After reading the article, prepare an article review, which must include 3 or more main points from the article, 2 questions you have after reading the article, and 1 conclusion. 
CEO Report—Based on Collins’ Level 5 Leadership, illustrate what level does your chosen company’s CEO belongs to. 2 to 3 pages.Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of
Humility and Fierce Resolve
by Jim Collins
Reprint r0101d
Copyright © 2001 by Jim Collins. All rights reserved.
Level 5
The Triumph of Humility
and Fierce Resolve
by Jim Collins
What catapults a company from merely
good to truly great? A five-year research
project searched for the answer to that
question, and its discoveries ought to
change the way we think about leadership.
The most powerfully transformative
executives possess a paradoxical mixture
of personal humility and professional will.
They are timid and ferocious. Shy and
fearless. They are rare – and unstoppable.
january 2001
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
n 1971, a seemingly ordinary man named Darwin E.
Smith was named chief executive of Kimberly-Clark,
a stodgy old paper company whose stock had fallen
36% behind the general market during the previous 20
years. Smith, the company’s mild-mannered in-house
lawyer, wasn’t so sure the board had made the right
choice – a feeling that was reinforced when a KimberlyClark director pulled him aside and reminded him that he
lacked some of the qualifications for the position. But
CEO he was, and CEO he remained for 20 years.
What a 20 years it was. In that period, Smith created
a stunning transformation at Kimberly-Clark, turning it
into the leading consumer paper products company in
the world. Under his stewardship, the company beat its
rivals Scott Paper and Procter & Gamble. And in doing so,
Kimberly-Clark generated cumulative stock returns that
were 4.1 times greater than those of the general market,
outperforming venerable companies such as HewlettPackard, 3M, Coca-Cola, and General Electric.
the only requirement for transforming a good company
into a great one – other factors include getting the right
people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and
creating a culture of discipline – our research shows it to
be essential. Good-to-great transformations don’t happen
without Level 5 leaders at the helm. They just don’t.
Not What You Would Expect
Our discovery of Level 5 leadership is counterintuitive. Indeed, it is countercultural. People generally assume that
transforming companies from good to great requires
larger-than-life leaders – big personalities like Iacocca,
Dunlap, Welch, and Gault, who make headlines and become celebrities.
Compared with those CEOs, Darwin Smith seems to
have come from Mars. Shy, unpretentious, even awkward,
Smith shunned attention. When a journalist asked him to
describe his management style, Smith just stared back at
the scribe from the other side of his thick
black-rimmed glasses. He was dressed
unfashionably, like a farm boy wearing
his first J.C. Penney suit. Finally, after a
long and uncomfortable silence, he said,
“Eccentric.” Needless to say, the Wall
Street Journal did not publish a splashy
feature on Darwin Smith.
But if you were to consider Smith soft or meek, you
would be terribly mistaken. His lack of pretense was coupled with a fierce, even stoic, resolve toward life. Smith
grew up on an Indiana farm and put himself through
night school at Indiana University by working the day
shift at International Harvester. One day, he lost a finger
on the job. The story goes that he went to class that
evening and returned to work the very next day. Eventually, this poor but determined Indiana farm boy earned
admission to Harvard Law School.
He showed the same iron will when he was at the helm
of Kimberly-Clark. Indeed, two months after Smith became CEO, doctors diagnosed him with nose and throat
cancer and told him he had less than a year to live. He
duly informed the board of his illness but said he had no
plans to die anytime soon. Smith held to his demanding
work schedule while commuting weekly from Wisconsin
to Houston for radiation therapy. He lived 25 more years,
20 of them as CEO.
Smith’s ferocious resolve was crucial to the rebuilding
of Kimberly-Clark, especially when he made the most dramatic decision in the company’s history: sell the mills.
To explain: shortly after he took over, Smith and his
team had concluded that the company’s traditional core
business – coated paper – was doomed to mediocrity. Its
economics were bad and the competition weak. But, they
reasoned, if Kimberly-Clark was thrust into the fire of the
consumer paper products business, better economics and
Good-to-great transformations
don’t happen without Level 5 leaders
at the helm. They just don’t.
Smith’s turnaround of Kimberly-Clark is one the best
examples in the twentieth century of a leader taking a
company from merely good to truly great. And yet few
people – even ardent students of business history – have
heard of Darwin Smith. He probably would have liked it
that way. Smith is a classic example of a Level 5 leader–an
individual who blends extreme personal humility with
intense professional will. According to our five-year research study, executives who possess this paradoxical combination of traits are catalysts for the statistically rare
event of transforming a good company into a great one.
