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Jim Collins: Stung by a Life-Changing Comment

It was 1988. Jim Collins was a first year faculty at Stanford.

Jim writes, “… I sought out Professor John Gardner for guidance on how I might become a better teacher. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life.”

“It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?” John Gardner to Jim Collins. Recorded in Good to Great and the Social Sectors.


Humility is the honesty and courage to change and grow.

5 creative ways to be humble:

#1. Embrace your aspirational self.

Advice that stings tests aspiration.

Do you really want to improve or will you choose the temporary relief of staying the same?

Compare yourself with who you aspire to become, not others.

Humility without aspiration is self-serving entitlement.

#2. Lean in when it stings:

Jim could have plugged his ears to Gardner’s stinging observation. Instead, his life changed trajectory in a moment.

You either lean into the sting and grow or you make excuses and stay the same.

#3. Focus on practicing humility.

Forget about overcoming arrogance. You can be proud of your humility.

It’s better to behave your way into humility than it is to feel your way out of arrogance.

#4. Eat humble pie like a leader.

Humility is transparency about the skills and behaviors you’re working to develop.

Don’t spew about your weaknesses. Affirm your aspirations.

I”m working to become a better decision-maker. (Insert your areas of weakness – patience, collaboration, relationship building … .)

#5. Reach outside yourself.

“We found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.” Jim Collins

How might leaders get the most from stinging advice?

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