How can a Sports Team Go From Good to Great and Then Turn Great Results into Enduring Great Results

Arne Martin Jakobsen
University of Nordland, Noeway


How can we use studies of business companies to improve athletes, sport clubs, and ultimately national sports teams? This article is based on the theories of Jim Collins, as described in his two books entitled “Good to Great” (Collins 2001) and “Built to Last” (Collins & Porras 1994). In these two studies, successful companies are compared with unsuccessful ones in the same industry, which have access to the same opportunities and which possess similar resources. The two main aims of these studies are to identify the underlying characteristics and dynamics of highly visionary companies and to effectively communicate these findings to people who want to create and maintain visionary companies of their own (Collins & Porras 1994).

A major question for the authors is whether a good company can become a great company, and if so, how. They arrive at the following conclusion: “We believe that almost any organization can substantially improve its stature and performance, perhaps even become great, if it conscientiously applies the framework of ideas we’ve uncovered” (Collins 2001, p. 5). In this article we will look at some of the world’s greatest football clubs – ones that have gone from good to great and ones that can be categorized as “built to last”. The clubs we will explore are Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid CF, and AFC Ajax.

Theory: “Good to great”

Jim Collins starts his book “Good to great” with the following assertion: “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great” (Collins 2001, p. 1). In this study, Collins and his colleagues develop a framework they call the flywheel, which captures the gestalt of the process of going from good to great. The flywheel consists of six concepts: “Level five leadership”, “first who – then what”, “confront the brutal facts”, “the hedgehog concept”, “a culture of discipline”, and “technology accelerators”.

The flywheel starts with “Level 5 leadership”. Level five leaders are ambitious, but their ambition is directed first and foremost at their vision for the company rather than at themselves. They set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation, and as individuals they tend to be modest and unassuming. Nevertheless, these leaders are fanatically driven and have a desire to produce sustained results; they work hard and attribute success to factors outside themselves. However, they also tend to blame themselves when things go wrong, and they take full personal responsibility for apparent failures (Collins 2001).

The second major aspect of the flywheel is the principle of “first who – then what”. The “good to great” leaders begin the transformation of their companies by getting the right people on their team, and only then do they select possible directions in which the organization might proceed. Collins (2001) emphasizes that the “who” question must come before questions of vision, strategy, and tactics. These leaders are rigorous in selecting people for their teams, but they are not ruthless. In practice, this means that if a leader is in doubt about hiring someone, it is often wiser not to hire the individual but instead to keep looking. Furthermore, when the leader knows there is a need to make a change with the people on the team, she should trust their intuition and take action. Finally, she should always put the best people on the biggest opportunities. Teams constructed in this way will consist of people who debate vigorously in search of the best answers to all challenges.

The third aspect of the flywheel framework is the need to “confront the brutal facts” without losing faith. It is impossible to make good decisions without accepting that this process must include a direct confrontation with the facts as they stand. In a company that wants to go from good to great, it is important to create a culture where people have the opportunity to be heard. This means that the climate in the company should involve certain practices, such as leading with questions, engaging in dialogue, conducting autopsies, and constructing systems that do not ignore key information. Importantly, if the leader has the right people on the team, he will not need to spend time on “motivating”; the members of the team will be self-motivated. The most important thing is not to de-motivate them, and one of the primary ways to de-motivate people is to ignore the brutal facts of reality (Collins 2001).

The fourth step in constructing the flywheel focuses on what Collins calls the “hedgehog concept”. To go from good to great requires an understanding of three circles that translate into the “hedgehog concept”. These circles are comprised of questions such as “what are you deeply passionate about”, “what can you be the best in the world at”, and “what drives your economic engine”. Good to great companies focus on those activities that ignite their passion. They try to discover what makes them passionate rather than investigating how to stimulate passion. Next, they try to find out what they can be the best in the world at, but equally important, they also need to discover what they can’t be the best in the world at. This goes far beyond core competence, and it may be something in which they are not even currently engaged in. The last circle involves attaining insight into how to generate sustained and robust profitability and cash flow (Collins 2001). One important related finding is that it takes an average of four years for the “good to great” companies to achieve a hedgehog concept (Collins 2001).