(The research is described in the sidebar “One Question,
Five Years, Eleven Companies.”)
“Level 5” refers to the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities that we identified during our research. Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy
can produce high degrees of success but not enough to elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence.
(For more details about this concept, see the exhibit “The
Level 5 Hierarchy.”) And while Level 5 leadership is not
Jim Collins operates a management research laboratory in
Boulder, Colorado. He is a coauthor with Jerry I. Porras of
Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
(HarperBusiness, 1994). The ideas in this article will appear
in his new book Good to Great, which will be published by
HarperBusiness in 2001. Collins can be reached at jcc512@
harvard business review
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
One Question, Five Years, Eleven Companies
ratio of cumulative stock returns to general market
The Level 5 discovery derives
from a research project that
began in 1996, when my research
teams and I set out to answer
one question: can a good company become a great company
and, if so, how? Most great companies grew up with superb parents – people like George Merck,
David Packard, and Walt Disney –
who instilled greatness early on.
But what about the vast majority
of companies that wake up partway through life and realize that
they’re good but not great?
To answer that question, we
1.00=Market Baseline
looked for companies that had
Shows average ratio, each company set to 1.00 at transition date.
shifted from good performance
to great performance – and susyears from transition
tained it. We identified comparison companies that had failed to
make that sustained shift. We then studquantitative front, we ran financial metby 2.8:1 during his tenure from 1986 to
ied the contrast between the two groups
rics, examined executive compensation,
2000. A dollar invested in a mutual fund
to discover common variables that distincompared patterns of management
of the good-to-great companies in 1965
guish those who make and sustain a shift
turnover, quantified company layoffs and
grew to $470 by 2000 – compared to $56
in the general stock market. These are refrom those who could have but didn’t.
restructurings, and calculated the effect
markable numbers, made all the more so
More precisely, we searched for a speof acquisitions and divestitures on comby the fact that they came from previously panies’ stocks. We then synthesized the
cific pattern: cumulative stock returns at
unremarkable companies.
or below the general stock market for 15
results to identify the drivers of good-toFor each good-to-great example, we
years, punctuated by a transition point,
great transformations. One was Level 5
selected the best direct comparison,
then cumulative returns at least three
leadership. (The others are described in
based on similarity of business, size, age,
times the market over the next 15 years.
the sidebar “Not by Level 5 Alone.”)
customers, and performance leading up
(See the exhibit above.) We used data
Since only 11 companies qualified as
from the University of Chicago Center for to the transition. We also constructed a
good-to-great, a research finding had to
set of six “unsustained” comparisons (com- meet a stiff standard before we would
Research in Security Prices, adjusted for
panies that showed a short-lived shift but
stock splits, and all dividends reinvested.
deem it significant. Every component in
then fell off) to address the question of
The shift had to be distinct from the inthe final framework showed up in all 11
sustainability. To be conservative, we condustry; if the whole industry showed the
good-to-great companies during the transistently picked comparison companies
same shift, we’d drop the company. We
sition era, regardless of industry (from
that, if anything, were in better shape
began with 1,435 companies that apsteel to banking), transition decade (from
than the good-to-great companies were in the 1950s to the 1990s), circumstances
peared on the Fortune 500 from 1965 to
1995; we found 11 good-to-great examples. the years just before the transition.
(from plodding along to dire crisis), or
With 22 research associates working in
That’s not a sample; that’s the total numsize (from tens of millions to tens of
groups of four to six at a time from 1996
ber that jumped all our hurdles and
billions). Additionally, every component
to 2000, our study involved a wide range
passed into the study.
had to show up in less than 30% of the
of both qualitative and quantitative analy- comparison companies during the releThose that made the cut averaged cuvant years. Level 5 easily made it into the
ses. On the qualitative front, we collected
mulative stock returns 6.9 times the genframework as one of the strongest, most
eral stock market for the 15 years after the nearly 6,000 articles, conducted 87 interconsistent contrasts between the good-topoint of transition. To put that in perspec- views with key executives, analyzed comgreat and the comparison companies.
panies’ internal strategy documents, and
tive, General Electric under Jack Welch
culled through analysts’ reports. On the
outperformed the general stock market
january 2001
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
world-class competition like Procter & Gamble would
force it to achieve greatness or perish.
