Level 5 Leadership

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

level 5 leadersIn his classic business book Good to Great Jim Collins introduces what he refers to as Level 5 Leaders, our topic in this article.


To start with, Level 5 Leaders are humble.

In other words, those that Collins and his team of researcher’s labeled Level 5 Leaders rarely, if ever, took credit for their company’s outstanding performance.

Many of them would, in fact, pass their company’s success off as luck or being in the right place at the right time.

The analogy of a window and mirror was also used to describe Level 5 Leaders. Specifically, these leaders tend to always look out their window at their associates when explaining their company’s success while always looking in the mirror when dealing with or explaining how problems arose.

Collins contrasts this with companies that were not being lead by Level 5 Leaders. These companies are often lead by tyrants who tend to blame others (look out window) for their failures while always being the first to accept credit (look in mirror) for any success.

And the blame these tyrants pass off knows no boundaries… employees get blamed, the economy gets blamed, low cost competition gets blamed, etc. Just about everyone and everything gets blame with one exception – the way they personally lead the organization.

The Will to Succeed

The next characteristic Level 5 Leaders display is an unquenchable will to succeed.

These leaders will do just about anything needed to move their company forward… including, for example, the firing of family members and anyone else they feel is not capable of this level of leadership.

I couldn’t help myself from struggling a bit throughout this section since, it seems, there is a very fine line between what Collins is talking about while still maintaining a focus of respect for people.

Of course, while many people speak about how companies like Toyota practice respect for people… what they often leave out is that Toyota leaders can be ruthless as they shun and ignore underperforming associates… which often leads to the underperformer resigning in shame.

Of course, with this said, sometimes people are not in the right jobs and a change is needed for the good of the company and the associate. The key, it seems, is how these difficult decisions are handled.

Additionally, Level 5 Leaders also hold firm to difficult business decisions and are not swayed when others begin to panic and/or attempt to continue status quo.

For example, Walgreen’s former CEO made the decision to move out of the restaurant business while continuing to develop what he felt was their true core competency – their drug stores.

This was an extremely hard decision – and one he faced a lot of opposition to – yet he never wavered. And as a result of this move, coupled with other sound decisions, Walgreens went on to enjoy phenomenal success which they continue to enjoy today.

What do you think?

So, it seems the two primary characteristics of the Level 5 Leader are straight forward – be humble while holding fast to the path you feel is best for the organization no matter how difficult it may be.

I’d like to turn it over to you, are in 100% agreement with this leadership style? Do you think Level 5 Leadership is essential for a company to succeed?

  1. Erin Lewis

    October 8, 2009 - 7:03 pm

    It’s been awhile since I read the book but do believe Level 5 leadership is essential for long term success. Charisma and sweat can get short term results but for a company to really change they need this type of leadership in my opinion.

  2. Narayan

    October 9, 2009 - 11:02 pm

    I am not sure. Many management concepts are nicely worded. Is there hard data to show humility is a significant factor? In my opinion, bullies will snuff out people with a high level of humility. I am not sure being honest in claiming responsibility for bad decisions, and attributing success to others is to be called humility.

    Will to succeed is certainly an ingredient to succeeding.

  3. Ganeshan

    October 10, 2009 - 7:18 am

    Humility is a wonderful concept and has become unfortunately a rarity in today’s managers. Holding fast to the path you feel is best for the organization no matter how difficult it may be can easily lead to arrogance and intolerance of other approaches. Along with humility, I feel that a firm conviction in a certain set of values is essential to ensure that a manager stays on course. Objective analysis of metrics of performance without being swayed by the personal loyalties and other social networking issues is the key to leading an organization to success. A key dimension that differentiates a level-5 leader would be his/her ability to accept & evaluate divergent approaches even if it originates from candidates owing allegiance to your critics / opposition–I would define this as HUMILITY.

  4. Rafa

    October 10, 2009 - 9:52 am

    To Narayan, I believe humility might be confused with allowing someone to repeatedly humiliate you, the latter an attitude in which bullying flourishes.
    I believe you can be humble and still be firm enough to stand by your convictions (and goals). I think that is the trademark of a beneficial leader.
    Tyranny might earn you fear and perhaps temporary obedience, but respect and true concern will produce loyalty and real change. I think respect and concern are bound to humility, there are no “humble tyrants” I can think of.

