January 20, 2016

Good to Great: Level 5 Leadership

Good to Great: Level 5 Leadership

This is going to be the first in a series of blog posts where I'm going to go over various chapters from Jim Collin's excellent book Good to Great. To kick things off I'm going to go over the chapter titled "Level 5 Leadership" in which Jim Collin's introduces a hierarchy of leadership with Level 5 being the topmost one reserved for the leaders that take a company from good to great.

Leadership Hierarchy

Jim Collin's describes the hierarchy as having 5 different levels that progress from the bottom to the top. Here is a brief overview of all the different levels:

Level 5 Hierarchy

  • Level 1 - This person helps the organization succeed through their skills and knowledge.
  • Level 2 - They then progress to being able to work well in teams and ensures that the team meets the desired objectives.
  • Level 3 - At this point they have transitioned into being a skilful manager whom is able to organize people and resources to achieve the organization goals.
  • Level 4 - They will now be an effective leader who is able to motivate the people towards his vision of the company.
  • Level 5 - Very few people the point where they are able to transform the organization from good to great.

Level 5 vs. Level 4

When you look at the difference between Level 4 and Level 5 leaders you will see that there are only a few important differences between the two. However, the outcomes at the end of the day are quite different.

Level 5 Leaders

A Level 5 leader is determined to make the company succeed. Essentially, they want to make sure that the company is a great success long after they have left the helm and they achieve this by setting up their successors for success. To quote Jim Collin's in his book, he says the following regarding Level 5 leaders:

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.

Level 4 Leaders

In contrast, a Level 4 leader has little interest in the success of the company once they have departed but instead focus on making sure that there is a high level of performance during their reign. Very little focus is placed on the future of the organization as the leader would rather focus on making sure that they are a success during their reign. A side effect of this is that they companies tend to fall apart after the leader has left.

Often this type of leader is more concerned about their greatness and ego than that of the company, which at the end of the day makes them just good and not great. As strange as it may sound, these leaders may sometimes even setup their successors for failure or in some circumstances even choose weak successors to head up the company. In this way, when they leave, the company often falls apart which then boosts their ego.

Characteristics of Level 5 Leaders

Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless

Jim Collin's identified two main characteristics they were common amongst the Level 5 leaders, namely Fierce Will and Humility which makes them both merciless and humble at the same time.

Fierce Will

This is the catalyst which propels the organization from good to great. Once they have decided the path that they want to walk, in order to achieve the end results, they will stop at nothing to ensure that they get the best possible results for the company. In doing this, they tend to inspire people and create a basis from which other standards are built which has the effect of allowing a company to endure through the tough times.


The other characteristic that great leaders have is that they are very modest and never let their ego get in the way. They accomplish great things and always attribute the success to the people in their team, external factors and even luck! As a result, they often setup the organizations for success so when they do leave the organization it continue like it is or even become better. This reminds me of the Boy Scout Rule that Robert C. Martin described in his book Clean Code, which goes as follows:

Leave the camp ground cleaner than you found it

Another thing that you will see with these types of leaders is that they typically never like the spotlight or any form of praise and attention. You may even hear them saying things like "There are a lot of people that could do a much better job that me", which is almost never the case.

My Experience...

In all my 10 years of software development I can only think of a very small number of people whom I would believe to be on their way to becoming Level 5 leaders. In my experience, the IT industry is often filled with lots of Level 4 leaders whom love to boast and quite often want to be the "top dog". Hopefully, this post will change their outlook and allow them to see things in a different way.

Until next time...keep learning!