Column: A Positive Portrayal – Level-5 Leadership

A Positive Portrayal: Level-5 Leadership
Column By Elena Yang

Is it precisely because one does not regard oneself as a leader, or even a potential leader, that one has the real possibility to become a leader?  

If true, this is the paradox of true leadership. I am not going back to discuss leaders or managers, but instead discuss the powers which a manager applies to build and sustain an organization. Besides, I owe you some positive examples, don’t I?

The funny thing is that pinpointing the specific achievements of really effective leaders, the achievements that make a lasting impression (other than awesome near-term performance e.g. stock values or one’s bonus size), just isn’t easy. 

One of the major reasons is that these leaders (and I will call them leaders, for reasons I will elaborate below) themselves are humble and always credit their employees. 

They tend to operate outside the media radar and Wall Street sandbox. For lack of a better label, they are what Jim Collins calls “level 5 leaders.” 

Mr. Collins defines the L-5 leader as someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (p. 20, in “Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t.”) 

The level-5 leaders embody Lao-Tzu’s description, “As for the best leaders, people do not notice their existence … When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”  

I add that this type of leader would totally concur, without any doubt and reservation, with their people’s assertion that they “did it themselves.” 

And that’s why I call these managers/CEOs “leaders.” They use their powers with discretion and for bigger purposes other than their own satisfaction.

In Mr. Collins’ book, he and his research team pressed these L-5 leaders to specify what they had done that had made their respective organizations perform so well, their usual response was, “it’s luck,” or, “I have great people working here,” or variations of the same themes. 

Yes, they might have made some tough decisions that in retrospect made the turning point for their organizations, but by themselves, those decisions were no tougher than other monumental decisions that are recognized and studied. 

In fact, sometimes, their decisions were actually ridiculed by the Wall Street pundits. 

For example, Darwin Smith, CEO of the Kimberly-Clark for about 20 years starting in 1971, made the decision of selling off Kimberly-Clark’s core business foundation, its mills. 

He reasoned that the core business was doomed to mediocrity. However, by selling the mills, the company might be forced to focus on consumer paper product business, against the world-class competitor Proctor & Gamble. 

This focus forced Kimberly-Clark to aim for greatness (or perish.) Some business analysts deemed the move “stupid,” and Wall Street downgraded its stock. 

Twenty-five years later, Kimberly-Clark owned Scott Paper, and its six out of eight products were better rated than P&G’s. 

In retirement, Mr. Smith reflected that “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”  Is it better to have inspired standards or inspired personality

Another example was the CEO of Abbot Laboratories, Mr. George Cain. He saw that nepotism was the root cause of the company’s mediocre-to-low performance, and set out to systematically and methodically replace family members with the best qualified people he could find. 

Firing family members couldn’t possibly have been a pleasant task!  Letting go people with seniority would be counter-intuitive. 

But Mr. Cain’s ambition was for the company, not for himself. And when Abbot eventually gained ground and its stock rose substantially, the family members forgave Mr. Cain.

Another facet of these quiet L-5 leaders is that by putting the company first, they are likely to find successors that have similar priorities

In fact, Mr. Collins and his research team found that charismatic managers/CEOs often subconsciously find successors who are likely to fail, and thereby bolster their own images.

A further interesting point about these quiet leaders is that all but one of the 11 who were identified by Mr. Collins’ research team came up through the ranks within the companies. 

By contrast, whenever the board of directors attempted to bring from outside some flashy personality that would catch the media’s attention, these organizations had a high probability of failure, and failed spectacularly at times. 

The outsider-insider divide for high management positions invites another observation, on the implicit assumption that MBA offers a shortcut up the managerial ladder. 

But when a person tries to substitute an MBA for on-the-ground education and experience, s/he eventually will fall short; there is no shortcut for grasping an organization’s history, core business, and culture. 

Note that the converse isn’t necessarily true; that is: Absence of flashy personality doesn’t always make a potentially brilliant leader. 

But that said, how can level-5 leadership qualities be taught, and learned? Given the amorphous nature of leadership, there aren’t likely any 10-step programs or 12-points to remember to move up to that level. 

One needs to take time to develop keen observational abilities, and to possess deep levels of self-reflection – to name just a few – to understand how to use powers for the betterment of the organizations, never for oneself. 

Related is the issue of the fit between a person and the position to which one aspires. Most people just are not a good fit with high management positions. 

If we don’t collectively deem such lack of fit as “failure,” I think we’d all be better off, for the people as well as for the organizations. 

It is difficult to try to find the balance between accepting one’s limitations and pushing oneself for higher goals. But one can always aspire to higher standards. 

And then, there are those egotistic and narcissistic types who by definition will never become level-5 leaders.  

Oh, by the way, I understand that “narcissistic personality disorder” got deleted from the latest edition of DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder.)

Do these people feel slighted, as their inherent self-importance is now clinically ignored? Should the rest of us feel alarmed that egotism and narcissism are no longer disorders?

Well … it’s been mostly positive.  Welcome, November. Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.






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