  5. Marc Hersch

    October 11, 2009 - 9:02 am

    Complete nonsense! Such claptrap is worse then useless, it is harmful.

    The literature that purports to explain leadership in terms of individual personality traits and styles mystifies and conflates causes and effects in a manner that spins systems of enterprise at all levels, into chaos. The identification of personality/style correlates of “good” or “effective” leaders fails all tests of validity, reliability, and critical thought. By any measure, effective leaders come in all flavors and colors. Some effective leaders are people followers love. Others are people followers love to hate.

    A useful study of leadership must focus on the system of leading and following, which are the two sides of the same coin. There is theory (usually implicit) and a methodology to leadership. What is the aim of the leaders/follower system? How does that system support the aims of any system of enterprise — business, war, family, and community?

    At its most fundamental level the leader-follower system involves moving forward in terms of shared aims, amid uncertainty and risk, in a manner that manages risk through the collaborative use of both theory and method.

    It’s time to put the self-help book nonsense into the trash can where it belongs and start thinking about methods for making a better world.

  6. Ron Pereira

    October 11, 2009 - 9:15 am

    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    @ Marc – While I appreciate them, I am not sure I agree with your opinions.

    I am assuming, based on your comments, you haven’t read the book. Collins and his team did years of research and have a plethora of data to back up their remarks. So, it would seem, in order to counter their statements you should also come with some data and facts, rather than opinions, proving why they are wrong.

    The Level 5 Leader is actually the first characteristic of what makes a strong and lasting company tick, according to the book. There are many more.

    Also, this is not your typical self-help book as you call it. It’s actually one of the best business books ever written, in my opinion.

    In any event, thanks for reading LSS Academy and please be sure to offer your thoughts on future posts.

  7. Marc Hersch

    October 11, 2009 - 10:23 am

    Actually, I have my copy of the book in my lap as I write this. It is filled with references attesting to its well researched findings. Still, it is in my humble opinion, nonsense.

    The level 5 hierarchy consists of concepts that cannot be operationalized. The so called evidence is fundamentally anecdotal. The “Good to Great” benchmarks are based on equivocal criteria (e.g. stock prices, pg. 2).

    In other words, the methodology used is fundamentally and deeply flawed and the explanatory power of the theory of style and personality, is useless.

    The reductive/psychological explanation of organizational performance as a function of “great” leaders, is very, very popular. Tom Peters has enshrined this silliness. As a nation we love star performers in sports, entertainment, politics and business. Although many people are uncomfortable with my rejection of theories of leadership based in characterizations of individual style and personality, my considerable research and personal experience as a ship’s captain, indicate that leadership is a necessary component of any enterprise, and that followers do more to create and shape leaders than leaders do to create and shape followers. The first questions must be, Why does leadership always emerge in all human enterprise? What does it do and how does it work?

    My aim is not to undermine people’s opinions about good and great leaders (and these are opinions), but to open the door to some new, and hopefully more useful ways of thinking about the process of leading…. And following.

  8. Marc Hersch

    October 11, 2009 - 2:01 pm


    I just want to add that I personally believe that humility is a desirable trait, especially on the part of those invested with the power that typically accompanies leadership. We also might expect those acting the role of leader would to be willful, but the greatness in that depends on what succeeding means to that person.

    But when taken in the context of a given time and place, in which the challenges at hand are the paramount considerations, humility and willfulness can be ineffective traits as well. As someone commented, when faced with an ignorant bully, humility might only reinforce the bully’s tactics. As for willfulness, there are times when one’s will must take a back seat to circumstance. In these times, those with a talent for bending with breeze may also rise to greatness as leaders.

    “Leaders come in many forms, with many styles and diverse qualities. There are quiet leaders and leaders one can hear in the next county. Some find strength in eloquence, some in judgment, some in courage.

    John W. Gardner

  9. Rafa

    October 11, 2009 - 2:03 pm

    I’ll repost, it seems something went wrong.

  10. Rafa

    October 11, 2009 - 2:17 pm

    I think most of us here have had certain experience either leading or being led. That is why diverging opinions get interesting.

    After reading Marc’s last post, I can understand he is not detaching personality from leaders, but his point goes on to say that there are leaders of different personalities. I couldn’t agree more. But I go on to say that humility is not a matter of personality, but of will. A humble man should by no means be a weak man.

