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Level Five Leadership in Business

The traditional view on leadership is that leaders are earmarked for leadership positions early in their lives. The modern point of view is, however, that through patient, persistence and hard work, one can be an effective leader. This research explores the concepts of level 5 leadership as postulated by Jim Collins in his famous work, Good to Great. Many companies fail to take off not because of unavailability of capital, but because of poor leadership styles. Level 5 leadership is a solution to a myriad of leadership wrangles in many companies that more often than not, paralyses operations of these organizations. Characteristics of level 5 leaders are discussed and significance of their application in managing organizations effectively outlined. A case study of how level 5 leadership characteristics can give a company a competitive advantage and even shield it from harsh external environment that threatens the existence of the business.

The Concept of Level 5 Leadership

Level Five Leadership in Business

Leadership has always been associated with a very popular and visible role that gives an individual recognition and a larger than life status. However, level 5 leadership outlines a quite different set of characteristics of a successful leader. In his well known and recognized book, Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the concept of Level 5 Leadership. The writer bases his view on extensive research on a number of businesses that transformed themselves from survival operations to great performance within a short period of time (Collins, 2001).

The question therefore arises, who is a level 5 leader? Jim Collins describes level 5 leaders as those that combine humility and will. According to Collins, a level 5 leader is a nurturing leader that does not want credit but rather wants sustainable success that runs for longer period of time, even beyond their exit from their organizations. The reason for humility of these leaders is that they recognize their own limitations in a complex environment. Instead of promoting their own objectives, they assemble their best teams and grill them with their critical questions, thereby drawing strategies out of them. Based on Collins slogan: “first who, then what”, Chief Executives can’t decide what to do alone; they therefore need a team of smart associates. They first get the best “who” in the organization to work with, and then together, they discuss “what” to do. This makes these executives participative leaders.

Level 5 leaders are modest, fearless and have the capacity to transform an organization from a “good” status to a “great” status, without showing of themselves as wizards. They prefer talking about the organization and contribution of other people, but less often talks about their achievements (Collins, 2001).

Level 5 leadership reestablishes the facts about high level of thinking with an emphasis on humility as taught by senior members of the society. The financial breakthrough achieved by these leaders is a proof that these characteristics are attributable to tangible results. Collins links an example of Kimberly-Clark Chief Executive Officer, Darwin E Smith. Smith fits perfectly into the category of level 5 leader; the paper company CEO turned around his company to become the biggest consumer paper company (Collins, 2001). His success is attributed to a unique mix of personal humility and will coupled with risk taking ability that placed him at the summit of today’s business leader role model.

Level 5 leaders perform unique actions that distinguish them from the traditional leaders and other senior executives. The first characteristic is their ability in identifying  the right people and include them in their strategies of achieving organizational goals. This approach is contrary to the traditional style of leadership in which executives build strategies first and then looking for the right personnel to implement the strategies (Northouse, 2001). The level 5 style of leadership is all about putting the right people on board, and then deciding with them on the destination.

Secondly, they do not shy away from encountering and taking brutal truths and realities of situations. At the same time, they do not, however, loose hope and track of a better future. These are the kind of leaders that view a glass as half-full rather than half-empty, striving towards aligning consistent efforts to achieving goals. As opposed to emphasizing on unilateral massive push, they believe in small but firm pushes to achieve synergy and momentum.

Lastly, level 5 leaders exercise their judgment to understand in-depth and thoroughly. They do not indulge in overburdening information that may alter their sound judgment. They also encourage and exercise a disciplined approach towards their work life, using a carefully identified technology to give their business a competitive advantage.

The Case of Colman Mockler, CEO Gillette (1975-1991)

Level 5 leadership is not easy to find and therefore the leaders who display this type of leadership are a cut above the rest (Collins, 2001). We take the case of Colman Mockler, the Chief Executive Officer of Gillette Company, whose possession of modesty, willfulness, humility and bravery saw him transform the razor manufacturer from good to great.