And so, like the general who burned the boats upon
landing on enemy soil, leaving his troops to succeed or
die, Smith announced that Kimberly-Clark would sell its
mills–even the namesake mill in Kimberly, Wisconsin. All
proceeds would be thrown into the consumer business,
with investments in brands like Huggies diapers and
Kleenex tissues. The business media called the move stupid, and Wall Street analysts downgraded the stock. But
Smith never wavered. Twenty-five years later, KimberlyClark owned Scott Paper and beat Procter & Gamble in
six of eight product categories. In retirement, Smith reflected on his exceptional performance, saying simply, “I
never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”
Not What We Expected Either
We’ll look in depth at Level 5 leadership, but first let’s set
an important context for our findings: we were not looking for Level 5 or anything like it. Our original question
was can a good company become a great one, and, if so,
how? In fact, I gave the research teams explicit instructions to downplay the role of top executives in their analyses of this question so we wouldn’t slip into the simplistic
“credit the leader” or “blame the leader” thinking that is
so common today.
But Level 5 found us. Over the course of the study, research teams kept saying,“We can’t ignore the top executives even if we want to. There is something consistently
unusual about them.” I would push back, arguing, “The
comparison companies also had leaders. So what’s different here?” Back and forth the debate raged. Finally, as
should always be the case, the data won. The executives at
companies that went from good to great and sustained
that performance for 15 years or more were all cut from
the same cloth – one remarkably different from that
which produced executives at the comparison companies
in our study. It didn’t matter whether the company was in
crisis or steady state, consumer or industrial, offering services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition
took place or how big the company. The successful organizations all had a Level 5 leader at the time of transition.
Furthermore, the absence of Level 5 leadership showed
up consistently across the comparison companies. The
point: Level 5 is an empirical finding, not an ideological
one. And that’s important to note, given how much the
Level 5 finding contradicts not only conventional wisdom
but much of management theory to date. (For more
about our findings on good-to-great transformations, see
the sidebar “Not by Level 5 Alone.”)
Humility + Will = Level 5
Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful,
shy and fearless. To grasp this concept, consider Abraham
Lincoln, who never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring great nation. Author Henry
Adams called him “a quiet, peaceful, shy figure.”But those
who thought Lincoln’s understated manner signaled
weakness in the man found themselves terribly mistaken – to the scale of 250,000 Confederate and 360,000
Union lives, including Lincoln’s own.
It might be a stretch to compare the 11 Level 5 CEOs
in our research to Lincoln, but they did display the same
kind of duality. Take Colman M. Mockler, CEO of Gillette
The Level 5 Hierarchy
The Level 5 leader sits on top of a
hierarchy of capabilities and is, according to our research, a necessary
requirement for transforming an
organization from good to great.
But what lies beneath? Four other
layers, each one appropriate in its
own right but none with the power
of Level 5. Individuals do not need
to proceed sequentially through
each level of the hierarchy to reach
the top, but to be a full-fledged
Level 5 requires the capabilities of
all the lower levels, plus the special
characteristics of Level 5.
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 high performance standards.
Level 3 Competent Manager
Organizes people and resources toward 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 contributions through talent, knowledge,
skills, and good work habits.
harvard business review
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
from 1975 to 1991. Mockler, who
faced down three takeover attempts,
was a reserved, gracious man with
a gentle, almost patrician manner.
Despite epic battles with raiders–he
took on Ronald Perelman twice and
the former Coniston Partners once –
he never lost his shy, courteous style.
At the height of the crisis, he maintained a calm business-as-usual demeanor, dispensing first with ongoing business before turning to the
And yet, those who mistook Mockler’s outward modesty as a sign of
inner weakness were beaten in the
end. In one proxy battle, Mockler
and other senior executives called
thousands of investors, one by one,
to win their votes. Mockler simply
would not give in. He chose to fight
for the future greatness of Gillette
even though he could have pocketed
millions by flipping his stock.
Consider the consequences had
Mockler capitulated. If a share-flipper had accepted the full 44% price
premium offered by Perelman and
then invested those shares in the
general market for ten years, he still
would have come out 64% behind a
shareholder who stayed with Mockler and Gillette. If Mockler had given
up the fight, it’s likely that none of us
would be shaving with Sensor, Lady
Sensor, or the Mach III – and hundreds of millions of people would
have a more painful battle with daily
Sadly, Mockler never had the
chance to enjoy the full fruits of his
efforts. In January 1991, Gillette received an advance copy of Forbes.