The fifth part of the flywheel involves crafting “a culture of discipline” within the company. Sustaining great results depends on building a culture full of self-disciplined people who take disciplined action. The presence of the wrong people on the team usually leads to a rise in bureaucracy as an attempt to compensate for incompetence. A culture of discipline requires people who adhere to a consistent system, but it also demands that people should be given the latitude to enjoy freedom and responsibility within the system’s framework. Moreover, it is important to construct a series of learning goals so that the company’s culture rewards the mastery of new ideas and skills, in contrast to a company culture where performance goals are based solely on measuring current abilities (Dweck 2000).

Crafting a culture of discipline also involves recognizing that “stop doing” lists are actually more critical to company success than “to do” lists. The “good to great” companies demonstrate mastery with one major focus, and they stick to it. In comparison, less successful companies know many things, but they lack consistency (Collins 2001). In other words, companies should focus on what they will do best and not on what they won’t or can’t do (Halvorson 2011).

Finally, the sixth concept in the flywheel concentrates on “technology accelerators”. “Good to great” companies think differently than their competitors. They avoid technology fads, and they carefully select only the technologies that fit directly within their hedgehog concept. They use technology as an accelerator, not as a creator of momentum. The technology by itself is never the cause of either their greatness or their decline. Even companies famous for their pioneering applications of technology rarely mention technology as one of their top five factors in achieving transformative success (Collins 2001). Accordingly, Collins claims that “‘crawl, walk, run’ can be a very effective approach, even during times of rapid and radical technology change” (Collins 2001, p. 163). How a company reacts to technology change is a good indicator of its inner drive for greatness versus mediocrity (Collins 2001).

Beyond the flywheel concept, in order to build a company that has the potential for enduring greatness, Collins emphasizes that it is crucial to avoid being one of the companies that gives in (Collins & Porras 1994; Collins 2009). The important thing here is to change from being a company that is time-telling to a company that builds clocks. It is better to build a clock that can tell the time forever than to be a person who can look at the sun and stars in order to tell the time (Collins & Porras 1994).

A key step in this process is articulating a core ideology. Collins (1994) and his co-workers have created a practical two-part definition of core ideology: Core Ideology = Core Values + Purpose:

  • Core values = The organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of general guiding principles, not to be confused with specific cultural or operating practices, and not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency.
  • Purpose = The organization’s fundamental reasons for existence beyond simply making money – a perpetual guiding star on the horizon, not to be confused with specific goals or business strategies (Collins 1994, p. 73).

In a visionary company the core values need no external or rational justification. After building a core ideology, the important thing is to preserve the core and stimulate progress in the company. Companies that are aligned with their core ideology will generate audacious goals. They will create cult-like cultures where personal and professional goals alike are set high, and where the company tends to have great confidence in its staff’s ability to achieve these goals. Furthermore, such companies will experiment with many tactics, discarding what does not work and keeping only what does. This means following advice, such as always giving good ideas a try and acting on these quickly, accepting that mistakes will be made, taking small steps, giving people the room they need, and ultimately, building that ticking clock. More still, companies should always remember that “good enough never is”. Finally, they must keep their focus on how this moment is not the end; more likely, the present moment is not even the beginning of the end but only the end of the beginning (Collins & Porras 1994).

Visionary companies also tend to be significantly more decentralized and grant greater operational autonomy than comparison companies (Collins & Porras 1994). This is due to the fact that highly autonomous people tend to be more intrinsically motivated (Ryan & Deci 2007). In conclusion, some of the key elements to becoming a visionary company are simple: “Good old-fashioned hard work, dedication to improvement, and continually building for the future will take you a long way” (Collin & Porras 1994, p. 199). Visionary companies always focus on getting better rather than on being good (Halvorson 2011).


