I have recently read the article from Harvard Business Review entitled ‘The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World’. The reason why I found it particularly interesting is because it seemed to me that it complements the results of Jim Collins research presented in the book ‘Good to Great’.
What the author of the HBR article, Sunnie Giles, did was to question 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations about the most relevant threads a leader should possess. The results are grouped in five categories (I will only mention the categories as defined in the article, the full description can be found in the article):
- Demonstrates strong ethics and provides a sense of safety
- Empowers others to self-organize
- Fosters a sense of connection and belonging
- Shows openness to new ideas and fosters organizational learning
- Nurtures growth
On the other hand, Jim Collins started his quest from a different perspective, asking himself what made some companies make the leap to greatness while others seemed to fail at seizing the momentum. In his research, he started without a hypothesis that needed to be validated, it was merely a plunge into data and see what comes out of it.
The result: the concept of ‘Level 5 Leadership’ – A trait that keeps on repeating in each company that was analyzed and that took the companies from good to great (‘fifteen-year cumulative stock returns at or below the general market, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next fifteen years’). The full description of the research and how a company was seen as transitioning to a great one can be found in the book.
The Level 5 Executive is ‘building enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will’.
Each individual analyzed by Collins and his team demonstrated repeatedly a high level of fairness and will to make the companies they were leading the best in the league. Take Colman Mockler, CEO of Gillette from 1975 to 1991 that stood still in front of 2 hostile takeover attacks from Revlon, knowing that the best interest of the stakeholders is to keep the trust in the future of the company. His strong will and ethics brought to the world Sensor and Mach3 the most popular products of Gillette.
A great example of clearly communicating expectations and empowering other to self-organize comes from Charles R. ‘Cork’ Walgreen 3d, CEO of Walgreens: At a planning committee meeting he informed the audience that his decision is to get the company out of the restaurants industry in five years. Six months later, next committee meeting, one of the members pointed out the 5 years plan and Cork corrected him, telling him there are only 4 years and a half left to implement it in the best manner.
Another building block of Level 5 Leadership is ‘The Window and the Mirror’ concept that I’ve found truly interesting. The idea behind it is that this type of leaders will ‘look in the mirror, not out of the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck’ and in the same time ‘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.’ This is exactly what Giles found as trait of great leaders, they provide safety for trial and error, they ‘create a feeling of succeeding and failing together as a pack’.
The competency that I believe is hard to master is nurturing growth, seeing behind your personal goals and focusing into the ‘greater ambition of building something larger and more lasting than themselves.’ Collins translated this into ‘setting up successors for success’. This is what for example David Maxwell, CEO of Fannie Mae did by retiring in full growth considering that the company will be ill served if he stays too long and appointed Jim Johnson. ‘As one Level 5 leader said, ‘I want to look out from my porch at one of the great companies in the world someday and be able to say, ‘I used to work there.’’’
To conclude on this, you have on one hand the results of a questionnaire subject to human prejudice and on the other the result of looking into a black box of hard data. And magical thing is that they are interlocked.
My take away from this is that great companies are built by great individuals with characteristics that we all can embrace and practice. It is up to us to give up good for great.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this via comments or direct emails.