Level 5 leadership describes the highest level in a hierarchy of leadership capabilities developed by Jim Collins in his research into companies which had a high level of growth over a period of fifteen consecutive years.

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What is Level 5 Leadership

Collins’ study found that the companies who achieved and sustained greatness after a major transition period were those that had a ‘Level 5’ Leader.

Level 5 Leadership is based on the idea that respect towards people, selflessness by the leader, and a strong powerful commitment to achieve results, brings out the best in subordinates. Level 5 leaders are a ‘paradoxical blend of fierce will and personal humility’.

personal humility and professional will

They don’t talk about themselves; they would talk about the organisation, about the contribution of others and instinctively deflect discussion about their own role.

Besides extreme humility, Level 5 leaders also display tremendous professional will. They possess inspired standards, cannot stand mediocrity in any form, and are utterly intolerant of anyone who accepts the idea that good is good enough.

Level 5 Leadership


Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy can produce high levels of success but not enough to elevate organisations from mediocrity to sustained excellence. Collins’ research found that whilst Level 5 Leadership is important, it is not the only requirement. Leaders also need to practice the following disciplines:

People First: Leaders that go from good to great always start with people. They then deal with vision and strategy. They tend to make sure that they’ve got the right people around them, before setting off on their journey.

Stockdale paradox – Leaders that go from good to great are realistic about the most brutal facts of their current reality and will confront them, yet they simultaneously maintain absolute faith that they will prevail in the end.
Stockdale Paradox

The Flywheel effect – good-to-great transformations do not happen overnight or in one big leap. Rather, it starts one movement at a time, gradually building up momentum, till there is a breakthrough. Keep pushing the organisational flywheel till this happens.
The Hedgehog Concept – a company can be thought of as 3 intersecting circles – what it can be best at, how it’s economics
work best and what ignites its peoples’ passions. Keep things simple – eliminate everything else.
A Culture of Discipline – 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 great performance.

When it is used

Level 5 leadership has a number of applications particularly during large scale transformation programmes where it can be used to guide leadership through complex change.


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Published by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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