Are Swanson's Rules Good to Great?
We asked Jim Collins, author of one of the most successful business books ever written, to evaluate the CEO handbook that's never been published.
By Jim Collins

(Business 2.0) – At age 22, I sat in a conference room atop a glass tower in Tulsa, Okla., the junior researcher on a McKinsey & Co. case team. I'd been asked to join the meeting to answer questions about the valuation of a company our client wanted to buy. The client, an imposing figure with cowboy boots and a belly that spilled over his belt buckle, drawled a question at me: "Now, Jim, why does the target company have its headquarters in Chicago, when it operates mainly in California?"

Everyone turned to me, and my mind raced. I had no idea! But I recalled something I'd read in the corporate history about the company being founded near the Chicago World's Fair. "Uh, I think it is because of the World's Fair in 1893," I sputtered.

No one asked me any more questions that day.

On the flight home, the McKinsey partner sat down next to me and said, "For the future, Jim, 'I don't know' is a perfectly acceptable answer." Thus I learned one of Swanson's rules the hard way: Learn to say "I don't know"—especially when you don't know.

As I flipped through Swanson's booklet recently, I found myself nodding approval. Yet I wondered, how would his 33 rules stack up against the behavior and leadership styles of the successful CEOs profiled in Good to Great? I quickly developed a rudimentary rating system to catalog Swanson's rules, based on how well they fit with the characteristics of good-to-great CEOs. I found that 21 of Swanson's rules ended up in the positive column—meaning they exhibited a positive fit with the operating philosophy of the good-to-great CEOs. Only three of Swanson's rules showed up in the negative column. (For the remaining nine, I simply had no information one way or the other.)

This was just a basic exercise, so I wouldn't put too much stock in my numbers. Still, the overall fit appears quite positive.

I was struck in particular by Swanson's imperative to "look for what is missing," so I thought it might be interesting to turn it back on his list. What management lessons from good-to-great CEOs don't show up in his rules? A few jumped out right away, such as this one: Practice the window and the mirror. (In other words, point out the window to credit others when things go well, but point in the mirror to accept responsibility when things go wrong.) Other missing ideas: A "stop doing" list is more important than a "to do" list. Skills can be learned; core values cannot. People are not your most important asset; the right people are. Give people responsibilities, not jobs. Do not confuse celebrity with leadership.

Of course, no piece of writing—not even the collected works of Peter Drucker—has all the answers. Overall, Swanson's booklet will do much more good than harm. Indeed, it could have helped prevent a terribly embarrassing moment when I was 22. To paraphrase a former Supreme Court justice, one ought not to reject wisdom merely because it comes late. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good rule as well.