10Xers – Leadership that thrives in Chaos

I was recently rereading one of my favorite Jim Collins’ books, Great by Choice, as I’m upgrading some of my CEO playbooks. In this book, Collins summarizes his research around companies that beat their industry index by at least 10 times during a period of significant uncertainty, even chaos.

When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that could neither be predicted nor controlled, these companies still performed exceptionally well. He called these companies “10Xers”. I like all of Collins’ books because he looks for patterns in data…..something I aspire to do in all aspects of business.

He studies to answer the question of, “Why 10X companies achieve such spectacular results, especially when other direct comparison companies — companies operating in the same fast-moving, unpredictable, and tumultuous environments — did not?” Of course, part of the answer lies in the distinctive behaviors of their leaders.

First, here’s an except from Great by Choice, about what Jim Collins’ team did NOT find about 10Xers relative to their less successful comparisons:

  • They’re not more creative.
  • They’re not more visionary.
  • They’re not more charismatic.
  • They’re not more ambitious.
  • They’re not more blessed by luck.
  • They’re not more risk seeking.
  • They’re not more heroic.
  • They’re not more prone to making big, bold moves.

Jim Collins was not saying that 10Xers lacked creative intensity, ferocious ambition, or the courage to bet big. They displayed all these traits, but so did their less successful comparison companies. So what did the 10Xers have that others did not?

Here’s what 10Xers of successful companies uniquely brought to the table:

  • fanatic discipline,
  • empirical creativity, and
  • productive paranoia.

Lets dig briefly into these three characteristics that Collins and team found.

Fanatic Discipline

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.

For a 10Xer; however, the only legitimate form of discipline is self-discipline, having the inner will to do whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.

10Xers are utterly relentless, monomaniacal even, unbending in their focus on their quests. They don’t overreact to events, succumb to the herd, or leap for alluring—but irrelevant—opportunities. In Jim Collins’ research, he concluded that 10Xers weren’t just disciplined; they were fanatics.

Empirical Creativity

10Xers do not look to conventional wisdom to set their course during times of uncertainty, nor do they primarily look to what other people do, or to what pundits and experts say they should do. They look primarily to empirical evidence.

“The 10Xers don’t favor analysis over action; they favor empiricism as the foundation for decisive action.” Collins, Jim. Great by Choice 

They are data-driven leaders. By “empirical,” Jim Collins means relying upon direct observation, conducting practical experiments, and/or engaging directly with evidence rather than relying upon opinion, whim, conventional wisdom, authority, or untested ideas.

“The 10Xers did not generally make bolder moves than their less successful comparisons; both groups made big bets and, when needed, took dramatic action. Nor did the 10Xers exude more raw confidence than the comparison leaders; indeed, the comparison leaders were often brazenly self-confident. But the 10Xers had a much deeper empirical foundation for their decisions and actions, which gave them well-founded confidence and bounded their risk.” Collins, Jim. Great by Choice 

Productive Paranoia

Despite their empirical confidence, 10Xers remain afraid—terrified— of what the world can throw at them. So, they prepare to meet head-on what they most fear.

“10Xers differ from their less successful comparisons in how they maintain hypervigilance in good times as well as bad. Even in calm, clear, positive conditions, 10Xers constantly consider the possibility that events could turn against them at any moment.” Collins, Jim. Great by Choice 

Paranoid behavior is good, if it’s channeled into “preparation and calm, clearheaded action” – hence Jim Collins’ term “productive paranoia.”

So, are you a 10Xer leader? Do you naturally operate with fanatical discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia? Are you a Level 5 leader?

Jim Kaskade

Jim Kaskade is a serial entrepreneur & enterprise software executive of over 35 years. He recently successfully exited a PE-backed SaaS company, Janrain, in the digital identity security space. He started his career engineering massively parallel processing datacenter applications. Prior to identity, he led a digital application business of over 7,000 people ($1B). Prior to that he led a big data & analytics business of over 1,000 ($250M). He was the CEO of a Big Data Cloud company ($50M); was an EIR at PARC (the Bell Labs of Silicon Valley) which resulted in a spinout of an AML AI company; led two separate private cloud software startups; founded of one of the most advanced digital video SaaS companies delivering online and wireless solutions to over 10,000 enterprises; and was involved with three semiconductor startups (two of which he founded, one of which he sold). Jim has an Electrical and Computer Science Engineering degree from University of California, Santa Barbara, with an emphasis in semiconductor design and computer science; and an MBA from the University of San Diego with an emphasis in entrepreneurship and finance.

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