Article review: Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Regard

By Drs. Sheila Boysen, Mike Cherry, and Lesley Page

In 2001, Jim Collins, author of the classic book Good to Great, penned Level 5 Leadership for the Harvard Business Review. The content for this article came from his investigation of those 11 companies that traveled from good to great. His research concluded that each of those organizations had a ‘level 5’ leader at the helm. Collins concluded that, “Good-to-great transformations don’t happen without Level 5 leaders at the helm. They just don’t.”

So, what is a Level 5 leader? Collins suggests that, “Level 5 leaders blend the paradoxical combination of deep personal humility with intense professional will.” What Collins found was that these leaders demonstrated humility through crediting others, external factors, and suggested that good luck were essential to the success of their organizations. Their intense professional will was demonstrated through their resolve to do what it took to produce outstanding results and intolerance of mediocrity.

Given that one can be a Level 5 leader, this brings into question…are there other levels? As you may expect the answer is, ‘yes!’ Collins provided this hierarchy

Level 5: Executive

Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will

Level 4: Effective Leader

Catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards.

Level 3: Competent Manager

Organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.

Level 2: Contributing Team Member

Contributes to the achievement of group objectives; works effectively with others in a group setting.

Level 1: Highly Capable Individual

Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.

Certainly, all of these roles are needed in any effective organization/team and, perhaps, we can use these levels to, positively, assess our own contributions.

Collins provides additional detail on the characteristics and actions of a Level 5 lead when providing a call out titled, The Yin and Yang of Level 5.

Personal Humility Professional Will
Demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful   Acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.   Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even more greatness in the next generation.   Looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck. Creates superb results, a clear catalyst in the transition from good to great.   Demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.   Sets the standard of building an enduring great company; will settle for nothing less.   Looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and good luck.

Unfortunately, Collins is a bit light on how one can develop to become a Level 5 leader. He suggests they may be a nature component which means having the Level 5 ‘seed.’ This is not completely helpful when one considers how to develop. We like to believe that means one has the interest in developing to Level 5 once we learn about it rather than have genetic marker, Level 5!

Collins recommends that Level 5 leaders can be developed through inspiring and practicing the other competencies of Good to Great companies. These include:

First Who: Attend to people first, strategy second.

Stockdale Paradox: Confront the brutal facts of the organizations current state/reality yet maintain faith (something you are good at!) that the organization will prevail.

Buildup-Breakthrough Flywheel: Be consistent in effort to gain momentum, like a flywheel. The first turns are difficult yet there will be a tipping point where momentum kicks in.

The Hedgehog Concept: Look to the center of three connecting circles which are;

What the company can be the best in the world at

How economics work best

What best ignites the passions of its people

Technology Accelerators: Apply carefully selected technologies and avoid jumping on technology bandwagons.

A Culture of Discipline: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.

In conclusion we believe, that Level 5 Leaders can be developed and appreciate the characteristics that Collins provides. We often see these characteristics in you and believe that the culture of the Catholic Cemeteries is conducive to the development of Level 5s!

For a deeper dive:

Collins, J. (2001). Level 5 leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review, 79, 67-76.

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