Great by Choice, by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen

Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?

To answer this question, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen studied “matched pairs”—companies in the same industry with similar opportunities but very different results. One company in each matched pair failed while the other succeeded spectacularly. Collins and Hansen call the winners “10Xers” because they outperformed their industry standard ten times over despite extremely difficult circumstances. 10X winners like Intel, Southwest Airlines, and Progressive—for example—were matched and compared with AMD, PSA, and Safeco.

Through the research, the authors identified valuable principles for us to consider as we face our own challenges and uncertainty. Most significantly, 10Xers exemplify three core behaviors: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia—all driven by what the authors call Level 5 ambition.

Fanatic Discipline & the 20 Mile March (10X Behavior #1)

Discipline, in essence, is consistency of action—consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time. –Collins & Hansen

If we could share only one idea from the book, it would be the 20 Mile March.

The 20 Mile March Concept: hitting stepwise performance markers with great consistency over a long period of time. It’s about having concrete, clear, intelligent, and rigorously pursued performance mechanisms that keep you on track. The 20 Mile March creates two types of discomfort: (1) the discomfort of unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions, and (2) the discomfort of holding back in good conditions.

Collins and Hansen bring this concept home through a spectacular historical example, a beautifully matched pair of teams competing to be the first to reach the South Pole. It is an incredible story and an especially good leadership case comparing very different leaders operating in extreme conditions. The year was 1911, and the teams began the trek over 700 miles from the Pole—which is like walking from New York City to Myrtle Beach, SC and then having to walk back. They estimated it would take three months. The average temperature was hovering around 20 degrees…BELOW freezing. The terrain was brutal ice-packed ground going from sea level to 10,000 feet elevation. Both teams made it to the Pole; only one team made it back alive.

One team of five explorers was led by Roald Amundsen, the 39 year-old Norwegian explorer who previously had discovered the Northwest Passage and once lived with Eskimos, which is why his team dressed in loose fitting layers and used dogs to haul their gear. His guiding philosophy:

You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength.

Amundsen assumed that bad events would strike along the way, and he developed contingency plans for everything.

Some unknown miles away was the other team led by Robert Falcon Scott, the 43 year-old British explorer who had, on a previous mission, gotten closer to the South Pole than anyone alive. Scott was rather cavalier about planning and assumed he could get through any obstacle by sheer force of will. He brought ponies and new-fangled motor sledges to haul his gear. The engines on the motor sledges seized up in the extreme temperatures, and the horses, whose bodies sweat and then became encased in ice when they stopped, didn’t last long.

But despite the challenges, Scott and team made it to the South Pole. Unfortunately, he was 34 days behind Amundsen. With the weather getting worse, Scott staggered on and came within 10 miles of his supply depot on the return trip before he succumbed to the conditions and died, along with all his men.

Amundsen’s team had fanatic discipline. They stuck to a plan of consistent progress, going 15 to 20 miles a day no matter what. That meant on horrible days, they sucked it up and went 15-20 miles. On nice days, when they could have gone further, they did not. They did their 20 miles and then rested and worked on their gear. Scott, on the other hand, drove his team to exhaustion on good days and often sat around complaining about his horrible luck on the bad weather days.

Collins and Hansen call this the 20 Mile March and apply it to businesses that hit specified performance markers with great consistency over a long period of time, “delivering high performance in difficult times and holding back in good times”—not getting overcommitted and exposed. “The 20 Mile March imposes order and consistency amidst chaos.” It keeps you on track.

Discussion Prompts

In your work, do you have a specified performance marker? What is the one thing that if you achieved it with great consistency in good times and bad would mean success over time? What is your 20 Mile March?

Empirical Creativity (10X Behavior #2)

In the U.S., we laud innovation and bold behavior. But Collins and Hansen discovered that 10Xers were not necessarily more innovative and bold than their unsuccessful comparison companies, and their creativity was empirically based; they experimented and verified innovative ideas through experience before going big.

   Empirical: Based on or verifiable by experience.

   Creativity: The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, or patterns…and to create meaningful new ideas.

Amundsen’s team, for example, integrated a number of non-traditional techniques with respect to clothing, the use of dogs, and sled design—but only after rigorous testing to validate them through experience. Scott, on the other hand, went bold without verification by experience. His use of motor sledges and horses, for example, was never tested under extreme temperatures.