The cover featured an artist’s rendition of the publicity-shy Mockler
standing on a mountaintop, holding
a giant razor above his head in a triumphant pose. Walking back to his
office, just minutes after seeing this
public acknowledgment of his 16
years of struggle, Mockler crumpled
to the floor and died from a massive
heart attack.
Even if Mockler had known he
would die in office, he could not
january 2001
Not by Level 5 Alone
Level 5 leadership is an essential factor for taking a company from good to great,
but it’s not the only one. Our research uncovered multiple factors that deliver companies to greatness. And it is the combined package – Level 5 plus these other
drivers – that takes companies beyond unremarkable. There is a symbiotic relationship between Level 5 and the rest of our findings: Level 5 enables implementation of
the other findings, and practicing the other findings may help you get to Level 5.
We’ve already talked about who Level 5 leaders are; the rest of our findings describe
what they do. Here is a brief look at some of the other key findings.
First Who: We expected that good-to-great leaders would start with the
vision and strategy. Instead, they attended 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.
Stockdale Paradox: This finding is named after Admiral James Stockdale, winner of the Medal of Honor, who survived seven years in a Vietcong POW
camp by hanging on to two contradictory beliefs: his life couldn’t be worse at the
moment, and his life would someday be better than ever. Like Stockdale, people at
the good-to-great companies in our research confronted the most brutal facts of
their current reality – yet simultaneously maintained absolute faith that they would
prevail in the end. And they held both disciplines – faith and facts – at the same time,
all the time.
Buildup-Breakthrough Flywheel: Good-to-great transformations do not happen overnight or in one big leap. Rather, the process resembles
relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel in one direction. At first, pushing it gets
the flywheel to turn once. With consistent effort, it goes two turns, then five, then
ten, building increasing momentum until – bang! – the wheel hits the breakthrough
point, and the momentum really kicks in. Our comparison companies never sustained the kind of breakthrough momentum that the good-to-great companies did;
instead, they lurched back and forth with radical change programs, reactionary
moves, and restructurings.
The Hedgehog Concept: In a famous essay, philosopher and scholar
Isaiah Berlin described two approaches to thought and life using a simple parable:
The fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing
very well. The fox is complex; the hedgehog simple. And the hedgehog wins. Our research shows that breakthroughs require a simple, hedgehog-like understanding of
three intersecting circles: what a company can be the best in the world at, how its economics work best, and what best ignites the passions of its people. Breakthroughs
happen when you get the hedgehog concept and become systematic and consistent
with it, eliminating virtually anything that does not fit in the three circles.
Technology Accelerators: The good-to-great companies had a paradoxical relationship with technology. On the one hand, they assiduously avoided
jumping on new technology bandwagons. On the other, they were pioneers in the
application of carefully selected technologies, making bold, farsighted investments
in those that directly linked to their hedgehog concept. Like turbochargers, these
technology accelerators create an explosion in flywheel momentum.
A Culture of Discipline: When you look across the good-to-great transformations, they consistently display 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.
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
have changed his approach. His placid persona hid an
inner intensity, a dedication to making anything he
touched the best – not just because of what he would get
but because he couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
Mockler could not give up the company to those who
would destroy it, any more than Lincoln would risk losing
the chance to build an enduring great nation.
A Compelling Modesty
The Mockler story illustrates the modesty typical of Level
5 leaders. (For a summary of Level 5 traits, see the exhibit
“The Yin and Yang of Level 5.”) Indeed, throughout our
interviews with such executives, we were struck by the
way they talked about themselves – or rather, didn’t talk
about themselves. They’d go on and on about the company and the contributions of other executives, but they
would instinctively deflect discussion about their own
role. When pressed to talk about themselves, they’d say
things like,“I hope I’m not sounding like a big shot,” or “I
don’t think I can take much credit for what happened. We
demise or continued mediocrity of the company. We
found this pattern particularly strong in the unsustained
comparison companies – the companies that would show
a shift in performance under a talented yet egocentric
Level 4 leader, only to decline in later years.
Lee Iacocca, for example, saved Chrysler from the brink
of catastrophe, performing one of the most celebrated
(and deservedly so) turnarounds in U.S. business history.
