Great leaders share two critical characteristics: humility and will. This article explains what Jim Collins describes as Level 5 leaders He provides a glimpse of what to look for in a leader and ourselves.

When Jim Collins and his team of researchers set out on a five-year journey. The focus centered on determining if you could make a good company great.  If so, how did greatness evolve? Leadership occupied a minor role, at best.

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness…is largely a matter of conscious choice.”
—Jim Collins, Good to Great (p. 11)

The team found that larger-than-life, charismatic leaders brought in from the outside of a company negatively correlated with moving from good to great. The good to great leaders seemed quite the opposite.  They were “self-effacing, quiet, even shy… a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Good to Great Leadership

Collins stressed that the research never looked for Level 5 leadership. He wanted to stay away from the typical position of either crediting a leader or blaming the leader. For the outcomes of an organization. Leadership, while important, did not explain the whole story.

His stance considered how we throw our hands up and blame everything on leadership. That approach prevents a deeper analysis of what makes companies good or great. Collins’ assumption was that good-to-great executives would share common attributes.  The data proved him wrong.

Collins outlines a hierarchy of skills toward Level 5 leadership.These skills describe a progression of capabilities. To trivialize the concepts would defeat the intent and the findings of the research.

I have heard people described as this level or that level of leader. Instead, think of the levels as stepping-stones to building your leadership skills. A continuum might even provide a better visual. Who am I to question Jim Collins and his team?

Chart of Level 5 Hierarchy of leadership characteristics in Good to Great by Jim Collins

Level 5 Leadership

I have only worked with two individuals that I could describe as a Level 5 leaders. How they conducted themselves every day reflected their values. They exemplified humility and the will to transform ordinary people and circumstances into extraordinary teams.

Collins further explains the qualities of exceptional leaders. My experiences confirm these four attributes. They have become what I look for in anyone I choose to follow. They form the basis of my aspirations to help others be and become their best.

Compelling Modesty

“The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” p. 28

These leaders do not focus on themselves. Abraham Lincoln stands out as one of the best examples.  When Lincoln took office, he entered as leader of a divided, war-torn nation. You might expect that he would surround himself with people who shared his thinking and beliefs.

Instead, Lincoln chose leaders who brought all perspectives to the table.

“Lincoln created a team of independent, strong-minded men, all of whom were more experienced in public life, better educated, and more celebrated than he.”
—Doris Kearns Godwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times, p. 222

Lincoln put his ego aside because the decisions that faced the United States required the best thinkers and strategists. He also knew himself. Confident in his capabilities, he could create a diverse and extraordinary team.

Unwavering Resolve

“…Level 5 leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.” p. 30

You see this resolve in stories of how people overcame the odds to reach success. Professor John Kane, Griffith University, recalls a story about Nelson Mandela. As young man Mandela told his friends he would become the President of South Africa.

After 27 years in prison Mandela become the first democratic elected president at the age of 76. During his time in prison, he did not blame or feel sorry for himself. Mandela studied great leaders across history to understand their strengths and weaknesses. He gardened. Mandela led within the confines of those prison walls. He gave hope.

With an unwavering resolve, Mandela remained true to himself. He left a legacy of determined resolve to stand against racism and oppression.

“It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all.”
—Nelson Mandela


Level 5 leaders develop and support a culture of discipline. Not an overbearing, tyrannical disciplinarian, but a leader who values and respects people. These leaders promote freedom and responsibility.

“The good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system. They hired self-disciplined people who don’t need to be managed, and then managed the system, not the people.” p. 125

The framework begins with disciplined people.

Asking hard questions and examining the brutal facts of your reality build discipline thought.

Only then, can you take disciplined action.

The framework requires that you know the right thing to do and have the courage and discipline to stop doing those things that get in your way. Discipline has two sides: doing and stopping.

Windows and Mirrors

“Level 5 leaders look out the window to attribute success to factors other than themselves. When things go poorly, however, they look in the mirror and blame themselves, taking full responsibility.” p. 39

Blame. Blaming signals a culture of shame where you shirk from creativity and innovation. Distrust and competitiveness divide and alienate the team.

Blame also takes us full circle back to humility.  In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown pinpoints the problem.

“The ego likes blaming, finding fault, making excuses, inflicting payback, and lashing out, all of which are ultimately forms of self-protection. The ego is also a fan of avoidance—assuring us that we’re fine, pretending that it doesn’t matter, that we’re impervious.” p. 253

Your Journey to Level 5

Jim Collins shared his hypothesis about people who may or may not become Level 5 leaders. He places them in two categories.

The first category includes those who could never rise to Level 5. Those individuals will never “subjugate their egoistic needs to the greater ambition of building something larger and more lasting than themselves.”

The second category, which is most people, have the potential to grow into Level 5. The capability exists within them.

“And under the right circumstances—self-reflection, conscious personal development, a mentor, a great teacher, loving parents, a significant life experience, a Level 5 boss, or any number of other factors—they begin to develop.” p. 37

You have the capability and the potential to be and become the leaders we so desperately need, now. Where are those leaders who can mentor and guide you on your journey?

“They exist all around us, if we just know what to look for.” p. 37

And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.

Photo: © Kathryn LeRoy