Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Jim Collins on Level 5 Leadership

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Jim Collins on Level 5 Leadership
January 2008

Jim Collins
Founder of Management Laboratory in Boulder,

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  • Have you seen Level 5 leaders become more prevalent since you published Good to Great?
    The Level 5 finding has begun to seep into business school courses, driven by faculty who believe in the research base of our findings. I have also seen increased confidence in those people who tend toward a more Level 5 style INTERVIEW 4 of leadership more humble, yet determined and driven. Instead of feeling that they need to try to become one of the flamboyant leaders celebrated in the media, our research gives them confidence that they might be on the right track after all. One of

    the key contributions of our research is to give those who have the right natural instincts the confidence to trust those instincts.

  • Can people learn to become Level 5?
    There are three categories of people: those who could never become a Level 5 leader, those who naturally become a Level 5 leader from an early age, and those who mature into Level 5 leadership. Of these three categories, I suspect the largest group is the third those who mature into Level 5 over the course of a career although we would need rigorous research to validate this hypothesis. Clearly, though, we can see cases of people who moved through all five stages in their careers.

  • Can you give an example of a leader who matured into Level 5?
    I believe that Lou Gerstner at IBM moved from Level 1 to Level 5 through his career, becoming Level 5 at IBM. The key to Level 5 is one central question: are you ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the company, the work not yourself and do you have the will to make good on that ambition& There is a wonderful line at the end of Gerstners book Who Says Elephants Cannot Dance? that goes something like, along the way, something happened something that, quite frankly, surprised me. I fell in love with IBM. At that moment, I believe Gerstner made the leap to a full fledged Level 5 leader ambitious first and foremost for IBM, far beyond himself. One of the key steps in becoming Level 5 is to find work that you care enough about to become Level 5 in service to the cause of that work.

  • Youve said that the best leaders you studied led with questions more than with answers; can you explain?
    Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights. The goodto- great companies in our research had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like loud debate, heated discussions, and healthy conflict peppered the articles and Interview transcripts. They didnot use discussion as a sham process to let people have their say so that they could buy in to a predetermined decision. The process was more like a heated scientific debate, with people engaged in a search for the best answers.

  • You talk about the hedgehog concept as the turning point from good to great can a company have a hedgehog concept that does not involve becoming big?
    The essence of a hedgehog concept is to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best longterm results, and then to exercise the relentless discipline to say No, thank you to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test. When we examined the hedgehog concepts of the good-togreat companies, we found they reflected deep understanding of three intersecting circles:

  1. What you are deeply passionate about
  2. What you can be the best in the world at, and
  3. What best drives your economic engine.

The key for any business that wants to compete is to think hard about the answer to these three questions within a local community. Great does not equal big and big does not equal great you can have a highly localized hedgehog and be very successful.

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