Jim Collins, famed for his book Good to Great, has a new book out called How the Mighty Fall. When I read it a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice that it echoes some of the principles in I John. In I John 2:15-17, the apostle John says:
“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world … For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away.”
Bear in mind, the whole point of the Bible is to help people thrive long-term, even into eternity. That is Collins’ basic point as well—except he’s talking about companies. Collins wants companies in the business world to thrive long-term, and his way of helping them is to show them in detail what makes a good company fall.
Collins simply asks: How can you know when you are on a path to decline?
When worded this way, the question can be applied to individuals just as much as to companies and organizations.
Collins describes five stages of decline:
Stage 1: Hubris born of success—which translates in I John as “the boastful pride of life.” The problem here pertains to giving glory to oneself instead of God. It’s an issue of assigning credit to one’s self for things that aren’t inherently one’s own. For instance, no one can make their own heart beat. Every heartbeat is a gift from God. In the business world, the company in decline tacitly forgets that ongoing success depends on humble self-awareness, good old fashioned hard work, and close attention paid to the principles of integrity and truth.
Stage 2: An undisciplined pursuit of more—which the apostle John calls “lust.” Grasping for more is a recipe for ending with nothing. When companies try to grow their way out of problems instead of addressing those problems directly, they are on their way to decline. Likewise, if all a person can do is seek for more—more pleasure, more money, more trophies, more press, more customers, more projects, more prestigious opportunities—that person is falling fast into oblivion.
Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril—another iteration of “the boastful pride of life.” When warnings voiced from others are considered to be “self-righteous,” when urgent cries for changes in the leader’s character are seen as moralistic and judgmental, when calls for repentance seem irksome, you know the organization (the church, the family, the person) is sliding down into a pit. Thematic in Scripture is a truth that Collins’ research verifies: (the leader, the person) the company who thrives long-term will heed the siren sounds of warning and keep the prophets on the property well fed. Whether in personal life or business life, it is downright self-destructive to rationalize bad decisions or deny that they are even being made.
Stage 4: Grasping for salvation—which means (if I can say it rather bluntly) groping for a savior that can offer a painless plan out of the mess. In the Old Testament this kind of salvation is promoted by false prophets who tickle the king’s ears by declaring that more glitz, more glamour, more glory is precisely what the kingdom needs. In the language of I John, grasping for salvation means rebelling against God by being worldly instead of other-worldly. I John says, “Do not love the world or the things in it”—precisely because “the world is passing away.” To stay in Stage 4 is to wind up in Stage 5.
Stage 5: Capitulation to irrelevance or death—that is, giving up the mission altogether. Examples of capitulation are numerous: getting a divorce instead of working on the marriage, quitting the church instead of calling sin “sin” and forgiving the church people, firing the good consultant because you don’t want to face the hard news, conforming to the trends instead of standing up for time-tested truths. In short, capitulation means letting go of life and clinging to death—to the “world” that “is passing away.”
Of special note, Collins’ research shows that a company—or a person—can pull out of the downward spiral, even if you are deep into Stage 4. Once you reach Stage 5, the game is over.
So we’re back to I John 1:9-10—“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us from our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and the truth is not in us.”