The teacher becomes the student

A new article on caught my eye last week. It talked about some time spent by author and teacher Jim Collins at the United States Military Academy at West Point and the things he learnt about leadership during that time.

Collins made the following observations:

“If you want to build a culture of engaged leaders and a great place to work,” he says, “you need to spend time thinking about three things.”

1. Service – “[The] cause or purpose we are passionately dedicated to and are willing to suffer and sacrifice for.”

2. Challenge and growth – “What huge and audacious challenges should we give people that will push them hard and make them grow?”

3. Communal success – “What can we do to reinforce the idea that we succeed only by helping each other?”

As I read the article and thought about the points Collins made it occurred to me that these aren’t just observations that will help you build engaged leaders and a great place to work – they are also the foundation stones of building a great brand.

Taking each one by turn.

Service is a bit of an old-fashioned idea these days, however, if the people in the organisation aren’t aligned in support of a purpose it will be hard to make progress. Being ambitious first for what you’re trying to do is a marker of not only good leaders but also great brands. Look at any storied brand and you will find a ‘cult’-like culture lurking in the wings that exudes a sense of service to the ‘why’.

Look at Patagonia, one of my favorite brands. They work in service to the environment. They acknowledge that what they do (make apparel) will never have no impact, but they strive constantly to do as little harm as possible. This isn’t just an idea that founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard talks about, it’s something that everyone in the organisation supports and works for, and which is woven into the very fabric of their apparel and how it’s made.

Challenge what you are doing. Constantly ask can we do it better, differently, be more aligned, more focused, more authentic? Organisations who build brands that withstand the test of time never rest on their laurels. They are never satisfied or think ‘we are there’. They are always evolving in response to their environments to stay current.

Consider Virgin’s evolution from music and publishing, across air travel, banking, rail, telecommunications, health and fitness. A constant striving to bring their particular brand of entrepreneurism, friendly disruption and access to different industries.

Communal success, or more simply getting people working together. While individual endeavour can accomplish a lot, there is no getting around the fact that organisations, in general, do better, last longer and achieve more when people come together to help each other. Brands are no different. They are the result of people working together and helping each other to reach for that purpose and navigate the challenges along the way.

In the early days of Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and the small team he was working with had to rely on each other to fulfil many different roles at once, to jump between tasks. If they hadn’t the orders wouldn’t have gone out, customers wouldn’t have been helped and their overall purpose wouldn’t have been realised. Potential for failure was huge, and I am sure little failures happened every day but by supporting each other they made their way to the milestone of 10 million shoes given to children in need.

Building a brand takes work and discipline, but it also takes heart and courage.

You can read the whole article here, and see you next week.

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at


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