Why Leaders "Vacuum The Brain"


I was taking a pedestrian stroll through the pages of Jim Collins' book, How The Mighty Fall, when I saw it--that phrase that was so intriguing it stopped me in my tracks: "leaders . . . have an incurable compulsion to vacuum the brains of the people they meet."

This post explains the concept, tells you why it is important for your leadership, and offers a simple way to practice it.

What it means to vacuum the brain

Jim Collins is a student of great companies, a corporate teacher, a consultant to executives in both the business and social sectors, and a perennial best-selling author. His books have sold more than ten million copies. He's a smart guy, but I think he is also a wise guy. In How The Mighty Fall, Collins notes:

Like inquisitive scientists, the best corporate leaders we've researched remain students of their work, relentlessly asking questions--why, why, why?--and have an incurable compulsion to vacuum the brains of people they meet. 

To "vacuum the brain" is to be a learning person. Collins says there is a huge difference between being a knowing person and a learning person. Knowing people develop the hubris that leads to personal and corporate implosion. Learning people harness that inquisitive spirit that takes them to new heights.

Why you should vacuum the brain

God commands diligent study. He wants us to be learning people -- and why not? He designed the incalculable depths of space, the labyrinth of the human mind, the roller coaster of our emotions, the agility of our bodies, and the absolute wonder of our world. We honor Him when we dig deeper, get better, and absolutely refuse to let our gray matter get "love handles."

We should be learning all the time. This is why God says:

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge. Proverbs 23:12 ESV

Driven by a love for God and a love for others, Christian leaders are always learners. "Teach me" is their motto.

Knowing people are the opposite of learning people. Convinced of their own brilliance,  knowing people develop hubris, an arrogant spirit borne of excessive pride and self-confidence. Paul sums it up this way: "Knowledge" puffs up, but love builds up.2

How to vacuum the brain

Those who vacuum the brain are constantly asking questions of the people they meet. Why, why, why? is their refrain.

Rudyard Kipling, the English poet and author of the Jungle Book, was noted for his keen powers of observation. He said,

I keep six honest serving men they taught me all I knew. There names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

Kipling's adage is a great template for leaders who want to vacuum the brains of the people they meet:

  1. What are your best practices?
  2. Why do you think they are working so well?
  3. When did you first try this?
  4. How did you implement the changes?
  5. Where did you encounter problems or roadblocks along the way?
  6. Who were the "shining stars" in this venture? What did they do differently?

None of us is as smart as all of us. When we vacuum the brains of others we tap into collective wisdom and unleash the power of synergy. We honor God and we honor the people we meet. In the process we get better.

Whose brain will you vacuum today?


1  Jim Collins, How The Mighty Fall (New York: Collins Business Books, 2009), page 39. 2  1 Corinthians 8:1