Level 5 Leadership: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #7

Jim Collins in his classic work “Good to Great”, and again in this HBR article focuses on the critical element of having a Level 5 leader at the helm of each of the top performing organizations. A Level 5 leader is someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.” There is a distinct sense of Yin and Yang with this.  Having both the “humility” and “iron will” of a Level 5 leader is at the core of their magic, or what Collins refers to as the “seed” within.

In other works, beyond this HBR article, Collins provides additional key ingredients to either attain Level 5 Leadership or to go alongside it for enduring success of businesses, including:

  • First Who: Attend to people first, strategy second (get the right people on the right bus).
  • Stockdale Paradox: Deal with the brutal facts of your current reality–while maintaining absolute faith that you’ll prevail.
  • Build-Up Breakthrough Flywheel: Keep pushing your organizational “flywheel” with consistent effort and momentum until –pop a breakthrough moment occurs.
  • The Hedgehog Concept: Think of your company as three intersecting circles, what it can be best at, how its economics work best, and what ignites its people’s passions. Eliminate everything else.

That said, Level 5 leaders “sit atop a hierarchy of four other, more common, leadership levels (see graphic below). The first four levels of leadership progress from a highly capable individual to an effective leader. The key to the model is that while Level 5 leaders reflect and embody the first four levels, Level 5 leadership is not guaranteed to result from a leader progressing through each level. Collins states that “the great irony is that the animus and personal ambition that often drives people to become a Level 4 leader stands at odds with the humility required to rise to Level 5.

As a result, many organizations often make the mistake of hiring Level 4 leaders expecting that Level 5 will be some natural progression of experience, access, and/or opportunity. But, as Collins has shown repeatedly, achieving Level 5 is based more on individual strengths and personality.  Consequently, and unfortunately, Level 5 leaders often are not the ones that appear at the top of Fortune 500 companies. In fact, Level 5 leaders are often seen as oddballs with eccentric ideas and leadership styles.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Another wonderful model of development is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  We’ve discussed it at length in other articles, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can freshen up on it here.  But, as a quick reminder, we’ve included the graphical representation of the model below. Look familiar?  There’s a reason for that.


The Elusiveness of Level 5 Leadership

What is exciting about Collins’ Level 5 leadership model is that like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there is a nice progression through leadership that at least results in an effective leader (Level 4). Even as you read Collins’ definition of an effective leader, it likens itself to what Maslow called self-actualization. But, just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there is one more level.  One that is not often talked about.  So much so, that you can find many models of Maslow’s hierarchy without it altogether.

In Maslow’s model, it is called Self-Transcendence – caring for others, having a sense of meaning and purpose, and finding intrinsic happiness. Level 5 leadership, just like Self-Transcendence, is that final often elusive level. We know it when we see it, but we don’t often consider it as part of the traditional model for leadership. We are equally as uncertain of the pathway to Self-Transcendence as we are Level 5 leadership.  But, we know people have made it to the top of both of these models, and when they have done so, their impact is immense. And, we also know, there are tools that can increase your likelihood of developing into one of these people.


Using Strengths as Your Bridge to Level 5 Leadership

At a personal level, if you insert strengths along the path to Level 5 leadership, focusing on the intersection of Strengths (what you can be best at?), Passion (what ignites you?), and Ways of Making Money / Impact (What drives your economic engine) you can devise your personal Hedgehog Concept. It is by honing your hedgehog concept through the lens of strengths that can create your breakthrough moment and raise you to a level of sustained excellence. A strengths-based discipline can unlock the unique aspects of your individual strengths that can authentically drive you (and others) to ever higher levels of performance. Prolonged engagement in strengths-based discipline can remove the ego in leadership and elevate you to a higher order of leading well, in a way that begins to resemble the “humility” and “iron will” that Collins speaks of at Level 5.

For example, ego can be more effectively understood and discussed through the lens of strengths (e.g., significance, deliberative, strategic, etc.). Similarly, the journey of elevating through strengths inspires a perpetual cycle of self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-improvement that has profound personal, team, and organizational benefits.  This naturally creates a higher level of awareness, which often includes “humility” and generates tremendous momentum, which often will appear as “iron will” to others. So, strengths can be the perfect bridge for Level 4 leaders looking to elevate to Level 5, simply by mastering their hedgehog concept through the lens of strengths.

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