The good-to-great executives were all cut from the same cloth. It didn’t matter whether the company was consumer or industrial, in crisis or steady state, offered services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition took place or how big the company. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition. Furthermore, the absence of Level 5 leadership showed up as a consistent pattern in the comparison companies. Given that Level 5 leadership cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, especially the belief that we need larger-than-life saviors with big personalities to transform companies, it is important to note that Level 5 is an empirical finding, not an ideological one.
The eleven good-to-great CEOs are some of the most remarkable CEOs of the century, given that only eleven companies from the Fortune 500 met the exacting standards for entry into this study. Yet, despite their remarkable results, almost no one ever remarked about them! … The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results. …It is very important to grasp that 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.
Not long ago, I shared the Level 5 finding with a gathering of senior executives. A woman who had recently become chief executive of her company raised her hand and said, “I believe what you say about the good-to-great leaders. But I’m disturbed because when I look in the mirror, I know that I’m not Level 5, not yet anyway. Part of the reason I got this job is because of my ego drives. Are you telling me that I can’t make this a great company if I’m not Level 5?”
“I don’t know for certain that you absolutely must be a Level 5 leader to make your company great,” I replied. “I will simply point back to the data: Of 1,435 companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 in our initial candidate list, only eleven made the very tough cut into our study. In those eleven, all of them had Level 5 leadership in key positions, including the CEO, at the pivotal time of transition.”
She sat there, quiet for moment, and you could tell everyone in the room was mentally urging her to ask the question. Finally, she said, “Can you learn to become Level 5?”
My hypothesis is that 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, 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.
In looking at the data, we noticed that some of the leaders in our study had significant life experiences that might have sparked or furthered their maturation.