To investigate the four football clubs, textual analysis was utilized. The text to be examined was taken from each club’s website. Two other textual sources were also analysed: an interview with Alex Ferguson, and Ferguson’s biography written by Michal Crick (2002). This is an informal approach to textual analysis and follows the practice implemented by Peräkylä (2005): (1) read and re-read the texts; (2) identify key themes; and (3) “draw a picture of the presuppositions and meanings that constitute the cultural world of which the textual material is a specimen” (p. 870).

How can we go from good to great in sports?

This is the main question for any athlete, sports club, or national team. There are a lot of good athletes, clubs, and national teams, but only a few great ones. We will examine four great football clubs in this paper. To begin with, what does level five leadership mean in a sporting context? Leaders should be ambitious and work with long-term goals so that the success of the team becomes even greater in the next generation. Regarding sports clubs, we must first identify who is in charge. Level one is the management and the manager. The managers should have ambitions that first and foremost emphasize the club and the athletes (Collins 2001). They should be fanatically driven and wish to produce sustained results. In the sports business, this means that managers should have a great passion for the sport. Hopefully, this also means they are intrinsically motivated and demonstrate persistence (Vallerand & Miquelon 2007). Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s manager for twenty-five years (70), may be used as a test case to confirm these theories of success. In response to a question about retirement in 2009, he answered:

I still have the drive and the energy. I’ve been here more than 22 years, but I still get a buzz arriving at the training ground. I still get tingles of excitement when the team bus draws up at an away ground before a big match. Or I see some of the young kids coming through (Campbell 2009).

Managers also have to work hard and attribute success to factors outside themselves. These success factors might be, for example, the coach, the athletes, or the team’s cohesion (Carron et al. 2007).

Level two refers to the coach or manager. He should also act with ambition on behalf of the club or athletes. The coach’s own personal ambition should be only their second or third priority, and the coaches should also consistently link success to factors outside themselves (Haslam et al. 2011).

Collins and Porras (1994) have discovered that visionary companies often possess a home-grown management team. Visionary companies carefully select, develop, and promote managerial talent that is fostered and emerges from inside the company. This ensures greater continuity in leadership. Teams like Ajax and Manchester United act according to this principle. Players with the potential to become managers or coaches are taken care of after their playing career ends, often being appointed as coaches for the youngsters or reserves. Examples of this practice include Mick Phelan, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Paul McGuinness at Manchester United, and Frank De Boer, Marco Van Basten, and Ronald Koeman at Ajax (Man. Utd. 2012a; AFC Ajax 2012a).

According to the principle of “first who – then what”, companies must act first to acquire the right people on the team and only then start to determine where to go with their strategy. In the sports business the process is often the other way around (Collins 2001); teams start with an idea of where they wish to go, and then they try to get the right people. Especially for small clubs or nations in team sports, such as football, ice hockey, and handball, the management is often in a hurry and dedicates too little time to finding the right people. Collins advises that if the leader is in doubt, she should keep looking instead of hiring. To go from good to great, it is necessary to have a team that always searches for the best answers. Teams need members (and also coaches) who are intrinsically motivated. They should not be motivated primarily by gaining rewards or by being part of a famous team (Ryan & Deci 2007). As Alex Ferguson said:

I’ve got some great players now. But nobody can do it on their own. It’s about the team. I can give leadership and the direction, but the team has to gel. That means keeping them together, able to live with each other in the same room, get the best from each other (Campbell 2009).

When the right people are on the team, they have to confront the facts. It takes a lot of hard work to become the best, but teams should never lose faith. The culture of the team should be supportive and should emphasize an incremental approach based on learning rather than an entity theory with a focus on fixed skills (Dweck 2000; 2006). All athletes and coaches should have the opportunity to be heard. When athletes and coaches get involved in sports, we must assume they are intrinsically motivated; in this case, it is no longer necessary to use time to motivate them.