The automaker’s stock rose 2.9 times higher than the general market about halfway through his tenure. But then
Iacocca diverted his attention to transforming himself. He
appeared regularly on talk shows like the Today Show and
Larry King Live, starred in more than 80 commercials, entertained the idea of running for president of the United
States, and promoted his autobiography, which sold 7 million copies worldwide. Iacocca’s personal stock soared,
but Chrysler’s stock fell 31% below the market in the second half of his tenure.
And once Iacocca had accumulated all the fame and
perks, he found it difficult to leave center stage. He postponed his retirement so many times that Chrysler’s insiders began to joke that Iacocca stood for “I Am
Chairman of Chrysler Corporation Always.”When
he finally retired, he demanded that the board
continue to provide a private jet and stock options. Later, he joined forces with noted takeover
artist Kirk Kerkorian to launch a hostile bid for
Chrysler. (It failed.) Iacocca did make one final
brilliant decision: he picked a modest yet determined man–perhaps even a Level 5–as his successor. Bob
Eaton rescued Chrysler from its second near-death crisis
in a decade and set the foundation for a more enduring
corporate transition.
It’s hard to imagine a Level 5
leader thinking, “Hey, that Rambo
character reminds me of me.”
were blessed with marvelous people.” One Level 5 leader
even asserted, “There are lot of people in this company
who could do my job better than I do.”
By contrast, consider the courtship of personal celebrity by the comparison CEOs. Scott Paper, the comparison
company to Kimberly-Clark, hired Al Dunlap as CEO – a
man who would tell anyone who would listen (and many
who would have preferred not to) about his accomplishments. After 19 months atop Scott Paper, Dunlap said in
BusinessWeek: “The Scott story will go down in the annals
of American business history as one of the most successful, quickest turnarounds ever. It makes other turnarounds pale by comparison.” He personally accrued
$100 million for 603 days of work at Scott Paper – about
$165,000 per day–largely by slashing the workforce, halving the R&D budget, and putting the company on growth
steroids in preparation for sale. After selling off the company and pocketing his quick millions, Dunlap wrote an
autobiography in which he boastfully dubbed himself
“Rambo in pinstripes.” It’s hard to imagine Darwin Smith
thinking,“Hey, that Rambo character reminds me of me,”
let alone stating it publicly.
Granted, the Scott Paper story is one of the more dramatic in our study, but it’s not an isolated case. In more
than two-thirds of the comparison companies, we noted
the presence of a gargantuan ego that contributed to the
An Unwavering Resolve
Besides extreme humility, Level 5 leaders also display
tremendous professional will. When George Cain became
CEO of Abbott Laboratories, it was a drowsy familycontrolled business, sitting at the bottom quartile of the
pharmaceutical industry, living off its cash cow, erythromycin. Cain was a typical Level 5 leader in his lack of
pretense; he didn’t have the kind of inspiring personality
that would galvanize the company. But he had something
much more powerful: inspired standards. He could not
stand mediocrity in any form and was utterly intolerant of
anyone who would accept the idea that good is good
enough. For the next 14 years, he relentlessly imposed his
will for greatness on Abbott Labs.
Among Cain’s first tasks was to destroy one of the root
causes of Abbott’s middling performance: nepotism. By
systematically rebuilding both the board and the executive team with the best people he could find, Cain made
his statement. Family ties no longer mattered. If you
couldn’t become the best executive in the industry, within
harvard business review
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
your span of responsibility, you would lose your
Such near-ruthless rebuilding might be expected from an outsider brought in to turn the
company around, but Cain was an 18-year insider – and a part of the family, the son of a preDemonstrates a compelling modesty, shun- Creates superb results, a
vious president. Holiday gatherings were probaning public adulation; never boastful.
clear catalyst in the transibly tense for a few years in the Cain clan –“Sorry
tion from good to great.
Acts with quiet, calm determination;
I had to fire you. Want another slice of turkey?”–
relies principally on inspired standards, Demonstrates an unwavering
but in the end, family members were pleased
not inspiring charisma, to motivate. resolve to do whatever must
with the performance of their stock. Cain had set
be done to produce the best
in motion a profitable growth machine. From its
Channels ambition into the comlong-term results, no matter how
transition in 1974 to 2000, Abbott created sharepany, not the self; sets up succesdifficult.
sors for even more greatness in
holder returns that beat the market 4.5:1, outthe next generation.
Sets the standard of building an
performing industry superstars Merck and Pfizer
enduring great company; will settle
by a factor of two.
