Level 5 Leadership Examples- How Level 5 Leaders Master Leadership

By Cathy McCullough

The Level 5 Leadership Stage is Set…

Have you ever had this "strange" feeling that you just couldn’t shake? level 5 leadership examplesI recently went through that. It was after a two-day Annual Facilitated Planning Session with a newly formed executive team (the company had been through a major transition). It was a great two days, but the reality is that as the session began, the “stage” was a bit of a mess because the executive team was fractured in their vision for the company. Despite that, alignment and clarity of vision were created over those two days. However, after the session, my reflective thinking left me feeling suspended inside. It was a strange feeling.

The strange feeling began to linger as the session ensued; it was just something I noticed but I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around what it was. It was subtle, non-obtrusive yet politely prominent. It just lingered. Upon reflective thinking after the session came the epiphany. It was the CEO. Yet, I still couldn’t pinpoint anything. So, I asked myself: What is it about this CEO that I can’t grasp? What is it? 

Team Dynamics

During the strategic leadership session, combative moments emerged about the right kind of leadership style, a perception around how (and on what) money was to be spent, the importance (or not) of a strong technology infrastructure, pay scales, etc. In reflectively thinking about these moments, I noted that the CEO met each attempted battle with a genuine sense of compassion (many leaders lead with passion), extreme patience, and a true regard for the perspectives being voiced. He never even got close to expressing frustration, anger, disappointment, or exasperation. He just stayed a steady and effective level 5 leader.  

Since I couldn’t pinpoint this strange and suspended feeling I kept having about this CEO, I decided to describe him: Gentle spirit, quiet manner, extreme patience, overall humility; his very (very) genuine desire to build something great; his willingness to mentor this new team of eight toward a co-created vision of a great company; his love for the city in which he’s lived for most of his life; a highly capable individual; his authentic love for the great game of baseball; his compelling vision; his emotional intelligence was off the charts. During the session, watching him quietly position his thoughts for leveraging future success was nothing less than masterful and that he would be able to drive the company from good to great.

My Encounter with Level 5 Leadership…

Then suddenly, in a flash, my reflective thinking allowed me to recognize the incredible power of a Level 5 Leader. That was it. I finally solved the mystery of that all so rare of a feeling that you recognize, but then again, you don’t. It was an amazing moment that left me feeling blessed to work with this CEO. 

According to legendary researcher Jim Collins, there are five levels of leaders, with Level 5 Leaders being the most positively impactful. In Collins’ research, the mindset of Level 5 Leaders is different: They have a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Behaviorally, Level 5 Leaders are characterized by a prolific respect for people, by their unselfish perspective, and by a relentless focus on achieving results. They are great leaders.

Level 5 Leaders: Personal Humility & Professional Will

Personal Humility: This CEO met contention with grace. He met innuendo with quiet fortitude. He met the push-back (by some) to setting specific KPIs and metrics with a soft brilliance, akin to something that I’ve rarely seen.

Professional Will: Yet, to underestimate this CEO’s commitment would be a gross mistake. When someone called him the day before this strategic thinking session was to begin and firmly stated, “I don’t need to plan. I have things to do!”, this CEO’s firm response was: “This session isn’t optional. See you tomorrow morning.” He’s also purposefully intent on building a culture of transparency by establishing a routine of Weekly, Monthly, and Quarterly executive team meetings to jointly discuss solutions to key challenges and to identify new opportunities. Participation isn’t optional, the culture of discipline is engrained in the company.

Level 5 Leaders: Clock-Builders vs. Time-Tellers

Greatness is a methodical journey. Having this two-day Annual Planning Session where this team could simply talk through their current issues and continue to build a set of Core Values and a future Vision and BHAG put them all on the same page. To engrain the importance, relevance, and long-term sustainability of what they created, the CEO is following through by using the Rhythm Dashboard so they can realistically track their progress. By doing so, level 5 leaders understand that he’s beginning to build accountability and foster a culture based on transparency and dialogue.

Another aspect of clock-building is that this CEO’s vision is to allow all employees to prosper…to live the American Dream. “The company," he said, “ is just a tool to help improve people’s lives.” Hence, the company will grow toward providing incredible educational opportunities for all employees, which will include an array of courses in financial literacy, language proficiency, specific skills, personal edification, and formal education, if desired. It would give him nothing but the most incredible satisfaction to look back on his life knowing he helped provide avenues for personal greatness.  He’s laying a foundation for the company to go on without him. As Stephen Covey noted, begin with the end in mind. This CEO wouldn’t say this, but I will: His legacy will have an impact on people, not just on a ‘company.’ He stopped telling time a while back. Instead, he’s turned to building a clock.

Level 5 Leaders: Behind-the-Scenes vs. On-Stage

I lost track of the times during these two days that this CEO gave the glory to someone else. If you put this with his gentle spirit, you get an individual who’s perfectly secure enough in his own skin to play a supporting role. He gives the stage to everyone else, with just the right kind of pride. He admitted what he didn’t know and specifically where he would lean on the expertise of those in the room. His need is not for himself but for others. Life isn’t about him; it’s about channeling his ambitious nature to build up others who will then build a great and enduring organization.  

And so went the script. After two days of intense (but really good) open discussion, this new team is set for the upcoming year and they all know their focus for the upcoming Quarter. With Values in place, they’ve already begun managing and leading with them. When one team member went "rogue" the next day, he was reminded of the Values and given (once again) additional room for improvement and adherence to the new direction of the company. Keep in mind: The accountabilities are very real for this CEO and there are limits. Once again: Personal Humility combined with Professional Will.

Throughout it all, I saw a genuine spirit emerge from a gentle man who leads with purpose and focused intent. Meeting a Level 5 Leader is a rare experience. I count it as a privilege to know one.

If you'd like to develop your leadership capabilities to become a level 5 leader, consider looking at our business coaching services as a part of your personal development to be able to execute your strategic vision.  Nobody wants to be considered a competent manager, but few put in the work to get the growth that they need to transform into a level 5 leader.


Want more information on Team Accountability and Level 5 Leadership? Check out these additional resources:

The Power of Systems and People: Accountable Leaders and Teams leadership development program to improve team performance.

Take Our Team Accountability Assessment to see how your team stacks up.

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Follow-Up: The Key To Leadership Development

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

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Growing Team Accountability in Your Organization

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5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images