Reflecting on the theory Collins lays out, we can match his arguments regarding how a visionary company must create a core ideology to our textual analysis of the football clubs. For instance, Manchester United says that it wants to be the best club in the world, both on and off the pitch. One of its core values is active social engagement. In publicity materials, the team explains this element of its core ideology in greater detail:


We are committed to making a positive difference to the communities within which we operate. The Foundation, the charitable arm of Manchester United Football Club, has a broad and varied range of community programs in place, which look to engage and make better the lives of young people in the local community. The Foundation’s goal is to educate, motivate and inspire future generations with the view to building better communities for all. Channelling the global passion for Manchester United, their aim is to empower young people whilst helping them to develop a greater social understanding through the delivery of innovative and educational programs (Man. Utd. 2012b).

FC Barcelona also advertises a unique slogan that is based on core values:

The slogan ‘more than a club’ is open-ended in meaning. It is perhaps this flexibility that makes it so appropriate for defining the complexities of FC Barcelona’s identity, a club that competes in a sporting sense on the field of play, but that also beats, every day, to the rhythm of its people’s concerns (FC Barcelona 2012).

Collins claims that going from good to great requires a deep understanding of three intersecting circles that translate into a simple, crystalline concept – “the hedgehog concept”. As we have seen, it is first necessary discover what the team can be the best in the world at (although this is not always what it “wants” to be best at), and at the same time, the team must be brutally honest about its own limitations. For instance, the team might state that it can be the best in some sequences of play, or it can be the strongest or the fittest team, or the best defensive or offensive team. “Good to great” teams know their strongest assets and qualities, and they stick with them (Collins, 2001). This is an understanding, not an intention; in other words, it requires the management to assess the team it actually has and to build on its particular strengths. If a team cannot be the best, then its core business cannot form the basis of its hedgehog concept.

The next step is that the whole team should reflect on and identify what they are deeply passionate about in the sport. Then, when they hire coaches and athletes, management should consider whether these additions to the team are passionate about the same values and goals as the rest of the team. Most people involved in a sport are passionate about the sport itself. Nevertheless, when a team hires a manager or any other addition to the management team, he should have an individual passion for the sport, too. The players or athletes should share a similar mode of thinking about how to play or compete (Collins 2007). For example, on the Ajax team the players are accustomed to the Ajax style of play:

Central within the club is the style of play (4-3-3), training, behaviour, and house rules. Ajax strives to keep the way of playing football recognisable, attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair, and preferably far away from the goal on the opponents’ half [of the field] (Ajax 2012b).

The third and final circle that comprises the hedgehog concept focuses on understanding the company’s economic model and what best drives the resource engine. All players and people on the management team must share the same understanding of the fundamental principles that made the team great. For example, they must agree on a basic set of questions, such as how it is possible to make money from the sport and where the money comes from. In particular, understanding the relationship between the team and their sponsors is a crucial factor in succeeding in the sports industry.

It is not only necessary to get the right person on the team; it is also critical to get the right person in the right position. Only there can she make the most effective contribution. The right person in the right position means that an individual’s three circles line up with the responsibilities of that position. The key is to determine what one’s own three circles are as an individual, and then to ensure one is in a position of responsibility that draws upon them. An individual’s unique circles should be based upon her deepest passions in the context of the sport. In other words, what is the individual genetically encoded to do? Developing an athlete’s or coach’s role on the team must be based on understanding the intersections among his individualized set of circles. What position does the athlete play? What is his contribution to the team-building process? Once this is known, it is important for the individual to refuse any position that does not line up with his three circles. If people are offered this kind of insight into their own strengths and passions, and then guided in moving towards a matching position, not only will the team be stronger, but also the people on the team will be more fulfilled and will become more effective contributors. Conversely, however, this also means that players who do not wish to stay with the club should be allowed to move on (Niendorf & Beck 2008).