Looks in the mirror, not out
for nothing less.
Another good example of iron-willed Level 5
the window, to apportion
leadership comes from Charles R. “Cork” Walresponsibility for poor
Looks out the window, not in the mirror,
green III, who transformed dowdy Walgreens
results, never blaming
to apportion credit for the success of the
into a company that outperformed the stock
other people, external
company – to other people, external factors,
market 16:1 from its transition in 1975 to 2000.
factors, or bad luck.
and good luck.
After years of dialogue and debate within his executive team about what to do with Walgreens’
food-service operations, this CEO sensed the
team had finally reached a watershed: the company’s
some food-service outlets were even named after the
brightest future lay in convenient drugstores, not in food
CEO–for example, a restaurant chain named Corky’s. But
service. Dan Jorndt, who succeeded Walgreen in 1988, deno matter, if Walgreen had to fly in the face of family trascribes what happened next:
dition in order to refocus on the one arena in which Walgreens could be the best in the world – convenient drugCork said at one of our planning committee meetstores – and terminate everything else that would not
ings, “Okay, now I am going to draw the line in the
produce great results, then Cork would do it. Quietly,
sand. We are going to be out of the restaurant busidoggedly, simply.
ness completely in five years.” At the time we had
One final, yet compelling, note on our findings about
more than 500 restaurants. You could have heard a
Level 5: because Level 5 leaders have ambition not for
pin drop. He said,“I want to let everybody know the
themselves but for their companies, they routinely select
clock is ticking.”Six months later we were at our next
superb successors. Level 5 leaders want to see their complanning committee meeting and someone menpanies become even more successful in the next generationed just in passing that we had only five years
tion, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t
to be out of the restaurant business. Cork was not a
even know that the roots of that success trace back to
real vociferous fellow. He sort of tapped on the table
them. As one Level 5 CEO said, “I want to look from my
and said,“Listen, you now have four and a half years.
porch, see the company as one of the great companies in
I said you had five years six months ago. Now you’ve
the world someday, and be able to say, ‘I used to work
got four and a half years.” Well, that next day things
there.’ ” By contrast, Level 4 leaders often fail to set up the
really clicked into gear for winding down our restaucompany for enduring success – after all, what better tesrant business. Cork never wavered. He never doubted.
tament to your own personal greatness than that the
He never second-guessed.
place falls apart after you leave?
In more than three-quarters of the comparison comLike Darwin Smith selling the mills at Kimberly-Clark,
panies, we found executives who set up their successors
Cork Walgreen required stoic resolve to make his decifor failure, chose weak successors, or both. Consider the
sions. Food service was not the largest part of the busicase of Rubbermaid, which grew from obscurity to beness, although it did add substantial profits to the bottom
come one of Fortune’s most admired companies – and
line. The real problem was more emotional than finanthen, just as quickly, disintegrated into such sorry shape
cial. Walgreens had, after all, invented the malted milk
that it had to be acquired by Newell.
shake, and food service had been a long-standing family
The architect of this remarkable story was a charistradition dating back to Cork’s grandfather. Not only that,
matic and brilliant leader named Stanley C. Gault, whose
The Yin and Yang of Level 5
january 2001
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
name became synonymous in the late 1980s with the
company’s success. Across the 312 articles collected by our
research team about Rubbermaid, Gault comes through
as a hard-driving, egocentric executive. In one article, he
responds to the accusation of being a tyrant with the
statement, “Yes, but I’m a sincere tyrant.” In another,
drawn directly from his own comments on leading
change, the word “I” appears 44 times, while the word
There are two categories of
people: those who don’t have
the Level 5 seed within them
and those who do.
“we” appears 16 times. Of course, Gault had every reason
to be proud of his executive success: Rubbermaid generated 40 consecutive quarters of earnings growth under
his leadership – an impressive performance, to be sure,
and one that deserves respect.
But Gault did not leave behind a company that would
be great without him. His chosen successor lasted a year
on the job and the next in line faced a management team
so shallow that he had to temporarily shoulder four jobs
while scrambling to identify a new number-two executive. Gault’s successors struggled not only with a management void but also with strategic voids that would
eventually bring the company to its knees.
Of course, you might say – as one Fortune article
did – that the fact that Rubbermaid fell apart after Gault
left proves his greatness as a leader. Gault was a tremendous Level 4 leader, perhaps one of the best in the last 50
years. But he was not at Level 5, and that is one crucial
reason why Rubbermaid went from good to great for a
brief, shining moment and then just as quickly went from
great to irrelevant.
