details, just believing what I want to believe about the state of the world.

We need both: confronting the brutal facts and maintaining the faith that we will prevail.

Finally, we need to embed “truth-seeking” into the fabric of our organizations and our groups. If we punish people for bringing up “brutal facts of reality”, then the truth will go unheard. If we punish people for disagreeing with each other, then we won’t make the best decisions.

We have to create an environment where questioning, truth-finding, and debate are encouraged without shame or blame.

4—The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles)

Main Idea

“What’s the difference between foxes and hedgehogs? A hedgehog is a simple creature who knows ‘one big thing’. Foxes are crafty creatures who know many little things.”

And the companies who went from good to great? They all had Hedgehog Concepts—a simple, big concept to guide their every action.

How do you discover your Hedgehog Concept? It lies at the intersection of these three questions:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What drives your economic engine?
  3. What can you be the best in the world at?


Confront the most brutal facts of your reality and seek a deep understanding about what lies at the intersection of those three questions. Once you’ve found that intersection, that is your Hedgehog Concept—everything you do from that point on gets filtered in or out by that concept.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

I think the answer to “what are you deeply passionate about” could start at the same place for a lot of us—we’re deeply passionate about ending the exploitation of animals, ending animal farming.

But maybe dig deeper into that question and find what specific areas of this work get you the most excited. Is it corporate campaigns, or creating new vegan products? Vegan outreach? Activist or volunteer mobilization? Local work, or international work?

Some would argue that “follow your passion” is bad advice, and I do think there’s probably a lot of truth in that—that interest is built, rather than discovered outright.

If you don’t have anything that you’re particularly passionate about right now, try to maintain a deep curiosity about whatever work you happen to be doing at the moment, and keep exploring new things from time to time. You might discover that you can build passion wherever you are, or maybe you’ll find something that you’re already naturally passionate about. Or maybe framed another way, what particular aspects of animal advocacy can keep you interested for years to come? Which do you care about the most?

Let’s talk about “what drives your economic engine.”

This one is interesting (and potentially a bit confusing), as many of us do our work for free (as volunteers or activists) or as professional advocates in organizations that primarily rely on donors. Some people do work at for-profit companies that have the mission of helping animals.

Either way, we all need to generate some kind of income to buy food, pay for rent, etc. Organizations need resources to pay salaries and get resources to do their work. It doesn’t matter whether this comes from profits, donors, or some other source. So the question for organizations is: What is the primary source of your income, and what drives that source?

As a specific example, we might look at how investigations drive the economics of Mercy For Animals, or leafleting drives the economics of Vegan Outreach. There’s quite a bit more info about this specific question in the book.

Finally, “what can you be the best in the world at?”

For your organization or group (or even yourself), what thing can you be number one or two in the world at? It could be something that you’re already doing, or something that you haven’t even started doing yet. The primary question here is, can you be the best?

When we double down on the things we can be particularly good at, we’re able to accomplish what no one else in the world can. By doing this, we add those talents that are uniquely our own, rather than spending time being just good at things many other people are good at.

5—A Culture of Discipline

Main Idea

Here’s a poignant quote from the book: “Bureaucratic cultures arise to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which arise from having the wrong people on the bus in the first place. If you get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off, you don’t need stultifying bureaucracy.”

Jim and his research team found an interesting pair of qualities: good to great organizations require adherence to a system, but also give people a lot of freedom within that system.

The most important aspect of discipline is sticking to your Hedgehog Concept—what you don’t do is perhaps even more important than what you do.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

We have a lot to learn from this idea of creating systems that work and then giving people freedom within those systems.

Let’s say you’re starting a group that’s going to advocate for banning the sale of animal products in a city. There are two ways you could approach it.

The dictatorship way is that you as the leader keep all of the knowledge in your head and you dictate to everyone what they should be doing at all times. Bobby goes off and buys flowers as part of his persuasion tactics—“Never buy flowers again, Bobby,” you tell him, because flowers are definitely not a part of your vision. At meetings, people throw out ideas and you shoot down all of the ones you disagree with and elevate the ones you like. Eventually, people are just task masters for your plan and vision because no one wants to be yelled at anymore and nobody has a framework for understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing.

The discipline way is that you set up a cohesive system, a structure for your group, and you give people complete freedom to operate within that structure. You set group rules: we’re always exceedingly friendly to others, but we make our case for animals; we focus exclusively on animal ethics; we focus on building relationships with key power holders in the city; everyone is expected to share a weekly summary of what they’re working on; etc. Once you set up the system, people know what’s in line with that system and what isn’t. They now have the freedom to come up with creative ways to solve problems and make progress because they know what is and isn’t acceptable. (And when you realize something is broken, updating the system becomes a primary concern.)

