Becoming a Top Level Leader: 5 Important Steps

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2010

In 2004 I wrote a couple of articles about Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” in which he related that the top leaders of the companies that made his list of “great” companies "embodied a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will." In light of the fallout from the recession, I think that his observation is even more relevant and important today. He called these leaders – “Level 5 leaders” based on a 1 to 5 scale he outlines in his book. In this briefing I will outline five preliminary steps you can take to become a Level 5 leader.

According to Collins there are five attributes that typify the Level 5 Leader:

  • They are self-confident enough to set up their successors for success.
  • They are humble and modest.
  • They have "unwavering resolve."
  • They display a "workmanlike diligence - more plow horse than show horse."
  • They give credit to others for their success and take full responsibility for poor results. They "attribute much of their success to 'good luck' rather than personal greatness.

Humility as a personality characteristic in our corporate leaders has perennially been in short supply and I firmly believe that with a little more humility, many of the poor decisions leading up to the market crash might have been averted. I recall listening to Kerry Killinger, former CEO of Washington Mutual, speak at a Rotary Club of Seattle meeting where he bragged about how well WAMU was doing. I left that meeting saying to myself, “that guy is too full of himself.” In less than two years WAMU became the largest bank failure in history and vanished along with the jobs of hundreds of employees who had trusted his judgment.

The challenge that most senior executives face in becoming a Level 5 leader is that the key personality attribute that they embody, humility, is counter intuitive for most executives. As we grow up in our careers we have to prove our worth one way or another. Usually that is by producing results and...., judging from what executives tell us..., being sure that we are credited for those results. Most employees move into the managerial and executive ranks because they have demonstrated their smarts and have achieved results that can be clearly link to their efforts.

Furthermore, in many companies employees are often ranked for performance appraisal purposes and receive raises based on their ranking. The incentive is to outperform others and to be sure that your boss knows it. People generally do that for which they are rewarded and humility won't get you far in those types of situations. Turning down the "I" volume is hard in companies where humility is not rewarded. Microsoft, for example used this system until recently after finding out it was counterproductive.

In addition, Boards of Directors are notoriously known for hiring "charismatic" leaders with the mistaken belief that those folks can perform miracles. It all adds up to making it very difficult for executives to turn down the "I" volume as they move up through the ranks.

So, if you are a senior executive and believe that you want to cultivate Level 5 leadership attributes in yourself and your employees, the first thing you have to do is embrace the concept yourself. You need to be sure that you put the brakes on the "I" speech and learn how to say "we" and "they." You have to trust that if your team/company does well that those who count (not the media who love the Donald and Martha) will know that you helped shepherded the success.

Secondly, you have to be sure that you institutionalize teamwork, team credit and employee development by developing compensation systems that reward accordingly. I added employee development because Collins also found that all Level 5 leaders set up their successor for success by developing them and by delegating so that they learned how to be successful.

Thirdly, Level 5 Leaders hire highly competent people ("get the right people on the bus"), help develop and then set direction for their organization and then keep everyone focused "with unwavering resolve," while resisting telling people "how" to do their jobs. If you've been a high performing individual contributor you will need to learn how to trust that others can do things just as well, maybe even better, although perhaps differently than you would have. That's called exercising good self-control.

That leads to the fourth step. Level 5 leaders exercise good "self-control." They know how to manage their emotions so that they have more control over their reactions. For example, they hold back from putting in their two cents worth too soon in problem solving and other tactical endeavors when they interact with their subordinates. Self-control means that your actions and reactions are more strategic.

Lastly, exercising good self-control requires self-awareness. Highly effective executives are not automatons who simply do do do. For example, recently a CEO coaching client of mine said that he just started to realize that when he was anxious he has a tendency to increase the amount of questions he asks his subordinates about their progress towards meeting their goals. He hadn't realized that his "give me all the details" questions were his way of managing (reducing) his anxiety. Once he realized that, we worked out some other more effective ways for him to deal with his anxiety. He learned how to calm himself in a way that didn't burden his direct reports. Net result, he backed off of his employees and they were able to get their jobs done...much better. Plus...they stopped accusing him of "micro-managing."

Self-awareness leads to understanding the real issues or root causes, which enables effective responses, rather than ineffective reactions. In fact, the more self-aware you are and the more adept you become at understanding and managing your emotions, the better able you will be to respond both tactically and strategically.

How? Think ABC (my thanks to the late Albert Ellis, Ph.D.,, and other cognitive psychologists).

A = something that happens, an event.
B = your interpretation of what happened (the why behind what happened).
C = your reactions (emotionally, etc.).
B (not A) determines C.

Our interpretations of what happens to us determine to a great degree our emotional reactions and our subsequent behavior. Becoming more self-aware can help you understand your typical interpretation of events. Once you understand your typical interpretation you can decide if it is a useful (functional) interpretation. Or, as Dr. Phil would say, "Is it working for you?" If, for example, you end up feeling anxious or angry, then you might want to challenge your interpretations and try other, hopefully more rational or functional interpretations.

Research has shown that optimistic peoples' interpretations of events tend to be more positive no matter what the circumstances. Optimistic people interpret the world as being half full. For example, as one CFO client of mine who became a CEO told me, "We have it good here (in the U.S.), what do we have to complain about? I've been all over the world and I wouldn't trade our problems for anyone else's." So for him, when things go sideways (A) he tells himself (B) that "it could be worse," and (C) as a result he remains calm and optimistic, which allows him to think and act more strategically and creatively.

Becoming more self-aware and learning how to challenge your less effective interpretations is hard because...the catch 22...it takes self-awareness. That's why trying to change thinking patterns and behavior is virtually impossible to do on one's own. "Even the sharpest of knives can not scrape its own handle," I once heard a famous Jazz musician say. We need accurate feedback to become aware of our dysfunctional patterns and we need to practice developing and using alternative interpretations. We can only change our thought patterns and behavior through burning new thoughts and experiences into our memory through experience (practice). Good intentions and New Year's resolutions burn nothing.

Developing alternative interpretations is a challenge because it can be provocative. You may feel uncomfortable at first. Level 5 Leaders do not surround themselves with clones who just parrot the party line. It's been my experience that high performing executives are well-rounded, usually quite erudite and are able to mix it up with you. Conversations with them feel more like a fun game of tennis or basketball with an A player. Volleys and passes come at you hard but they like them returned just as hard. So, if you want to develop self-awareness...put yourself into situations where you will be challenged in your thinking. Don't go just where it is comfortable. Become an active learner. Ask for constructive feedback. Challenge yourself.

At the beginning I said I would outline five "preliminary" steps to become a Level 5 leader. Collins stated that he didn't want to "trivialize" the concept by attempting to outline a "10-step list" to become a Level 5 leader. He also has not been trained in helping people become high-performance leaders. I don't want to trivialize it either however...as in most things that we do there are always steps one can take to develop a skill. There really can be no excuse for not working at it if you want to play at the top of your game. Leadership is an art and a skill that can be learned but, it takes commitment and practice and more than five preliminary steps.