Mockler entered Gillette’s management apex at the time the company was facing several attacks that posed a threat to dissolve the company’s opportunity for greatness. Among the greatest threats is the hostile takeover bid from Revlon, a company that had a reputation for tearing apart other companies; and Caniston Partners, who bought 5.9 per cent of stock and thereby initiating a battle to take control of the management board. With a $2.3bn short-term share profits for 116 million shares, capitulation would be the decision made by many executives pocketing millions. Mockler, however, chose to travel along the road travelled by only a few: he concentrated on high volume markets, repeat-purchase consumer items and pumping finances into potential companies compatible with already existing production and distribution capabilities. Capitulation was not his choice, he opted to fighting for the future greatness of his company, despite the fact that he would have pocketed colossal amount on his own shares.

A rather reserved and courteous man, Mockler had a reputation of gracious and noble gentleman. Through his oversight, senior Gillette executives reached out to individual investors on personal basis, with his “three- prong program” which entailed keeping his product lines always strong, totally removing marginal product lines and entering new areas to expand his market share, Mockler in the end won the battle. This phenomenon made Coleman exhibit a key trait of level 5 leaders: directing ambitions first and foremost to the success of the company rather than one’s own riches. Mockler realized that selling the company’s stock would be detrimental to the company in the short-run and long-run, and with the help of his associates, he found a solution for this problem. He also had total culture discipline for his company and chose to stick to the strategy of winning over investors. He exhibited great passion for his company and employees, seeking to protect the company and ensure continuity of operations.

Mockler exhibited most of the traits attributed a level 5 leader. He confronted brutal facts of periodic hostile takeover threats, but never lost his faith in making Gillette’s transition from good to great. He remained at the top of the table in customer satisfaction by catering for their changing preferences. The right people were used for the right tasks during his mobilization of shareholders to resist the proxy fights, the concept of “first who then what” helped him to make effective strategic decisions. Mockler’s simplicity likened him to the hedgehog, in Collins hedgehog concept. He exercised his ability to determine what he was best at and what he was not best in, what drove the engine of his company and what he was really passionate about.

Although Coleman died of heart complications, before he could reap the benefits of his hard work in 1991, he managed to change Gillette Company from good to great. After his death, in recognition of the outstanding contributions he had made to his company, Gillette was quick to assure its stakeholders that its strategies wouldn’t change much under the leadership of the incoming Chief Executive, Alfred Zeien. During his 15 years as Gillette CEO, Coleman Mockler had transformed the Boston based company from a poorly focused, stodgy business into one of the most feared marketing company globally, taming four take-over threats. His style of leadership has inspired many executives in organizations around the world.

Lessons from Level 5 Leadership

According to Collins, there is an inverse relationship between exercising power and exercising leadership. Level 5 leaders divert their ego needs away from themselves into a larger goal of creating a great company. This is an important concept for any individual who has an aspiration of becoming a leader. Exercising power creates a boundary between a leader and his subjects; it strains the relationship into a servant and master mode of association. On the other hand, exercising leadership creates a free and conducive working relationship between the leader and his associates, giving way for participative leadership (Collins, 2001). This type of leadership builds strong working ties, creates group cohesion and brings synergy which enables individuals synchronize their personal ambitions with the goals and mission of the organization. The end result is overall achievement or organizational targets and personal fulfillment.

The concepts of level 5 leadership will also enable me to be passionate about helping individuals and groups in my organization to find sustainable solutions to challenges. This will in the process enable me understand and create my leadership vision through exploring a variety of perspectives on how to analyze the world and my place in it as a leader. Understanding current trends, how requirements of a leader have expanded, the impact great leaders can make, and defining my direction, results I want to achieve will be easy. It will also enable me create a path in pursuit for good leadership in my personal capacity.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap-and Others Don’t: Harper Business New York.

Arrow, Jay M. “5 Factors that Influence Business Environment” N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2016. <>.

Collins, J. (2001). Level 5 leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review, 67-76.

Northouse, P. (2001). Leadership Theory and Practice: Sage Publications, California.

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