How can a good leader become a great leader? What traits do the most impactful leaders have that others are missing? To answer these questions, let’s explore ‘Level 5 Leadership’.

The concept of level 5 leadership was defined in Good To Great by Jim Collins. It was created based on identifying leadership traits during a five-year study of publicly-traded companies. The traits were impactful because all identified good-to-great companies began their transformation under a level 5 leader’s guidance.

Note: If you’re interested in exploring all six related concepts, be sure to check out my summary of Good To Great by Jim Collins or pick up a copy of the original book.

The Five Levels Of Leadership

Level 5 Leadership From Good To Great Pyramid Infographic
Level 5 Leadership Pyramid From Good To Great By Jim Collins

Let’s start by exploring the hierarchy of leadership qualities. While leaders don’t need to move in sequence from level one to five, fully developed leaders embody all five layers of the pyramid. Here is a quick breakdown of each one:

  1. Highly Capable Individual – Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.
  2. Contributing Team Member – Contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others.
  3. Competent Manager – Organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.
  4. Effective Leader – Catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.
  5. Level 5 Executive – Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.

The difference between level 4 and level 5 is in how leaders channel their talents and ambitions. Level 4 leaders often approach their role in an egotistical, self-serving manner. Meanwhile, level 5 leaders operate in a spirit of service, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the goal of building a great company.

Personal Humility & Professional Will

Level 5 Leadership Humility And Will

Level 5 leaders are often described as quiet, humble, modest, mild-mannered, and even shy. Yet, those attributes are only part of the picture because these leaders are also incredibly driven. They blend personal humility and professional will.

Personal humility involves:

  • Acting with quiet, calm determination.
  • Shunning opportunities for public recognition, praise, or accolades.
  • In good times: giving credit to other people, industry trends, or good luck.
  • In tough times: taking personal responsibility when things turn out poorly.

Professional will involves:

  • Being fanatically driven to produce excellent results for the company.
  • Building the organization up for success in the next generation.
  • Doing what must be done to produce the best long-term results.

It’s not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. They are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the company, not themselves. They are eager to build a great company that can achieve sustained success.

“You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.

Harry S. Truman

Level 5 Leaders vs. Comparison Leaders

Level 5 Leaders Vs Comparison Leaders

In Good To Great, level 5 leaders were often contrasted with leaders from ‘comparison companies’ who did not make a good-to-great transition. So, let’s explore some of these comparisons to understand better how level 5 leaders operate.

Dealing With Success And Failure

When things go well, level 5 leaders credit factors outside of themselves. They might point to other contributors, industry trends, or even just luck. However, when things go poorly, they take full responsibility and avoid passing blame.

The comparison leaders did just the opposite. They would take full credit for any success that occurred under their leadership. However, when things didn’t go as planned, they would blame factors outside of themselves.

Setting An Organization Up For Success

Level 5 leaders seek to set their successors up for even better results in the next generation. Their goal is to build sustained excellence beyond their tenure. And they don’t need or expect to receive credit for future successes, even if those successes are a direct result of their leadership. 

The comparison leaders often failed to set their companies up for success in the next generation. They acted as if the best testament to their greatness is to have the company fall apart after they leave.

Where Great Leaders Come From

Ten out of eleven good-to-great CEOs were promoted from inside of the company. Only one was recruited from outside of the organization. In contrast, the comparison companies turned to outsiders six times more often.

Larger-than-life celebrity leaders who ride in from the outside are negatively correlated with taking a company from good to great. They are often more concerned with looking for opportunities to bolster their reputation than with creating a great company.

Can A Good Leader Become A Great Leader?

Jim Collin hypothesizes that there are two categories of people: those who do not have the seed of level 5 leadership and those who do. The first category consists of people who could never in a million years bring themselves to subjugate their egoistic needs. The second category, likely much larger, has the potential to develop level 5 capabilities.

The best way to develop level 5 leadership is to begin applying the other five principles covered in the Good To Great framework. Those are the steps that level 5 leaders would take, so it’s an excellent place for aspiring leaders to begin.

Beyond Level 5 Leadership From Good To Great

The Good To Great model is made up of three stages, including disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. Each stage includes two components and wrapping around the entire model is the flywheel.

Good To Great Book Framework Infographic
The Good To Great Framework

You can learn more by reading my book summary of Good To Great or my articles on The Hedgehog Concept and The Flywheel Concept.

Are you looking for another great book? Consider checking out the best leadership books, the best management books, or the best business books.

You can also subscribe to The Rick Kettner YouTube Channel or The Rick Kettner Podcast to get updates about future articles, summaries, and reading lists.

Do You Have A Question Or Comment?

Please visit the Level 5 Leadership video on YouTube to share your thoughts in the comment section.

Rick Kettner

Rick is an avid reader and lifelong entrepreneur. He co-founded popular online music education platforms including Drumeo, Pianote, and Guitareo. He now spends much of his time sharing tips on business strategy, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

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