The Level 5 Evolution

Audio Transcript

Can people become Level 5? I get this question a lot. Is it genetic or can you become it? Can you evolve into Level 5? 

I believe strongly that you can evolve into Level 5. Let me give the example of a chief executive named Lou Gerstner, the man who saved IBM. Lou Gerstner moved through all five levels of the Level 5 hierarchy. He began right out of graduate school as a Level 1, a good, strong individual contributor. Then he moved to Level 2, a good team member on the McKinsey team. He was an analyst at McKinsey & Company, where then he moved to Level 3, a very competent engagement manager. Then he left McKinsey and went to Level 4, becoming an executive, and eventually a chief executive, at companies like American Express and R. J.  Reynolds.  

Now, in his role at R. J. Reynolds, in his role at American Express—and he may disagree; he may hold a different view—my sense is that he was a classic driven, competitive, very-much-about-his-own-success Level 4 leader and a very good one. 

Then came the tap on his shoulder to take the chief executive role at IBM.  I’d like to suggest—and again, Mr. Gerstner himself may disagree—that he took the job at IBM initially for very Level 4 reasons. What better way to end your career than to go out riding into the sunset as the great hero who saved IBM—the emergency-room surgeon who stitched together the patient on the operating table and got it back to life? But then, as he writes in his own book, which I warmly recommend to you, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? there’s a line, a beautiful line, in which he says, “Something happened along the way that I did not expect. I fell in love with IBM.” 

And at that moment, I believe that Lou Gerstner—and again, he may hold a different view—went from Level 4 to Level 5. When he became ambitious first and foremost for IBM, for something bigger than himself, for rebuilding an American institution, his blood went from red to IBM Blue. 

Now, I tell the Gerstner story for two reasons. First, it shows how somebody maybe moves over the course of a career through all the stages of the hierarchy: one, two, three, four, and five. But, second, it teaches that Level 5 might be contextual. Maybe we can’t all be Level 5 in all environments. Maybe Lou Gerstner would have never gone to full Level 5 status without IBM’s pulling it out of him.  

What this means for each of us is that we can’t expect ourselves to be totally ambitious and willful for the cause if it’s a cause that we don’t care enough about. Our first task is to find work we care enough about to endure the pain of the decisions facing a Level 5. If you have not yet found such work or some such activity or some aspect of your life that pulls Level 5 out of you, I would simply make the observation that, unless you’re a Buddhist, you get only one life; and it might be time to begin to find that cause or that work or that activity that you care so much about that it will pull Level 5 out of you.
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