As discussed in the theory section of this paper, any sports club or national team that wants to go from good to great must create a culture of discipline. Great companies depend on self-disciplined people. To achieve this, athletes and managers should take disciplined action based on the three circles as set out by the hedgehog concept. The more individuals stay within the responsibilities and values that correspond with their three circles, the more opportunities they will have to grow (Lam 2010). Real Madrid has created an explicit teaching and instruction programme that is centred on the team’s values:

In order to instill the students of its academies with Real Madrid’s values, the foundation has developed a continuous instruction program for its teachers. The program includes meetings to discuss technical and sporting matters, as well as successful teaching techniques. The foundation also sends out didactic materials and teaching guidelines (Real Madrid 2012).

If it has the right people, the team will not need an extensive bureaucracy. A bureaucratic culture develops to compensate for a lack of discipline and competence. A disciplined culture is built on people who stick firmly to a consistent system. Members of the team can then be offered the freedom to act within the system’s framework. Managers have to trust the athletes to always do their best and create great results. Hiring tyrannical disciplinarian coaches will only distort and undermine the desired culture of discipline. Perceptions of coach-autonomy tend to positively predict both within-person changes and between-person differences in basic need satisfaction and wellbeing over time. Perceived autonomy and the presence of a supportive environment are positively correlated with subjective vitality (Adie, Duda, & Ntoumanis 2012). In fact, Collins and his team (2001) do find that “good to great” companies possess level five leaders who build enduring cultures of discipline, in comparison with other companies with level four leaders who use force to discipline their staff (Caulkins 2008).

Also, recall that “good to great” companies generate “stop doing” lists in addition to “to do” lists. In other words, stop doing what does not work to produce desired results or help to achieve the team’s goals. If the management wants the team to go from good to great, they must make a list of all the things the team doesn’t need to do (Collins 2001). Examine actions and assess what is no longer necessary. Make the training as specific as possible in accordance with these findings. Always keep the central idea of the sport in mind, and work with this as a guiding focus.

As discussed in the theory section of this paper, visionary companies must utilize technology as an accelerator rather than as a creator of momentum. In the business of sports there is an abundance of technology for testing athletes and analysing movements, skills, and performance. This can never compensate for disciplined action such as training and hard work, but technology can help to accelerate the process of moving from good to great. Here, we can again point to Alex Ferguson as a great example. One of Ferguson’s secrets was “never being complacent”. If he heard of anything that might add a point or two to United’s total at the end of the season – perhaps news of an innovative training method, some sports-science wisdom, or word of a new technology to measure a player’s performance – then he pursued that lead immediately by sending assistants all over the world to investigate and take action (Crick 2002).

The transformation from good to great feels like a cumulative process for people on the inside, even if it looks revolutionary to observers on the outside. These transformations never happen in one fell swoop. There is no single defining action or grand programme. Instead, sustainable transformations follow a predictable pattern from build-up to breakthrough. It takes a lot of effort to get things moving, but with persistent work it is possible to hit the point of breakthrough. “Good to great” leaders do not expend energy trying to motivate employees or manage change; under the right conditions, these problems of motivation, change, and commitment take care of themselves (Collins 2001).


If a company or team wants to go from good to great and to sustain this achievement, the critical question to keep in mind is: “How can we do better tomorrow than we did today?” Continuous improvement is critical. Before failure occurs, clubs and athletes should install powerful mechanisms to create discomfort in order to obliterate complacency and stimulate both change and improvement. Collins and Porras (1994) summarize this in terms of good news and bad news. The good news is that the key element to becoming a visionary company is simple: “Good old-fashioned hard work, dedication to improvement, and continually building for the future will take you a long way” (Collins & Porras 1994, p. 199). The bad news is that “[Being great] requires huge quantities of good old-fashioned hard work, dedication to improvement, and continually building for the future. There are no shortcuts. There are no magic potions” (Collins & Porras 1994, p. 199). In summary, if you want your team to go from good to great, the only way of doing this is by improvement through hard sustained work.

Copyright © Arne Martin Jakobsen 2013


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