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19. Level 5 Leaders - By Jim Collins

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Who are the Level 5 Leaders ?

We have always associated leadership with a very visible and popular role which gives you recognition and a larger than life status as a leader however the level 5 leadership proposes quite opposing characteristics of a successful leader. Jim Collins and his research team were exploring the factors that made good companies great way back in the 1960s. It was then that they stumbled upon the Level 5 leaders who were invariably at the helm of affairs of all the companies which went on to become great in their respective fields.

Who exactly is a Level 5 leader? Collins describes Level 5 leader as Humility + Will = Level 5. They are the nurturing leaders who do not want credit but want success to sustain over a longer period of time, long after they are gone.

Level 5 leaders are modest, shy and fearless and possess the capability to transform an organization from good to great without portraying themselves as wizards with magic wands.

They prefer talking about the company and the contribution of other people but rarely about their role or achievements. Let us have a look at the hierarchical level of leadership identified:

The Level 5 leadership clearly reestablishes the facts about a simply living and high thinking with an emphasis on personal humility taught by the older generations. The financial breakthroughs achieved by level 5 leaders prove that these characteristics can achieve tangible results as well. The most important example in this context can be cited of great world leaders like M.K. Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, who always put their vision ahead of their egos. They came across as shy and defenseless people in their mannerism and speech but were hardly so when it came to actions.

The other example from the business leaders who fitted perfectly into this category was Darwin E Smith who was the CEO of the paper company Kimberly-Clark and turned it around to become the biggest consumer paper product company. He was a unique mix of personal humility and will; combined with risk taking ability which made him a role model for the business leaders of today.

There are certain actions performed by Level 5 leaders which separate them from the rest of the leaders and senior executives.

  • The first step if their ability to identify and include right people with them towards achieving goals. Unlike the traditional method of building strategies and then looking for the right people to carry them out, they take a different route. It’s about getting the right people on board and then deciding on the destination.

  • They also do not shy away from facing and accepting brutal truths and realities of data, numbers and situations but at the same time they do not lose hope of a better future.

  • They also strive towards aligning consistent efforts towards a goal, rather than giving one massive push they believe in small but firm pushes to bring in the momentum.

  • They also exercise their judgment to understand an aspect, in depth and thoroughly, rather than burdening themselves with myriad information.

  • They practice and encourage a disciplined approach towards their work life and as visionaries use carefully identified technologies to give their businesses strategic advantage.

With the new concept of Level 5 leadership we come back to an age old question, can Level 5 leadership be learnt, if yes then how. According to Collins it is farfetched to suitably see whether it can be learnt or not but he surely identifies two categories of people, one who have the Level 5 Leadership in them, dormant, latent or unexpressed and others who do not have it.

So leaders who cannot look beyond their personal role, fame, achievements etc can hardly become Level 5 leaders. Only when they can put the larger good ahead of them, they transcend to the next level. This transition is not general but can be brought by some tragic accident, near death experiences or a life changing incident, as came across by Collins in his research. It would be appropriate to mention the name of M.K. Gandhi to understand it better.

For Gandhi who had lived a comfortable life with a law degree from England had no experience of being oppressed by the ruling class until he was thrown out of a train despite carrying a first class ticket. His transition began from there, which later made him actively participate in the Indian Freedom Struggle.

Level 5 leadership is difficult to find and leaders who display it are a cut above the rest.

The 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time - Level 5 Leaders by Jim Collins :

No. 10: David Packard , HP - Rejected the CEO club

No. 9: Katharine Graham , Washington Post.-Wasn't afraid of fear

No. 8: William McKnight , 3M- Disciplined creativity.

No. 7: David Maxwell , Fannie Mae -Turned a turnaround into art

No. 6: James Burke , Johnson & Johnson - Acted before crisis hit.

No. 5: Darwin Smith , Kimberly-Clark - Asked questions and moved rocks.

No. 4: George Merck , The Merck & Co - Put profit second.

No. 3: Sam Walton , Walmart -Overcame his charisma.

No . 2 : Bill Allen , Boeing - Thought bigger.

No. 1: Charles Coffin , GE - Built the stage on which they all played

From Good to Great: What Defines a Level 5 Leader? - Jim Collins


These Level 5 Leaders have a unique combination of fierce resolve and humility to build an Normal Organisation into a Institution.

They ensure that, they behave in a humble way , whenever team has success, credit goes to them for their hard work.

Conversely, as a leader, they take responsibility for their team's efforts, even when things go wrong.

They are perfect blend of Extreme Professionalism and Deep Emotional Humility and determined to build Formidable Teams and Institutions.

MM Rao


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