Is Level 5 a learnable trait? And if not, what does that mean? And if so, how might one actually begin to make progress toward it?
First, let’s go to the data. My instinct is always, “Go to the data.” And I look at the Level 5s in the study, and I ask a simple empirical question: “Were they always Level 5?” And that sheds light. The answer I come up with is, “It’s a mixed bag.” Some seem to have been sort of Level 5–like. You can look in their history, their background, their upbringing, and the things that they did when they were young, and how they did them, and the way they played team sports, and their role on those teams—say, the quiet quarterback who never took much credit but won state championships. You can see evidence in some cases from very early on that they were just a Level 5–type leader.
There are others for whom there isn’t much evidence of that, and what seemed to happen is there was some humbling event in their life, some pivotal incident that completely shook their foundations in some way that started the progress toward Level 5. A few examples. One converted to evangelical Christianity and said, from then on, that his sense of himself and the universe seemed so insignificant, and that he wrestled deeply with the question of what it would mean to actually live his religious beliefs in his work. That inevitably led him more toward a Level 5–style of operating, and it was a profound change for him. He said that truly becoming a Christian with a capital “C” was humbling.
Darwin’s cancer had a profound shaking effect on him. I think what happened in Darwin’s case, when all of a sudden he realized, “I might not be here in a year, I’m going to die”—all of a sudden, that elevated his sense of “What’s it about? Maybe, maybe it isn’t about me, because, well, there will be no me.”
Another case—one of the individuals in our study was profoundly humbled when one of his children committed suicide, and that just really jolted him. You could see a lot of changes in behavior after that because there was just this sense of almost helplessness rather than “all-empoweringness.” So, that was the second group.
The third group seemed to be people who just grew into it. As their responsibilities grew, they moved up that hierarchy. It was as though they were pulled along by a magnet. And when they finally became chief executive, there was this sense of awesome responsibility for the institution or for the opportunities that they had that extracted a Level 5–perspective from them; and when the responsibilities got larger, their sense of responsibility got larger.
So, someone could end up in it in any of those ways. Now, I think there’s a fourth category, those who never ever could be Level 5. I think Lee Iacocca and Al Dunlap probably never could have been Level 5. I just can’t imagine Lee Iacocca being ambitious first and foremost for the cause, not himself. I can’t imagine Al Dunlap having either the humility or the will to do what’s needed to make a great company. Now, I could have been wrong in those cases, but I think that those are cases of maybe there are some who can’t.
The process, I think—I mean, I’m not sure that I want to recommend getting cancer or
tell you that you need to go become an evangelical or something like that to become a Level 5. So, the question is, how might one grow?
And here’s my answer. I think it’s like this. You’re walking along, and you’re moving down a path, and there comes a decision. And the right-hand fork—you know that if you make that decision, it’s about self and ego and what I get and all of that. And you know that. You know that decision at that moment.
And there’s another fork, which is a left fork, which is a different decision that reflects more ambition for the cause or the work or the company. It could relate to succession. It could relate to all kinds of things. Then at some point, you’re confronted with that actual concrete decision. And you are pulled to the right, but you step to the left. And let’s say that only one out of ten times you’re good at that. But then eventually you get it two times and three times and four. Sort of a personal flywheel of growth. I don’t know if you become a Level 5. But you’re pulled to the right and step to the left if enough times, you look suspiciously like one.
I think that that’s how the process actually happens.