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The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve

Surprising Lessons from the Truly Greatest Corporate Leaders

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"Good to great transformations don’t happen without Level-5 leaders at the helm. They just don’t." -- Jim Collins

This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health.

In 1996 a dedicated band of 22 researchers led by Jim Collins, director of a management research lab in Boulder, Colorado, set out to discover what transforms good companies into truly great companies. Their criteria for greatness were tough: The researchers sought companies that had underperformed the stock market for at least 15 years, then went through a transition, and subsequently outperformed the stock market by at least three times for the next 15 years. In others words, companies you wish you had put your kids’ college funds into.

Starting with 1,435 companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 list from 1965 to 1995, the researchers eventually identified only 11 that made the cut — 11 companies with cumulative stock returns averaging a whopping 6.9 times the general stock market for 15 years.

What these great companies turned out to have in common was a particular kind of leader during the transition period, but it wasn’t a headline-grabber like Chrysler’s Lee Iococca or GE’s Jack Welch. On the contrary, the leaders of the long-term success stories were people like Kimberly-Clark’s Darwin Smith. Called Level-5 leaders, each of these top executives turned out to be what Jim Collins describes as “a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless.” They are people who “look in the mirror” to apportion blame for poor performance, and “look out the window” to credit success. In other words, they are the leaders you probably never heard of.

As Collins wrote in The Harvard Business Review, the Level- 5 leaders were “remarkably different” from executives at the comparison companies. They have “ambition not for themselves but for their companies.” As one Level-5 CEO said, “I want to look from my porch, see the company as one of the great companies in the world someday, and be able to say ‘I used to work there.’” Not surprisingly, Level-5 leaders “routinely select superb successors.”

By contrast, Level-4 leaders are often charismatics whose greatness is “proved” when the company falls apart after they leave. Collins also found that in more than two-thirds of the comparison companies, “the presence of a gargantuan ego contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.”

Collins concludes, “Good to great transformations don’t happen without Level-5 leaders at the helm. They just don’t.”

The Level 5 Pyramid. . .

A Level-5 leader is an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will. Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy can produce high degrees of these two qualities but not enough to elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence.

Leaders do not need to work sequentially through each level of the pyramid to reach the top, but to be a full-fledged Level-5 requires the capabilities of all the lower levels, plus the humility and fierce resolve of Level 5.

Level 5: Executive Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.

Level 4: Effective Leader Catalyzes commitment to, and vigorous pursuit of, a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to achieve high performance standards.

Level 3: Competent Manager Organizes people and resources to-ward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.

Level 2: Contributing Team Member Contributes to the achievement of group objectives; works effectively with others in a group setting.

Level 1: Highly Capable Individual Makes productive contribution through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.

. . . And What Level-5 Leaders Do

Level-5 leaders attend to people first, strategy second. “They got the right people on the bus, moved the wrong people off, ushered the right people to the right seats — and then they figured out where to drive it."

They confront the most brutal facts of their current reality yet simultaneously maintain absolute faith that they will prevail. And they hold both disciplines — faith and facts — at the same time, all the time.

They seek the profoundly simple path: What the company can do the best in the world, how its economics work best, and what ignites the passions of its people.

They achieve three forms of discipline: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. When you have disciplined people, you don't need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don't need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don't need excessive controls. When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance.

Adapted from Good to Great by Jim Collins (Harperbusiness, 2001).


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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