    There are two companies I know of. Both of them make business internationally and quote at the stock market.
    One of them had leaders who made used employees to attain economical goals and meet deadlines, often overworking those people to exhaustion. People didn’t feel valued and at the first opportunity “jumped wagon”.
    Stress levels where high and family members of employees knew they better forget about their relatives during peak periods.

    The other had an owner who was known to go to the production floor, roll up his sleeves and work with the engineers to solve problems and make adjstments. He was also strict and expected only the best from everyone. Something I think is related, great care was put into providing not only for employees but their families. People brought their family members to work at this company, and remained loyal for many generations.

    If both met deadlines and made the bottom line financially,
    Which company you think was more succesful?
    Aside from business and market complexities, which do you believe had more chances of surviving in the long run? (from the limited information I give)
    Do you think leadership style, terms such as humility might or not be associated?
    Interesting topic, regards.

  11. Marc Hersch

    October 11, 2009 - 2:27 pm


    My comments regarding leadership as a process do not conflict with the fact that leaders of many different personal qualities emerge. My point is that leadership as a function is essential to any enterprise and that by understanding the process of leadership, the ability and skill to lead can and should be invested in as many people as possible. This is a basic tenant of military training (at its best). When a leader falls, another steps into his place, and with training in the theory and methods of leadership, can do the job well. As a sea captain, this is also of an essential practice.

    To take this a step further, followers who learn about theory and methods for leading become effective followers, because they understand the system and why it works. This too, is a tenant of both the military and seafaring.

    Once we focus our attention on the personality traits of leaders, we lock ourselves into a terrible position of weakness because we invest our efforts in searching for the right qualities in leaders rather than creating leaders who are effective.

    In my experience, organizations with skilled leaders and skilled followers are much more powerful and agile than those wedded to a personality. In all my efforts as an business entrepreneur, mountain climber, and seafarer, I invest in my crews an understanding of the nature of leadership and the skill and ability to both lead and follow. Rest assured, there is not an automaton among them.

    Once, when I was crossing the Atlantic ocean under sail, I became incapacitated. Fortunately, my first mate was a skilled leader and I was knew how to be a skilled follower.

  12. Rafa

    October 11, 2009 - 4:12 pm

    Thank you for the clarification Marc.
    I think the question we are getting to is: can humility be developed, or is it a personality trait? If it is related to personality then I couldn’t agree more with you. But, I believe it can and should be developed in order to be more fit for our positions as leaders.
    By the way, I don’t want to oversimplify you comments, but I think your stepping down guring your incapacity serves to exemplify the concept of humility perfectly. It didn’t show you had a weak character and I bet your crew didn’t stop respecting you, it just showed you knew what it took to get the job done and made the decision even if it implied placing yourself under authority. I know -and probably been guilty of at times- of many leaders who would cling to a position of authoritiy even if they weren’t the best man for the job.
    Have a great weeekend everyone.

  13. Ron Pereira

    October 11, 2009 - 9:15 pm

    Hi Rafa and Marc – Thank you both for your excellent comments. They have been extremely interesting to read and I, for one, feel better for having read them. Please don’t my ‘thanks’ stop the discussion though… I am sure you both have more on your minds!

    And if anyone else has thoughts on whether humility and the will to succeed are important characteristics of leaders please jump in with your thoughts.

  14. Marc Hersch

    October 11, 2009 - 10:52 pm

    My stepping aside (not down) wasn’t humility, it was method. In the midst of a storm, I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that if I can’t do the job, someone had better do it! Leaders who fail to understand the nature of their role in the system — who think that they. by virtue of their personal prowess, reside in a superior social and organizational space, will always fail their followers and their enterprise as a whole.

    In other words, if one who acts it the role of leader sees his job from the standpoint of theory and method, rather than as status granted on the basis of his or her personal attributes (humility, forcefulness, willfulness, intelligence, persuasiveness, etc. etc.) the requirements of the process of leading become self-evident.

    Therein lies the crux of the problem that results from our failure to understand leadership as theory and method. For the majority of human history, leadership has fallen to the most senior members of the tribe. All things being equal, there is simply no substitute for the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience and the selflessness that comes toward the end of life, when one discovers that greed and jealousy serve no purpose in the larger scheme of things.

