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Inch by Inch, Row by Row, We Will Make These Leaders Grow

During 2001, partly because I was ramping up into a joint leadership research project and partly because I was designing a leadership training program for one of my many employers, I surveyed the literature on leadership development.

My survey started with a whiplash article that left me feeling like my brain was in a kind of platonic car crash. Jim Collins' "Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve" (Harvard Business Review, January 2001) was one of the most exciting pieces of business writing I had ever read—and I am a management magazine junkie.

Collins argues that good companies cannot transform into great companies without what he calls "level 5 leadership." This is the highest level in a "hierarchy of executive capabilities" identified by Collins and his research team: a level one leader is a "highly capable individual"; a level two leader is a "contributing team member"; a level three leader is a "competent manager"; a level four leader is an "effective leader" who "catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision" and "stimulates the group to high performance standards"; a level five leader "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will."

In their research, Collins and his team were looking for companies that changed from good to great so that they could identify the shared characteristics of such companies. They sifted through the 1,435 companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 from 1965 and 1995. Using stringent criteria—"cumulative stock markets for 15 years, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next 15 years"—they identified 11 good-to-great companies. Each of these were led by a level five leader. According to Collins, without level five leadership, no company can make the jump from good to great.

Collins' description of these leaders is compelling. They exhibit personal humility: "demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful; acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate; channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even more greatness in the next generation; looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck."

They also exhibit professional will: "creates superb results, a clear catalyst in the transition from good to great; demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult; sets the standard of building an enduringly great company; will settle for nothing less; looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and good luck."


So, two pages from the end of this inspiring article, this is what we have: 1) good-to-great transformations are extremely rare in the business world; 2) good-to-great transformations happen only under level five leadership; and 3) level five leaders are extraordinary people characterized by great personal humility and correspondingly great professional resolve.

And then, in the final two pages of his article, Collins tells us that you cannot develop people into level five leaders. Just as I am going 120 km/h with rah-rah enthusiasm for the idea of these incarnations of the archetypal servant-leader, Collins slams on the brakes and brings me to a complete stop in three seconds so my eyes nearly pop out.

Or, at least, he claims agnosticism on the topic: "'Can you learn to become Level 5?' I still do not know the answer to that question. Our research, frankly, did not delve into how Level 5 leaders come to be."

Months later, when Jim Collins' much anticipated (and worthy) book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't (HarperBusiness, 2001) finally hit the bookstores, the chapter on level five leadership did not have anything further to report. Collins expressed his regrets, and pretty much left it at that:

For your own development, I would love to be able to give you a list of steps for becoming Level 5, but we have no solid research data that would support a credible list. Our research exposed Level 5 as a key component inside the black box of what it takes to shift a company from good to great. Yet inside that black box is yet another black box—namely, the inner development of a person to Level 5. We could speculate on what might be inside that inner black box, but it would mostly be just that—speculation.

But Collins does have an hypothesis with some hints:

There are two categories of people: those who do not have the seed of Level 5 and those who do. . . . The second category of people—and I suspect the larger group—consists of those who have the potential to evolve to Level 5; the capability resides within them, perhaps buried or ignored, but there nonetheless. And under the right circumstances—self-reflection, 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.

In the middle of the year, Walter Wright, of the DePree Leadership Center in Pasadena, California, published a little monograph, The Gift of Mentors, that helped me pursue one of Collins' hints. Drawing on his own relationships with mentors, Wright provides a personal and inviting introduction to the process of mentoring.

According to Wright, every leader needs mentoring.

Leadership is a precarious responsibility. As Max De Pree says, it is a serious meddling in other people's lives. Leaders need wisdom. They need perspective. They need accountability. That is the role mentors play. Every leader needs one or more mentors to provide the depth of reflection necessary to sustain vision and energy for leadership. I also believe every leader needs to serve as a mentor—because the mentor learns as much from the process as the one being mentored. Teachers have long known that the teacher learns more than the student. This may well be true for mentors also. The gift of mentoring causes intentional reflection and keeps the mentor thinking about life, leadership, vision and values and holds up a mirror to keep us accountable to the priorities to which we are committed. Everyone needs a mentor. And everyone needs to be a mentor.

