One of the more enlightening ways of looking at leadership comes from the best-selling author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, first published in 2001 (HarperBusiness; ISBN 0066620996).
The author, Jim Collins, used a virtual army of people over five years to do the research necessary to try to identify features of corporations that were good but then moved up to greatness. Many business books are based only on personal experience and anecdote. Collins had a sound research foundation followed by a detailed analysis, which is what made the book popular and valuable.
Collins' studies led him to develop a hierarchy of leadership, with a Level 5 leader being the epitome of one who leads an organization from good to great in its performance. As is true for all levels of leadership, the Level 5 leader usually embodies the positive qualities of those at lower levels, but has rare and specific qualities that warrant a Level 5 rank in Collins' formula.
Let's start at the bottom. To be clear, this ranking could apply to leaders of large corporations, a manager of a small division in an academic center, or a leader of a portion of a small business.
- A Level 1 leader is the highly capable individual who makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.
- A Level 2 leader is a team member who uses his/her capabilities to make productive contributions to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.
- A Level 3 leader is a competent manager who organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.
- A Level 4 leader is an effective leader who catalyzes commitment to and the vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.
- A Level 5 leader builds enduring greatness in the organization through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will, in addition to the qualities and actions found in Levels 1–4.
We don't often think of humility as an important quality of a hard-driving CEO. In my long career I cannot remember hearing a discussion of the humility of a candidate for a chair of a department or a deanship. Collins explains why this quality is so important: “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company [or department, division, or cancer center].
“It is not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
My own simple explanation of this quality is that a very good (or great) leader must be willing to till the soil, plant the seeds, and chop down the weeds, even if it is likely to be someone else in the future who will harvest the crop and probably take credit for some or all of his work. Not many of us can do that. Such an unselfish act requires an unusual degree of self-confidence and a laser-like focus on the outcome for the whole organization, the “big picture.”
Collins further explains this characteristic: “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (one of the few Level 5 presidents in U.S. history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring nation. Yet those who mistook Mr. Lincoln's personal modesty, shy nature, and awkward manner as a sign of weakness found themselves terribly mistaken.”
Alan Murray says it this way: “Leaders must be arrogant enough to believe they are worth following, but humble enough to know that others may have a better sense of the direction they should take. They must be confident enough to inspire confidence in others, yet always open to the questions and doubts that will inevitably come their way. They must believe in themselves, but be willing to put the organization's needs above their own.”
Once again, let me be clear. Humility is a wonderful virtue (one of the least valued and observed in our society), but without the other qualities of leadership noted above, it alone will not be enough for success. One with humility but no skills or talent won't get very far.
There is one final value that I will end with; it is one that seems to me particularly important in the not-for-profit world that I know so well. A great leader knows that the time will come, maybe more than once, when she will be asked to compromise basic principles. When that happens, she may hold fast and choose to lose favor from a hierarchal superior, an influential philanthropist, or a member of her own team.
Alternatively, the decision to hold fast may risk her job or she may just quit if a key, bedrock principle or her personal integrity cannot be sustained in that environment.
If the position with its stature or pay means so much that she will not put her job on the line for such a core value, she is no longer free and has stepped on a slippery slope. Great leaders hold core values dear, no matter what the cost.
Leadership is not easy, but the satisfaction one receives from leading a group to success and helping bring along other potential leaders is worth every bit of the considerable effort.
Part 3 of a Series
This is Part 3 of a series on leadership. Parts 1 and 2 appeared in the Sept. 10 and 25, 2012 issues.