If you’re looking for the best description of what it takes to be a fantastic leader, I point you to Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” Sure, there are many other good descriptions of leadership by genuine gurus – Peter Drucker, John Maxwell, Warren Bennis, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner spring to mind. But for my money, Jim Collins’ chapter on Level 5 Leadership is the best.
Collins’ research criteria went past the usual definition of what makes a good leader. We tend to think of leadership as the end goal. For example, can leaders set a compelling vision, and inspire their people to sign up for it? Can they engage their people to deliver discretionary effort and high productivity? These are vital aspects of leadership. But Collins goes one step further, and measures great leadership against the real end result – returns to shareholders. The research study that formed the basis of his book used companies that outperformed the general (US) market by at least 3 times, over a period of 15 years. Only 11 companies made that cut. Leadership was one of 6 key factors that contributed to their outstanding success.
Collins coined the term Level 5 Leadership to describe the results of his team’s analysis. In his model, Level 4 leaders are already effective at stimulating higher levels of performance. But every single one of those 11 companies had something better – every one of them had Level 5 leaders at the time they started the transition from good to great.
So what are the key elements that make up Level 5 Leadership? Surprisingly, there are only two:
- Personal humility – avoidance of the limelight, refusal to take credit for successes but willingly takes accountability for failures, places ambition for the organisation ahead of one’s own
- Professional will – a complete refusal to accept that there is any other option but the achievement of all goals, prepared to do whatever it takes (within the law) to produce the best long-term results, sets very high standards and expects them to be met.
Executives need both of those attributes to be considered a Level 5 Leader. Immediately, I can think of quite a few well known international business leaders, and I’m sure you can too, who have one of these attributes, but not the other. Sure enough, none of the companies they led made the cut in Jim Collins’ analysis.
My own perspective is that the cores of these two attributes, the self-effacing modesty and the win-or-die-trying iron will, are hard to fake. They are attitudes, harder to change than mere behaviours. Time spent working on these will, however, be worth it.
In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for behaviours and skills to work on, to get some quick wins while you are working on those attitudes:
1. Delegate! As you get better at this, it frees up some of your time, helps you change your mindset about all the things you thought only you could do, and overall your business will be more productive. Get comfortable with up to four different levels of delegation, and use the most appropriate one in each case, depending on the complexity of the task and the capability of the person to whom you are delegating.
2. Work on getting someone into your business who could take over from you (if you don’t already have someone). Weak leaders pick weak people so they look stronger – pick someone you think might be a little bit better than you. As well as being a critical part of your eventual exit from the business, having someone operating at that level helps you with your humility, and they will challenge your thinking, which will lead to better decision-making.
3. Practice giving all the credit away when something goes well, and taking all the accountability yourself when something goes badly. Don’t just go through the motions, spend some time figuring out a perspective from which you can genuinely believe it. Your people will spot a fake!
4. Lead by example in the area of not accepting anything less than hitting the quarterly goal. Quietly work out with your team what has to be done to get there, but make it clear that only hitting the goal is acceptable.
I’ll leave the last word to Jim Collins:
“One giant conclusion stands above the others: We believe that almost any organization can substantially improve its stature and performance, perhaps even become great, if it conscientiously applies the framework of ideas we’ve uncovered.” Jim Collins,“Good to Great,” Collins Business, USA, 2001.
Collins J., “Good to Great,” Collins Business, USA, 2001.