From good to great
Jim Collins's book Good to Great 1 has spent years on business bestseller lists and has been translated into thirty-five languages. In the book, the author and his team of researchers investigate how some companies have transformed themselves from good into great, increasing and sustaining growth in sales and services. Despite its popularity over the last eleven years, I only became aware of it recently. The topic, business development, is not usually in the purview of my reading! Upon learning that it was suggested reading for faculty and staff at a nearby university retreat, I took a closer look.
In the book, Collins devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of the leadership at the top of great companies. The person in the prime leadership position for the company is in large part responsible for turning it toward an escalating rise to greatness. As piano teachers, we are at an advantage since we are in leadership positions when we teach! Collins was surprised that the top leaders of corporations often seemed, initially, to be understated and at times even self-effacing. The very best leaders at the top, Collins found, blended "extreme personal humility with intense professional will."2 Despite this, Collins found that top corporate leaders were fanatically driven, and they possessed a strong urge to produce sustained, high-quality results.3 These understated individuals were passionate and caring, and the corporate workers (or in our case our piano students) knew that fully.
As you think of the great teachers you know, these principles hold true. Great teachers set up their students for continued success, and they work methodically with students for evenly paced and sustained musical growth and development. A great teacher will give the student all the credit for success. When problems creep in, a great teacher will look in the mirror in an attempt to determine the source of the difficulties, even if that means taking personal responsibility. Great teachers realize that success breeds motivation and additional success.
Hedgehogs and Foxes
A primary principle in Collins's work is based on the "hedgehog concept"4 from Isaiah Berlin's story The Hedgehog and the Fox.5 The theory is that the fox knows many things and is sly and cunning; the hedgehog, conversely, knows one thing very well. The fox is stealthy and crafty, able to devise many strategies to capture the hedgehog when he surfaces from his den. One predicts that the fox will be the winner in this battle, for the fox is fast and the plan is well thought out. On the other hand, the hedgehog moves through his day looking for food and simply taking care of matters in his home. The fox prepares to make his leap onto the prey. The hedgehog, however, senses danger, and simply rolls up into a ball that becomes a sphere of sharp spikes. The fox, foiled, calls off his attack, seeing this unpenetrable line of defense. The fox later plans another attack, and still another, using the full range of his intelligence and cunning. Each time the hedgehog does the same thing, and the attack is consistently foiled.
In his story, Berlin divides people into groups of either hedgehogs or foxes. The foxes pursue many ends consecutively, are highly intelligent, and see the complexity in the world. But they also can become, according to Berlin, "scattered or diffused, moving on many levels," and consequently they do not integrate their thinking into a unified vision.6 Hedgehogs simplify the complexity in the world into a basic principle that unifies and guides all they do. Ultimately, Collins's discussion leads to the principle that hedgehogs know how to focus on what they do well and on what drives their being to exist. They know what they excel at, and strategize and develop through life from that place. This took me by surprise. It may be over-simplified, but it caused me to think further.
In my travels, I encounter various types of piano teachers: some focus on developing students who play well in competitions, some focus on teaching pre-schoolers, some thrive with average-age beginners, some work especially well with adolescent males, some thrive on taking a class of upper-intermediate students and skillfully developing them further, some teach jazz and pop only, some are drawn to teaching adults, some work well with college students, and so on. These teachers, in some ways, may fit into the hedgehog concept in that they instinctively know what they are exceptionally good at and direct their focus to that area. They are passionate about the musical development of their group of learners, and let that drive their teaching. They become specialists because they know themselves and know what they do best, resisting an attempt to do more than they can do with integrity and ease. They understand where they can excel, and know teaching areas where they may not be so well suited.
To maintain a full studio, many of us must diversify as piano teachers. A teacher who works with a wide gamut of students is something of a global thinker and learner, one who knows many things. It is important for these teachers to sustain consistency in student achievement and maintain high standards within all the levels and types of students they choose to teach, since they function in several arenas. A situation could arise where one diversifies too broadly, losing the hedgehog's sense of depth and excellence. The teacher should keep the focus on what one does well, and diversify only to the extent necessary and reasonable for that individual to still maintain hedgehog standards of excellence.
Of course this does not mean that one should shy away from continuous, lifelong learning in our field. Not at all. Continuous learning and development is necessary for all self-actualizing persons. Lifelong learning is central to one's fulfillment in life. Simply put, as teachers, it serves us well to understand what our strengths are as individuals and to reside in that domain. Following that pursuit assists one in moving from good to great.
As the companies chronicled in the book grew from good to great, employees inside each company were often unaware of the transformation taking place.7 In fact, a company that grew from good to great was not even recognized by the general public as having undergone a dramatic change until someone began to track the sustained strong results. "There was no single defining action, no grand program, no killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution...good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results."8
Often one who observes a great teacher fails to remember that this person got there by slow, sustained, consistent diligence in producing excellent results in her students' learning, reading, musicianship, and performance. This teacher was not always recognized as a great teacher of adults, or a great teacher of high school competition winners. The teacher did not receive the best student referrals at first, but, with passion, figured out how to teach the students she had, and helped the students she had reap rewards of their own successes. These teachers sensed in time their strengths and then focused consciously, as in the hedgehog story, on those areas. Once the serious teacher gains clarity and her passion is self-acknowledged and channeled, the road to evolution from good to great teacher begins.
1Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: why some companies make the leap... and others don't. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
2Ibid, p. 21.
3Ibid, p. 39.
4Ibid, pp. 90-91.
5Berlin, I. (1993). The hedgehog and the fox. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks.
6Collins, p. 91.
7Ibid, p. 165.
8Ibid, p. 165.