One Metaphor that Taught Me Everything About Leadership

be a clock builder, not a time teller

Who is a better leader?

A clock builder or time teller?

Jim Collins, the foremost management guru, poses a very interesting question in his best-selling book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies:

“Imagine that you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or the stars and, amazingly, state the exact time an date. Wouldn’t it be even more amazing still if, instead of telling the time, that person built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she were dead and gone?”

The world is teeming with time tellers. Time tellers are often masqueraded as charismatic visionary leaders who have a great idea.

The problem is only time tellers can tell other what time it is, what needs to be done, who needs to do it.

Time tellers are the sun of the solar system, Helios, all powerful and all knowing.

Take the time teller out of the equation and expect utter chaos and catastrophe.

Instead, be a clock builder.

Leaders who are clock builders see the big picture. They have a “quarter century perspective” and focus on long term success.

Clock builders are legacy builders. His or her legacy is building the company that can prosper far beyond the tenure of any single leader and through multiple life cycles.

The leader’s greatest product is the organization itself.

Steve Jobs was a great time teller. When he was at the helm at Apple, he was involved in every important (and sometimes less important) decision and set the company’s direction and vision. Apple grew to become a global icon under his leadership. However, after his death, Apple seemed to have lost ground to competitors, and has not been able to demonstrate the same level of creativity and ability to revolutionize the way we work and play that it had in past years.

On the other hand, Andy Grove at Intel was a great clock builder. Gordon Moore was the one who coined the term “Moore’s Law” which the semiconductor industry embraced for decades. But it was Andy Grove who developed the business processes and execution culture that made Intel an Industry leader and a great company.

Now, what does clock-building look like? Jim Collins shares three steps you can take to leave a lasting legacy:

1. Build a system that can be great beyond any single leader or great idea.

  • Our chief leader is a clock-builder, not just a time teller – he or she is building a system that can prosper beyond his or her presence.
  • Our chief leader is building a great team of strong individuals, rather than acting as a “genius with 1000 helpers” on whom everything depends.
  • If any individual leader were to disappear tomorrow, our discipline would remain as strong as ever; we have built a culture of discipline, as distinct from having a larger-than-life disciplinarian at the helm.
  • We hold our leaders accountable for the success of their successors.

 2. Create catalytic mechanisms.

  • We have red flag mechanisms that bring brutal facts to our attention, and force us to confront those facts, no matter how uncomfortable.
  • We set in place powerful mechanisms that stimulate progress – mechanisms designed to force us to continually improve.
  • Our mechanisms are designed so that people who hold power – and who might want to ignore the brutal facts – cannot easily subvert the mechanisms.
  • We have a mechanism analogous to “the council” as described in chapter 5 of Good to Great, which plays a key role in guiding our decisions.

3. Manage for the quarter century.

  • No matter what short term pressures we face – Wall Street, financial distress, No Child Left Behind, pressure for a winning season – we build for long-term greatness; we manage not for the quarter, but for the quarter century.
  • Our leaders measure their own success as much by how their organization performs in the hands of a successor as by how it fares during their own personal reign

Question: Are you a time teller or clock builder? How will you be a leader than builds a clock and leave a lasting legacy?