The Secret of Great Leaders and Great Companies: Self-Confrontation


As I listened to a senior leader from a well-respected company review the findings of its latest employee survey, I wondered: Do people do this type of self-confrontation often enough—like, really dig into the brutal facts about themselves?

Confronting your own weaknesses requires substantial humility, courage and insight. In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins dedicates an entire chapter to explain that the “great” companies in his study were much more likely to “confront the brutal facts” than their comparison companies.

From his research, the “great” companies also demonstrated that:

  • It’s impossible to make good decisions without an honest confrontation of brutal facts.
  • Creating a culture where the truth can be heard is essential.
  • It’s important to lead the confrontation process with questions, and conduct autopsies without blame.
  • Charisma can be a liability, because a strong personality deters the confrontation of brutal facts.

Participating in this review of a company’s employee survey results made me think about other leaders I know who have developed cultures and mindsets of non-blaming self-confrontation.

As I thought about these leaders and their willingness to confront the brutal facts, I wondered:

What, specifically, do they get out of it? What value does it create—for the leader and for the company as a whole?

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Marty Bassett is one of those leaders.

The president & CEO of Walman, a highly respected, 100-year-old group of optical companies, Marty possesses the humility, courage and insight to confront himself and his organization on a regular basis.

So I asked him a few questions to better understand how and why he does it, and what I might learn from his experience.

MN: How do you regularly stay self-aware?
MB: I have plenty of people around me—including trusted family members and co-workers—who keep me humble, grounded and self-aware. The biggest challenge is maintaining perspective about my position and title. Whether I like it or not, there are expectations associated with my title that I need to be mindful of at all times.

MN: What can keep you from being self-confrontational?
MB: It’s easy to get into a pattern where you feel like you’re on a roll and things are going really well. Inevitably when that happens, though, I’ll have a monumental failure that gets me back to center pretty quickly.

MN: How have you developed a mindset that encourages self-confrontation?
MB: I love to be challenged and try new things. There is nothing more rewarding or interesting than stepping out of your comfort zone. When you do that, you’re going to make mistakes—lots of them. You’re also going to develop new skills and improve your abilities. Reflection and evaluation are critical steps in the process.

MN: How do you avoid the temptation to be self-condemning when you self-confront?
MB: I guess my fear of becoming stagnant is greater than my fear of failure. As long as I feel like I’m still learning, I’m happy. But you have to be willing to accept failure as part of that cycle.

MN: What value has self-confrontation had for you and your business?
MB: Moving a company forward requires that you acknowledge both the good and bad of the current state. As Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great, it’s so important to confront the brutal realities of your situation. People can handle the truth; what they hate is when management is unwilling to acknowledge a problem. They want to know that you understand there is a problem, even when you don’t have the exact answer for how to fix it.

How would you answer these questions? Where do you need to confront yourself to be great?

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