The Window and the Mirror
As part of our research, we interviewed Alan L. Wurtzel,
the Level 5 leader responsible for turning Circuit City
from a ramshackle company on the edge of bankruptcy
into one of America’s most successful electronics retailers.
In the 15 years after its transition date in 1982, Circuit City
outperformed the market 18.5:1.
We asked Wurtzel to list the top five factors in his company’s transformation, ranked by importance. His number one factor? Luck. “We were in a great industry, with
the wind at our backs.” But wait a minute, we retorted,
Silo – your comparison company – was in the same industry, with the same wind, and bigger sails. The conversation
went back and forth, with Wurtzel refusing to take much
credit for the transition, preferring to attribute it largely
to just being in the right place at the right time. Later,
when we asked him to discuss the factors that would sustain a good-to-great transformation, he said, “The first
thing that comes to mind is luck. I was lucky to find the
right successor.”
Luck. What an odd factor to talk about. Yet the Level 5
leaders we identified invoked it frequently. We asked an
executive at steel company Nucor why it had such a
remarkable track record of making good decisions.
His response? “I guess we were just lucky.” Joseph F.
Cullman III, the Level 5 CEO of Philip Morris, flat out
refused to take credit for his company’s success, citing his good fortune to have great colleagues, successors, and predecessors. Even the book he wrote
about his career – which he penned at the urging of
his colleagues and which he never intended to distribute widely outside the company – had the unusual title I’m a Lucky Guy.
At first, we were puzzled by the Level 5 leaders’ emphasis on good luck. After all, there is no evidence that the
companies that had progressed from good to great were
blessed with more good luck (or more bad luck, for that
matter) than the comparison companies. But then we
began to notice an interesting pattern in the executives at
the comparison companies: they often blamed their situations on bad luck, bemoaning the difficulties of the environment they faced.
Compare Bethlehem Steel and Nucor, for example.
Both steel companies operated with products that are
hard to differentiate, and both faced a competitive challenge from cheap imported steel. Both companies paid
significantly higher wages than most of their foreign competitors. And yet executives at the two companies held
completely different views of the same environment.
Bethlehem Steel’s CEO summed up the company’s
problems in 1983 by blaming the imports: “Our first, second, and third problems are imports.” Meanwhile, Ken
Iverson and his crew at Nucor saw the imports as a blessing: “Aren’t we lucky; steel is heavy, and they have to ship
it all the way across the ocean, giving us a huge advantage.”Indeed, Iverson saw the first, second, and third problems facing the U.S. steel industry not in imports but in
management. He even went so far as to speak out publicly
against government protection against imports, telling a
gathering of stunned steel executives in 1977 that the real
problems facing the industry lay in the fact that management had failed to keep pace with technology.
The emphasis on luck turns out to be part of a broader
pattern that we came to call the window and the mirror.
Level 5 leaders, inherently humble, look out the window
to apportion credit–even undue credit–to factors outside
themselves. If they can’t find a specific person or event to
give credit to, they credit good luck. At the same time,
they look in the mirror to assign responsibility, never citharvard business review
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
ing bad luck or external factors when things go poorly.
Conversely, the comparison executives frequently looked
out the window for factors to blame but preened in the
mirror to credit themselves when things went well.
The funny thing about the window-and-mirror concept
is that it does not reflect reality. According to our research,
the Level 5 leaders were responsible for their companies’
transformations. But they would never admit that. We
can’t climb inside their heads and assess whether they
deeply believed what they saw in the window and the mirror. But it doesn’t really matter, because they acted as if
they believed it, and they acted with such consistency that
it produced exceptional results.
Born or Bred?
Not long ago, I shared the Level 5 finding with a gathering of senior executives. A woman who had recently become chief executive of her company raised her hand.
“I believe what you’ve told us
about Level 5 leadership,” she
said,“but I’m disturbed because
I know I’m not there yet, and
maybe I never will be. Part of the
reason I got this job is because
of my strong ego. Are you telling
me that I can’t make my company great if I’m not Level 5?”
“Let me return to the data,” I
responded. “Of 1,435 companies
that appeared on the Fortune
500 since 1965, only 11 made it
into our study. In those 11, all of
them had Level 5 leaders in key
positions, including the CEO
role, at the pivotal time of transition. Now, to reiterate, we’re
not saying that Level 5 is the
only element required for the
move from good to great, but it
appears to be essential.”