    Things have long since ceased to be as simple as the survival and continuity of the tribe but we make a mistake when we lose site of the basic social function and sacred responsibility of those who are chosen to lead.

    The leader who actually leads rather than simply exercises power, represents the highest level of altruism. On his or her shoulders rest the very lives of all who follow. (And this is no less true today.) We have all heard of how Japanese leaders would accept responsibility and step down for failures that occurred on their watch. The old adage, that the captain is the last to leave a sinking ship, or goes down with it, is no confabulation.

    In our society, we confuse leadership with power, status, and willfulness. We see the role of leadership as a path to well earned fame, influence, and riches. But to act in the role of leader on the basis of such self-interested motives is to be incapable of leading. Put in those terms, would you trust your life by following such a person?)

    To lead is an onerous and selfless task that, when undertaken with an appreciation of the responsibilities of leadership, can provide an individual with the greatest sense of accomplishment imaginable. But For the most part, in our society, the people we call leaders are nothing of the sort. This is especially true among our business “leaders” who are the first to loot their enterprise’s stores, abandon their sinking ships, and take the lifeboats with them.

    What is most astonishing to me is that these “successful leaders” are already re-employed and doing it again. And we study these guys who feed on greed while feigning humility, willfulness, and wisdom, so that we can discover the secrets of their success. Nonsense! Leadership is not about who you are, it is about what you do to best serve those who follow you.

  15. Marc Hersch

    October 12, 2009 - 10:59 am

    In this blog post, Ron Pereira has opened the door to a discussion of a fascinating and important topic. I happened across his post by way of John Hunter’s helpful “Curious Cat Management Improvement Carnival”. With Rafa’s help, the discussion moved forward, toward what I hope readers will see as some “out of the box” thinking about the nature of leadership.

    I wrote my last, somewhat passionate, comment on leadership late last night, and as often happens when I get rolling, became my own critic. The question I posed to myself was as follows:

    If my theory-based description of the role of leader makes any sense, is it reasonable and practical to suggest that the CEO of a company strive to adopt the principles set forth in the model — serve the best interests of followers in a selfless and altruistic manner?

    I have discussed questions like this in various posts on my own blog but Ron’s blog entry has inspired me to return to the subject in earnest. This is surely one of the best reasons for blogging and reading blogs. Rather than wait for others to join the conversation by adding more comments to this entry, I am going to cross-link with Ron’s post to pursue ideas on the subject of leadership as theory and method in greater depth on my blog at http://www.3sigma.com.

    My profound thanks to Ron, Rafa, and John Hunter for sparking a useful conversation.

    Marc Hersch

  16. Marc Hersch

    October 15, 2009 - 10:50 am

    Rafa, you wrote:

    “I think the question we are getting to is: can humility be developed, or is it a personality trait? ”

    I have been thinking a great deal about the concept of “humility” and doing a bit of research along the way. Regrettably, Your posts have no email link. I would like to explore your question at greater length if you are willing. You can contact me at [email protected].

  17. Rick Foreman

    October 15, 2009 - 2:01 pm

    The greatest “servant” leader of all was Jesus. Was His humility developed or was it a part of His DNA. Whether in business of any kind, I have found nothing that compares to the examples of successful leadership beyond Him. He maintained the highest degree of authority, power and knowledge, with great expectations and all the while engaging and influencing others into “humble” position of servant leadership. It all begins with a choice. I believe some have been developed from early childhood into a situation where leadership has become more natural to them. Yet, anyone can choose to change. Because I have a gym membership does not make me an athlete. The choice and discipline to workout on a consistant basis develops me into more of an athlete than I am today.

  18. Anil

    October 15, 2009 - 5:42 pm

    I had read about Level 5 leadership during my MBA – perhaps it was the Kimberley Clark case study. I feel that such style of Leadership is very useful in today’s business because self-pity & frustration are very pervasive in the workplace during this downturn. Org lifecyle and maturity of the business determine the context within which style is effective – Level 5 does have a place at several levels.

  19. Jose-Luis

    October 16, 2009 - 12:04 pm

    I am not going to discuss this, I only want to state that “true grit” and humility are two important pillars of leadership. Certainly, you will not find them together very often, but you can not denay that good leadership is a scarce active of our organizations… And, yes, Jesus is the perfect model… but nobody listens any more.

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