After spending years studying what separates good companies from great ones, author and researcher Jim Collins — knowing that great companies have great leaders — believes he’s isolated the formula that yields superior corporate leadership, and shared it Tuesday with the keynote audience at SHRM’s annual conference in Atlanta.

“The X factor for great leaders is humility combined with a ferocious will to pick people better than ourselves — to truly aspire to be the dumbest person in the room,” he said, noting that many successful leaders have healthy egos and self-confidence, but that great leaders can temper that tenacity and self-assurance with humility.

“For [great leaders], all that ego, confidence, ambition and drive channel outward to a cause, a purpose and to an organization that’s not about them, but larger and more endurable than they are,” Collins said.

He emphasized the importance of building strong teams by using a mountain climbing analogy — explaining that it’s not the plan to get up the mountain that brings success, but who you have at the end of the rope.

Collins quoted Hewlett-Packard co-founder Dave Packard — who insisted that companies must never allow scale in revenue and size to exceed the ability to have the right people to execute expansion — then cited Southwest Airlines as proof Packard’s strategy works. Southwest — which has been profitable every year for 30 consecutive years, even after the 9/11 tragedy — had the option to expand a multitude of markets for five years, but did not. If it had, Collins noted, the airline may have sunk into bankruptcy like many of its competitors.

Finally, Collins touched on the importance of mentoring in creating great leaders and said that in great companies, discipline is a more valuable — and rarer — attribute than creativity.

“Creativity is the natural human state. It's infinitely renewable, but discipline is not,” he said. “The rare combination is figuring out how to marry discipline to our natural creativity so that we amplify our creativity rather than destroy it.”

He also encouraged attendees to think back on all the mentors who helped guide and educate them, then pay them back by paying it forward by being a mentor to a young professional. “There's no other currency,” Collins said. Rather than considering how to be successful, he closed, “think about how to be useful.”

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