She sat there, quiet for a moment, and you could guess what
many people in the room were
thinking. Finally, she raised her
hand again. “Can you learn to
become Level 5?” I still do not
Level 5 leaders look out the window
to assign credit – even undue credit.
They look in the mirror to assign
blame, never citing external
january 2001
know the answer to that question. Our research, frankly,
did not delve into how Level 5 leaders come to be, nor did
we attempt to explain or codify the nature of their emotional lives. We speculated on the unique psychology of
Level 5 leaders. Were they “guilty” of displacement – shifting their own raw ambition onto something other than
themselves? Were they sublimating their egos for dark
and complex reasons rooted in childhood trauma? Who
knows? And perhaps more important, do the psychological roots of Level 5 leadership matter any more than do
the roots of charisma or intelligence? The question remains: Can Level 5 be developed?
My preliminary hypothesis is that there are two categories of people: those who don’t have the Level 5 seed
within them and those who do. The first category consists
of people who could never in a million years bring themselves to subjugate their own needs to the greater ambition of something larger and more lasting than themselves. For those people, work will always be first and
foremost about what they get –
the fame, fortune, power, adulation, and so on. Work will never
be about what they build, create,
and contribute. The great irony
is that the animus and personal
ambition that often drives people to become a Level 4 leader
stands at odds with the humility
required to rise to Level 5.
When you combine that irony
with the fact that boards of directors frequently operate under
the false belief that a larger-thanlife, egocentric leader is required
to make a company great, you
can quickly see why Level 5 leaders rarely appear at the top of
our institutions. We keep putting
people in positions of power
who lack the seed to become a
Level 5 leader, and that is one
major reason why there are so
few companies that make a sustained and verifiable shift from
good to great.
The second category consists
of people who could evolve to
Level 5; the capability resides
within them, perhaps buried or
ignored or simply nascent.
Under the right circumstances–with selfreflection, a
Lev e l 5 Le a d e r s h i p
mentor, loving parents, a significant life experience, or
other factors – the seed can begin to develop. Some of the
Level 5 leaders in our study had significant life experiences that might have sparked development of the seed.
Darwin Smith fully blossomed as a Level 5 after his neardeath experience with cancer. Joe Cullman was profoundly affected by his World War II experiences, particularly the last-minute change of orders that took him off
a doomed ship on which he surely would have died; he
considered the next 60-odd years a great gift. A strong religious belief or conversion might also nurture the seed.
Colman Mockler, for example, converted to evangelical
Christianity while getting his MBA at Harvard, and later,
according to the book Cutting Edge, he became a prime
mover in a group of Boston business executives that met
frequently over breakfast to discuss the carryover of religious values to corporate life.
We would love to be able to give you a list of steps for
getting to Level 5 – other than contracting cancer, going
through a religious conversion, or getting different parents – but we have no solid research data that would support a credible list. Our research exposed Level 5 as a key
component inside the black box of what it takes to shift
a company from good to great. Yet inside that black box
is another – the inner development of a person to Level 5
leadership. We could speculate on what that inner box
might hold, but it would mostly be just that, speculation.
In short, Level 5 is a very satisfying idea, a truthful idea,
a powerful idea, and, to make the move from good to
great, very likely an essential idea. But to provide “ten
steps to Level 5 leadership” would trivialize the concept.
My best advice, based on the research, is to practice the
other good-to-great disciplines that we discovered. Since
we found a tight symbiotic relationship between each of
the other findings and Level 5, we suspect that conscientiously trying to lead using the other disciplines can help
you move in the right direction. There is no guarantee
that doing so will turn executives into full-fledged Level 5
leaders, but it gives them a tangible place to begin, especially if they have the seed within.
We cannot say for sure what percentage of people have
the seed within, nor how many of those can nurture it
enough to become Level 5. Even those of us on the research team who identified Level 5 do not know whether
we will succeed in evolving to its heights. And yet all of us
who worked on the finding have been inspired by the
idea of trying to move toward Level 5. Darwin Smith, Colman Mockler, Alan Wurtzel, and all the other Level 5
leaders we learned about have become role models for us.
Whether or not we make it to Level 5, it is worth trying.
For like all basic truths about what is best in human beings, when we catch a glimpse of that truth, we know that
our own lives and all that we touch will be the better for
making the effort to get there.
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