Under a dictatorship, it doesn’t matter how smoothly things run at any given moment—it all falls apart once the top person stops calling the shots.

But with discipline, the cohesive processes and structure outlast any one of the people in leadership, and people can thrive in their work as long as that structure is there.

If there’s a culture of discipline in organization, then people become free to do good work.

6—Technology Accelerators

Main Idea

Technology doesn’t create greatness, it only accelerates great work.

None of the good to great companies started with the mindset of “let’s just find some technology and use that to become great.” In fact, when asked about how they did great work, most of them didn’t even mention technology in their top five reasons.

But, very interestingly, many of the companies did use technology as an important accelerator of their work, and many were pioneers of newer advanced tech. It’s not that they didn’t use technology; they just started by focusing on the key issues of getting the right people and focusing in on their Hedgehog Concept. After those pieces were in place, they used the right technology to accelerate.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

Technology is a wonderful thing. We have a ton of room for growth here.

But, crucially, you can’t simply throw modern tech at a problem to make it go away. You have to start with the right people, and you need a deep understanding of what exactly you’re focused on—your Hedgehog Concept.

Assuming we have the initial pieces figured out, then it’s time to explore how the right technology can help us accelerate our impact.

It’s this exploration that I think we haven’t done such a great job of overall. As a movement, we often rely on sub-par software or websites. We don’t take the time to find the people with the right skills, and we don’t encourage people to learn the right skills. We focus so much on the change we want to accomplish that we stop paying attention to the crucial infrastructure that can help get us there—like good use of modern technology.

One Final Chapter—The Flywheel and the Doom Loop

Main Idea

When asking executives at these companies about any “magic moments” where things changed and they started making the transformation to being great, everyone’s reaction was the same—there weren’t really revolutionary moments like that; there was just a series of decisions and constant work in the right direction over a long period of time.

Some of these changes were big, sure, but they came after many hours and weeks of analysis and thought and debate. They weren’t surprises; they didn’t feel revolutionary in the moment.

Jim and his research team called this “The Flywheel”—a metaphor of a big stone wheel that is agonizingly hard to get spinning at first, but push after push after push you can add a little momentum until it’s turning at an incredible velocity.

These companies first did the work of figuring out which direction they should push: they identified their Hedgehog Concept; they confronted the brutal facts; they started with “who”; etc. After doing this upfront work, they just continued to push in the right direction for years. They added on technology to accelerate their progress. If they made major acquisitions of other companies, it was after they’d already been making progress, to accelerate that progress. These companies didn’t do anything drastic to try to create progress.

With this work done, the results showed themselves year after year. They didn’t have to spend much time or energy motivating people or selling them on the future of the company, because people could see it was working.

This is contrasted with what many other companies did: “The Doom Loop”.

These companies would come in with big, revolutionary changes to get people inspired. But, without the upfront work being done, these changes never really led anywhere. Then they would backpedal and try a different new big change to try to get things going, undoing any momentum they might’ve built up the first time. Rinse; repeat.

These companies were very inconsistent, going from one thing to another. They would hop on the latest tech fads without knowing what exactly their core business model was. They would make major acquisition in the hope that it would inspire growth.

And because of the lurching back and forth—the lack of momentum, the undoing of any previously built-up momentum—these companies spent quite a bit of effort and energy trying to keep people motivated and selling them on the future of the company. The results weren’t there, and people were constantly changing directions and failing to build up sustainable progress, which was demotivating.

Lessons for the Animal Movement

The metaphor of pushing a flywheel is appropriate for our whole movement.

We push and push, and the flywheel barely moves. We keep pushing, for years—handing out leaflets, running social media ads, running local community groups, protesting, holding conferences, developing new products. Slowly, things start to move faster. We start noticing more vegan restaurants. We start seeing more funding coming into the movement. We meet people who are advocating for animals in countries we’d never expect, as part of groups we’ve never heard of.

It’s a great lesson for us as individuals, and for our organizations as well. If we do the work to identify where we can add the most value—what our Hedgehog Concept is—and who we need to be working with, then we can start pushing. We might not see progress at first, but day after day, year after year, we’ll build up momentum until our work is flying along with an incredible velocity.

Likewise, there’s a warning here. If we change directions constantly, undoing the momentum we’ve been building up in one direction, we will demotivate people and get nowhere—the “doom loop”.

Summed up, that’s what Good to Great is all about. Identify what’s important—get the right people onboard—and push.

Know someone who would enjoy this post? Send it their way! And send me feedback if you have any. I’d always love to hear from you.

The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

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