I have been looking for good books on mentoring as a way of developing leaders, but they are hard to find. There are many books with "mentoring" in their title, but very few that are worth reading. Of the good ones, most are either quite theoretical, like Laurent A. Daloz's Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners (Jossey-Bass, 1999), or quite haphazard, like the collection edited by Marshall Goldsmith and others, Coaching for Leadership: How the World's Greatest Coaches Help Leaders Learn (Jossey-Bass, 2000). Which doesn't mean they cannot be inspiring, like another collection edited by Goldsmith and others, Learning Journeys: Top Management Experts Share Hard-earned Lessons on Becoming Great Mentors and Leaders (Davies-Black, 2000), or the inspirational bestseller by Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (Perseus, 1994).

Inspiration, however, is good for the budding leader. Less so for the budding leadership training program developer, however, who needs rather a lot more perspiration. My quest for good leadership development insight took a scholarly turn as soon as I emerged out of my deep immersion in mentoring books.

Since I was reading a lot of Marshall Goldsmith anyway, the next book on my reading list was Goldsmith and Robert Fulmer's The Leadership Investment: How the World's Best Organizations Gain Strategic Advantage Through Leadership Development (Amacom, 2001). This book is a survey of the state of the art in leadership development programs. It takes a look at the best known leadership development firms and at the idea of corporate universities—particularly that of Saturn, a seemingly great company that builds not-so-great cars—but, perhaps more importantly, takes a careful look at six world-class in-company leadership development programs: Arthur Andersen's Center for Continuing Education and Partner Development Program (perhaps in need of an ethics course or two after Enron); GE Crotonville (a pioneering corporate university); Hewlett-Packard's Business Leadership Development team; Johnson & Johnson's Executive Conferences, Executive Development Program, and Leadership Challenge; Royal Dutch Shell's Leadership and Performance program (LEAP); and the World Bank's Executive Development Program.

According to Goldsmith and Fulmer, the following six points from Johnson & Johnson's Corporate Education and Development people makes up the best summary of what is required in an effective leadership development program.

  1. Distinguish between executive education and other training.

  2. Recognize that the process and the content are equally important.

  3. Focus programs on creating a shared view of the company's problems and opportunities.

  4. Give top managers a role as teachers.

  5. Require participants to make tangible on-the-job commitments.

  6. Reinforce the lessons of the program in the company's day-to-day operations.


Playing the alliteration game, Goldsmith and Fulmer in their own summary of their survey claim that "to make leadership development strategic, best practice firms have instituted development programs that:

  • build awareness of external challenges, emerging strategies, organizational needs, and what leading firms do to meet those needs;

  • employ anticipatory learning tools to recognize potential external events, envision their future, and focus on actions their organization can take to create its own future;

  • tie leadership development programs to solving important, challenging business issues;

  • align leadership development with performance assessment, feedback, coaching, and succession planning; and

  • assess impact of the leadership development process on individual behavioral changes and organizational success."


Great examples, neat summaries of the bigger—much bigger—picture of leadership development. But not enough true grit for the trenches.


Perhaps the most helpful book I have found for someone who wants sound theory and a high degree of transferability to actual development programs has been Jay Conger and Beth Benjamin's Building Leaders: How Successful Companies Develop the next Generation (Jossey-Bass, 1999). While this is a book for serious readers (it starts with a history of management education from the 1950s to today), if you are not a serious reader you shouldn' be messin' wid leadership training program design.

According to Conger and Benjamin, there are three widely used approaches to leadership development, each with a different outcome in mind: 1) individual skill development, 2) socialization of corporate leadership values and vision, and 3) strategic interventions that promote dialogue and the implementation of a new collective vision.

Conger and Benjamin do an in-depth study of each of these approaches, with case studies, and also look at a currently very popular method of leadership development: action learning. They point out the design elements in programs of each of the three kinds (and those using action learning, regardless of specific outcome) that make some more effective than others, and, perhaps even more helpfully, point out common design flaws that can do damage to each kind of program. Overall, Conger and Benjamin suggest leadership development programs need to strive toward seven objectives:

  1. creating dialogue, common vision, and shared commitment to facilitate effective organizational change;

  2. orientation toward the bottom line;

  3. imparting relevant knowledge that can be applied immediately;

  4. building teams of leaders and leaders of times;

  5. disseminating leadership throughout the organization;

  6. providing mechanisms and opportunities for self-development; and,

  7. aligning management and support systems to promote and reinforce ongoing leadership development.


I am still learning form Conger and Benjamin, and, while I am not entirely comfortable with everything they say, I think that working through their suggestions a few more times will probably be a good investment of time—perhaps along with some more theory from someone like the paragon of organizational development, Edgar Schein, and some learning organization stuff, like Nancy Dixon's Common Knowledge or David Garvin's Learning in Action.

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Gideon Strauss Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. ... read more »

Posted in Business.

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