In his book Good to Great, which has become a classic in the field of leadership and organizational development, Jim Collins speaks about what it takes for a good company to become a great one. About ten pages into the book it became apparent to me that the very same principles apply to all committed partnerships. Marriage is an organization in which there are two CEO’s who share power, each of whom is vested with the authority to manage the system in a way that fulfills the purpose which it was designed to serve.
Some of the principles that Collins mentions that characterize great companies include:Having the right person for the job. Look for people with good raw materials who are self-motivated. Collins doesn’t think much of the idea of having to motivate people on an ongoing basis. If they don’t bring a high level of motivation to their work and need to rely on outside sources to activate their enthusiasm, chances are they aren’t really up to the job. The raw materials that he refers to have to do with character strengths including a good work ethic, intelligence, curiosity, integrity, responsibility, a desire to learn, perseverance, and commitment, to name a few.A willingness to confront the brutal facts, without losing faith in the underlying purpose that drives the system. They acknowledge and address the challenges of the organization and resist the temptation to avoid or deny unpleasant aspects of the current reality.Rigorous discipline. Lest this be taken as something grueling or arduous, he distinguishes “rigor”, which he describes as demanding, and holding a high standard, from “ruthlessness” which has to do with being merciless, lacking compassion or even cruel.Patience. In their gradual transition from good to great, these organizations generally do not experience sudden, dramatic breakthroughs, but rather go through an ongoing process of consistent reassessment and at times reorganization that builds momentum until a point of breakthrough is reached.Humility and commitment. Collins claims that the most successful leaders are those who display humility as well as a fierce resolve to do whatever is needed to make the company great. They hold to a vision of the realization of the full potential of the system while being open and flexible in regard to the exact means through which that goal will be fulfilled. Their primary commitment is to the good of the organization rather than to their personal ego-based desires.Collins doesn’t claim that all companies should be great or that there is anything wrong with being good. He merely distinguishes between the two terms and offers a collection of his observations for those organizations that seek to raise their standard of excellence and accomplishment from adequate to exemplary.You might be tempted to ask, “Why wouldn’t someone choose to opt for great rather than good?” That’s a good, unh… great question and one that each of us can probably answer from our own experience. After all, there is rarely a day that goes by that we don’t make the choice to opt for the good rather than the great, whether we’re talking about something big like running a business or creating a loving family or something smaller like responding to a message promptly or giving our full and complete attention to a friend when we’re speaking with them on the phone, or raising the standard of orderliness in our home, or doing anything that requires more discipline or effort than it requires to hold a standard of adequacy rather than excellence. Getting by, or getting to OK, rather than to Great, is just easier, less demanding, and requires less effort than going for the gold.And, since you can’t go for the gold in everything that you want to do (after all none of us is in possession of an infinite amount of time and energy in our lives), having a lower standard affords us more time and energy to pursue other desires or pleasures. Going from good to great isn’t a “should” and if it is, you’re not likely to get there. It’s a drive that we either have or don’t have and can come and go from time to time, and can apply or not apply in different life domains. The question is whether or not we’re willing to be, to use another of Collins’ principles, “brutally honest” with ourselves as to where we stand at any given time on any given domain. Acting in ways that honor and reflect our true commitment is an expression of integrity.

But let’s get back to relationships, which are probably at least somewhat important to you if you’re still reading this. As we’ve previously stated, everything that Collins says about companies applies to relationships as well. When one or both partners holds a commitment to the health and well-being of the relationship over the preferences of their own ego, the relationship is headed for greatness. When humility rather than control is held as a high value, the quality of connection is enhanced. When personal responsibility rather than projected blame is prevalent, mutual trust is all but assured.

Collins speaks of creating a climate of truth-telling which can be characterized by a willingness to:

Lead with questions not answers. Couples with great relationships live in questions like:

“What is our (personal and shared) vision?”

“What are our changing needs?”

“How can I be a better partner?”

“How can I best love my partner?”

“What is the purpose of our relationship?”

“What am I passionate about?”

“What more can I do to bring more love and trust into our relationship?”

Engage in dialogue and debate rather than manipulation and coercion. Successful couples don’t see eye to eye about all things. They are not on the same page all the time and they aren’t afraid to admit it. They are generally unwilling to engage in manipulative strategies in order to create compliance from each other and seek instead to have spirited conversations about their differing views. They value and enjoy the process of enthusiastic dialogue and generally learn from each other in the process of coming to a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. They also know that some issues are inherently irreconcilable and they know that that’s okay.

Conduct autopsies without blame. Successful couples learn from their mistakes but don’t demand that each other admit to theirs. When there is not insistence that one make a confession, there is a greater likelihood that there will be an acknowledgment on the other’s part, which often comes freely when there is no fear of punishment or retribution for the admission.

Seek to learn from their experiences rather than be right about their judgments. All couples, including the great ones, experience some form of adversity in the course of their experience together. Great couples aren’t any luckier, more educated, charmed, or gifted than others. They are, however more likely to respond to adversity with an intention to learn from their experiences and to develop greater understanding and resilience in themselves and in the relationship. They stay true to their values and commitments and maintain their balance during times of great change and disruption.

Becoming a great success in any arena is a cumulative process that occurs over a period of years, choice-by-choice, step-by-step, leading to transformation. The process is characterized by steady plodding, which builds greater momentum. The build-up for a couple’s success consists of perfecting their communication skills, their conflict management skills, healing past wounds, cultivating virtues, building trust, deepening intimacy, aligning their vision and goals, and strengthening their commitment.

The indicators that characterize the leaders of the great corporations, are not reflected only in their profit/loss statements, but rather are demonstrated by continued high productivity of their company following their retirement. By comparison, other companies frequently fail to hold the gains that were made during the tenure of the previous CEO. The legacy left behind by a couple with a great love is not only an inspiration to their children to reach toward greatness in their relationships, but lives on in all those whose lives that they have touched. When you realize the extent of the difference that a great relationship can make in your personal and global world, it’s hard to resist the desire to go for the gold. Some impulses are worth surrendering to.