Level 5 Leadership

I was happy to get a chance to read the famous article on Level 5 Leadership, penned by the much-lauded academics who gave us “Good to Great.” While I have my own fist full of questions about the way their claims were applied (they discovered an anomaly, not natural law), I’m intrigued by the the process that the article lays out.

Though it focused on its definition of a Level 5 Leader, the article also outlined a much broader process of transformation. Collins describes leaders focusing intuitively and tirelessly on the overlap of three things- the core strengths of their company, the core passions of the employees (and other stakeholders?) and the economic needs of broader society. Armed with this bulls eye, the leaders enact both radical changes and slow, daily ones to build momentum within an organization until it whizzes toward the overlap of passion, opportunity and strength. Level 5 leaders are quick to let go of the “wrong” people and attract the “right” ones, though it’s unclear how they understand those two categories so intuitively.

My hunch is that there is a common thread running through these actions, one that’s all about the subtle arts of connecting and integrating. I’ve gotta ask- where do leaders get this deep knowledge of strength, passion and opportunity? It seems unlikely that it comes purely from Venn Diagrams in strategic planning sessions, though I’m sure that those things help. The kind of intuitive, slow-acting, hard-to-articulate awareness that Collins describes comes from a deep connection with the dynamic systems present in a company, its community of employees  and its market environment.

I’ve written before (maybe not in this blog) about how I believe it’s possible for people to form relationships not just with one another, but with any dynamic, semi-consistent and unpredictable system. It’s the kind of relationship that a diehard sportsfan forms with the NFL, an obsessive gardener forms with her backyard or a good rabbi forms with her synagogue. These connections build slowly, and they are nurtured through little actions that add up. Once formed, they constitute a type of awareness that cannot be effectively summed up in pithy statements, a deeper form of connection than simple knowledge.

Ego, as Collins notes, is a strong barrier to these sorts of relationships. Great rabbis are focused on the complex interplays in their communities, not on themselves, and see the prospering of those communities for the dynamic, emerging process that it is. They are system-focused and selfless, and that focus gives them a steady, undaunting ability to push for improvements to the system.

According to Collins’ research, connecting to the system in your business isn’t enough. Level 5 leaders connect to three separate systems, and integrate them seamlessly. Their connection with opportunity comes from their deep connection with the world outside of their businesses, a world which consists largely of factors outside of their control. They connect with this world like sportsfans or soap opera junkies, absorbing news and letting connections sink in until they are second nature. Next comes their connection with their companies’ core strengths, which comes from a deep connection with their companies. In this they are like cooks or gardeners, they have direct authority which they can wield to help the system realize its own emergent strength. The final relationship, and perhaps the most subtle, yields their connection with the organizations passion. This is their relationship with the community of employees at an organization, and with other communities of the organization’s stakeholders. In this relationship they are like a rabbi- they have the authority only to listen, understand and articulate, and must wield those tools to enrich the system as best they can.

The complexity of forming these connections and integrating them might explain why only 11 companies have met with the success that Collin lauds. When looking for leaders in life (and I certainly intend to) it’s important to watch for the humble, driven nature that builds true awareness.


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