The authors tell us to, “Be creative, but validate your creative ideas with empirical evidence.” 10Xers are creative and tuned in to opportunities, but they also test their ideas through experience. They try things out and learn before going all in. And when they do go all in, they exercise discipline in execution.

Discussion Prompts

Are you more like Amundsen or Scott when it comes to innovation? Do you take bold action with new ideas without testing them out and validating them in your context first? What is an example of a creative idea you are experimenting with now? What is your litmus test for whether or not to go all in with a creative new idea?  

Productive Paranoia (10X Behavior #3)

10Xers constantly consider the possibility that events could turn against them at any moment. Indeed, they believe that conditions will—absolutely, with 100 percent certainty—turn against them without warning, at some unpredictable point in time, at some highly inconvenient moment. –Collins & Hansen

Their certainty that conditions will turn against them energizes them to relentlessly prepare.  They keep asking, “What if? What if?” They develop contingency plans, and they build buffers and shock absorbers—financial, for example—so that when things don’t go as planned, they have reserves and flexibility. They stay, as Collins and Hansen describe it, “above the death line.”

This is Roald Amundsen’s philosophy in action: “You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength.”

Notice, it is what leaders do before the storm that makes a big difference. “It’s…the decisions and disciplines and buffers and shock absorbers already in place that matters most in determining whether your enterprise pulls ahead, falls behind or dies when the storm hits.”

Moreover, when 10Xers are dealt a blow in some way, they bounce back; they reframe setbacks and misfortune into opportunities to shine! They respond to bad luck with eyes-open optimism; they reframe negative circumstances as opportunities. “10Xers use difficulty as a catalyst to deepen purpose, recommit to values, increase discipline, respond with creativity, and heighten productive paranoia.” “Resilience, not luck, is the signature of greatness.”

Great leaders ask:

How can we rise in this moment and use it to make us stronger?

Discussion Prompts

Reflect on some of the challenges you have faced. How did you rise in those moments and use them to make you (and your team) stronger? What challenge are you facing now that you can leverage to deepen your purpose and galvanize positive change? How are you exercising productive paranoia? How are you preparing for the storm?

Level 5 Ambition

So far, we have covered the three core behaviors of 10X leaders: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia. Given the intensity of effort required to sustain these behaviors, we wondered, “What drives these leaders? What keeps them going day after day, year after year?”

The answer is Level 5 ambition. To sustain the force of will and energy that the behaviors require, you must have ambition—which can be defined as a powerful desire for achievement, coupled with the willingness to really work for it.

And the particular type of ambition Collins and Hansen found in the successful leaders was intrinsically motivated and for a purpose larger than self. It was not self-centered. These leaders’ “ambition was first and foremost for the cause, the company, for the work not themselves…and they defined themselves by impact and contribution and purpose”—not money, fame, or power.

10X leaders are on a quest; they have a deep sense of purpose, a mission that they are fully committed to. Their discipline is unbending focus on the quest; it is in service to something important, not discipline for its own sake. Purpose comes first.  Then comes the unbending focus and extreme consistency of action.

Level 5 ambition fuels these leaders’ fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia. Without the ambition—their engines would falter.

Discussion Prompts

Is Level 5 ambition something you either have or don’t have? Or, is it something you can cultivate? What is your ambition? What quest is activating your unbending focus and extreme consistency of action? What are you in it for?  


In this article, we explored the three main 10X behaviors—fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia—along with Level 5 ambition, which is the intrinsically motivated drive that sustains the force of will required. Leaders need a purpose larger than self to fuel their fire.

A central insight in the research is that “whether we prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more upon what we do than on what the world does to us.” We are not trapped by our circumstances. This is encouraging, but also eye-opening in terms of the extreme commitment involved:

10Xers are utterly relentless, monomaniacal even, unbending in their focus on their quests…They’re capable of immense perseverance, unyielding in their standards yet disciplined enough not to overreach. The 10Xers, we concluded, weren’t just disciplined; they were fanatics. –Collins & Hansen

Discussion Prompts

What do you think, do leaders and their organizations need to have this level of extreme discipline in order to succeed? If Collins and Hansen studied your operation, would they find unbending focus on a meaningful quest?