By Peter Switzer 

I have some advice for PM Tony Abbott and, for that matter, everyone who reads this who is aspirational: forget worrying about intergenerational theft, budget deficits and mounting debt. Instead, focus on taking your business, your work effort or your personal brand and, in Tony’s case, your government, from good to great.

At a conference in Sydney yesterday, I listened to the US author of Good to Great, one of the most popular business books of all time. Jim Collins was a former Stanford professor and leadership lecturer at Westpoint, as well as author of another great book Built to Last.

Using a team of post-grad students, Collins identified 11 great US businesses then tried to identify why they stood out as great.

He later wrote How the Mighty Fall and his most recent is Great By Choice. Clearly, the titles can apply to a government, a business, a personal brand, a sporting team, a human being and even a family!

Yep, Collins found that the defining character explaining why his 11 companies stood out from the crowd was leadership! That’s why Collins is important for Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, any business owner or manager and you generally.

Yesterday this one line summed up his lecture: “Good is the enemy of great.”

Being only good when you have enormous potential can be explained by complacency, laziness, distraction from the important or a lack of focus, hubris or inadequate leadership.

History shows that great leaders are unbelievably focused on their huge dream and are great self-leaders to ensure their goal becomes a reality.

Churchill had to beat Hitler, Richard Goyder had to buy Coles and turn it around at Wesfarmers, John Howard and Peter Costello wanted to create budget surpluses and drive the Government’s net debt into negative territory, while Paul Roos wanted to create a winning culture at the Sydney Swans (despite last year’s grand final result, as a club, the leaders there have been unbelievably successful).

Collins explains great companies in terms of:

Top leaders tended to be driven but humble. They weren’t show ponies — some even looked a little publicity shy.


  • They get the right people on the bus first before setting the destination (or goal).
  • They confront the brutal facts but still stay positive.
  • They simply find what drives them and then they go for it. He calls this the hedgehog concept.
  • They impose an attitude of discipline that creates disciplined people who engage in disciplined actions.
  • They embrace technology to enhance their competitive advantage, and
  • They work as a team, where small initiatives interact to make the big goal happen.


Collins insists that it’s the big goal that drives these leaders to greatness. He talks about them having a BHAG — a big, hairy, audacious goal — that won’t leave them when they sleep and greets them when they wake! It keeps them company all the time. This BHAG is the kind of thing that would have followed John Symond and Mark Bouris when they created Aussie Home Loans and Wizard.

It got Kieran Perkins up every morning to win gold in Atlanta, when everyone said it wouldn’t happen. Hopefully, it will drive Tony Abbott (or whoever replaces him) to work out how to cajole a troublesome Senate and inspire a cynical voting public to make the changes we need in Canberra to create jobs, get consumers spending and businesses investing, while gradually whittling down the budget deficit first, then the debt.

I hear people worrying on radio about our debt but they haven’t heard the Treasury boss say that the budget deficit could become a surplus if we had four years of 4% economic growth. Our average growth is around 3.2% but we’re now at 2.5%!

That’s why we have to get the PM and his team, every business, every worker and every Australian thinking about going from good to great.

I know it’s idealistic but if our leaders talked more about positive things, then many of us would become more positive.

Yesterday Collins said that the greats in business are often committed to a great cause. When we started our financial planning business, Collins inspired us. That’s why we did the opposite to most advisers. We rebated commissions before the Government insisted it happen and we charged flat dollar fees instead of percentage ones. Most planners do the latter.

Collins reminded me of my initial BHAG — to have the best and most honest financial planning business in this country. We’re still committed to this goal but I know I can hang around with it more consistently by being less distracted by other things.

Collins doesn’t just do “To do” lists, he does “stop doing” lists! That’s a great start to focusing back on what’s really important.

Giving a knighthood to Prince Phillip was a focus problem for the PM. Getting the Senate onside to make his Budget BHAG dream come true was the main game and it explains why his polling is not great, let alone good.

Collins describes the hedgehog as an animal with a simple but effective plan. It’s based on the ancient Greek parable of “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He explains this plan in terms of  three interconnecting circles. One circle contains the things that drive a person to success. The next is what someone is truly passionate about. The third is where someone can be the best of breed. Where these three circles intersect — Bingo!

If you can lead yourself to pursue the activity you’re passionate about and where you have a competitive advantage, then you’ll very likely get an economic result that won’t be just good — it could be great!

Now isn’t this advice better than stressing out about things you can’t change, like intergenerational unfairness? That’s Canberra’s job and I really hope many at the top read Good to Great!