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Jim Collins: The Flywheel, Bullets and Cannonballs, The Stockdale Paradox

3 video snippets of thought leader Jim Collins outlining his iconic leadership concepts

Leadership guru Jim Collins tells Amazon in 2001 "Don't respond to this as a crisis, respond to it as a flywheel."

The rest, they say, is history......

The Flywheel

Like many tech companies in 2001, Amazon was struggling to emerge from the dot com crisis.

Jim Collins was invited to teach his concepts (from what's become one of the world's best business books Good to Great) to the Amazon board and its chief executive Jeff Bezos.

One of them was the concept of "The Flywheel."

The Flywheel is easy to imagine if you picture a heavy steel flywheel that's mounted horizontally on an axle. To turn it is hard, it's heavy.

Jim describes it:

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns ... four ... five ... six ... the flywheel builds up speed ... seven ... eight ... you keep pushing ... nine ... ten ... it builds momentum ... eleven ... twelve ... moving faster with each turn ... twenty ... thirty ... fifty ... a hundred. 

Jim says the Amazon executive asked the billion dollar question:

  • So what's our flywheel? What's the Amazon flywheel?

As described in the book Bezonomics by Brian Dumaine, Amazon went on to develop the most successful flywheel in history:

Amazon’s flywheel:  

Lowering costs for customers which….

• Increases the number of customers which……

• Attracts more third party sellers which……

• Leads to more revenue for Amazon which……

• Helps lowers costs for customers which…….etc etc.

Jim Collins's presentation at Amazon was a learning and development moment that was embraced by its leaders, and led to unparalleled success for the online retailer, with around $US300 billion in revenue annually.

Bullets and Cannonballs

In this video snippet, Jim Collins asks us to picture a ship with evil intent bearing down on us.

You image you're on a ship armed with gunpowder, bullets and cannonballs.

What is your best strategy?

Jim says firing a cannonball first will use up all your gunpowder; a costly, even deadly, mistake if you miss.

Firing a bullet, however, uses up little gunpowder. It's a risk, but it's not a do-or-die risk.

So Jim recommends you aim and fire a bullet, recalibrating each time it misses.

Once the bullet hits your target, that is the time to bring out the cannonball.

In times of crisis, Jim Collins says those who don't do well:

  • Either don't fire enough bullets as a hedge against uncertainty or to discover new things;
  • Or hit their target with a bullet, but then fail to fire a cannonball;
  • Or they're scared and/or overly ambitious and fire big, uncalibrated cannonballs.

He says this time of uncertainty during COVID-19 and its aftermath is the time to be disciplined.

He cautions leaders against firing a bunch of uncalibrated cannonballs.

The Stockdale Paradox

In this video snippet Jim Collins shares his meeting with former Vietnam War prisoner Admiral James Stockdale, author of In Love and War.

Admiral Stockdale was the most senior U.S. naval officer held captive, and was held prisoner for over seven years in Hanoi, North Vietnam.

Yet Jim Collins describes how Admiral Stockdale never despaired, despite not knowing if, or when, he would get released.

His unwavering faith and resolve that "we would prevail in the end" saved him, he told Jim.

"It was the optimists who always said we're going to be out by Christmas who didn't do well," Admiral Stockdale told Jim.

He said those Christmases would come and go, and they suffered badly.

The lesson, he said, was never confusing the need for unwavering faith that we can and will prevail in the end with the need, on the other hand, to confront the brutal facts as they actually are.

Jim Collins says Level 5 (highest level) leaders have that same kind of duality.

He says:

  • They ask 'What are the brutal facts we must confront?'
  • They know that if they don't confront the brutal facts, those brutal facts will surely confront them.

Jim Collins sets out all 11 concepts in his framework The Map, a one-page sequential system for creating a great company.


About Jim Collins:

Jim Collins has authored or coauthored a series of books that have sold in total more than 10 million copies worldwide. They include Good to Great, the #1 bestseller, which examines why some companies make the leap and others don’t; the enduring classic Built to Last, which discovers why some companies remain visionary for generations; How the Mighty Fall, which delves into how once-great companies can self-destruct; and Great by Choice, which uncovers the leadership behaviors for thriving in chaos and uncertainty.

His latest book is BE 2.0 (Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0), an upgrade of his first book coauthored with his mentor Bill Lazier.


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