Wednesday, November 14, 2012


How often have I debated and mulled this topic in my head! Every time I think of leadership it’s like having woken up a sleeping monster that consumes me with all these thoughts about great leaders, people who think they are great leaders but are quite the opposite actually, characteristics of leadership etc.

So when I read this week’s McKinsey Quarterly article on ‘Right leaders for growth strategies’ I thought “Uh-oh! Here we go again.” This article leads me to discuss a research conducted by Jim Collins on the ‘Five Levels of Leadership’. The research explores 5 levels of leadership stating that the Level 5 Leader has a combination of will and humility that is incredibly rare. Jim Collins identifies Mockler from Gillete, Darwin Smith from Kimberly-Clark and others who through a combination of firm resolve and great humility have turned the fortunes around for their companies while always shunning the limelight themselves. Collins identifies them as Level 5 leaders who he then contrasts to Lee Iacocca from Chrysler and Al-Dunlap from Scott Paper who he stated were great executives but not level 5. Just as the McKinsey article says that it takes the right leaders to pursue multi-growth strategies, Jim Collins states that the Level 5 leaders take their companies to new heights and more importantly sustain that success. In contrast Level 4 leaders or others know how to create a successful company but not how to maintain it there. He talks about Chrysler during Iacocca’s time and how successful it became until it almost entered into a stage of bankruptcy. Also how Iacocca hired an incompetent person as his successor and handed him an ailing company. In contrast, Level 5 leaders appoint successors who are better than themselves and aim to create a legacy. The two articles complement each other beautifully. The McKinsey article talks about right skill sets and characteristics of leaders to grow the companies whilst Jim Collins explores the mindset and personality of such leaders.

Coming to an example closer to home, Andrew Carnegie was one of the leading industrialists in the country. He commissioned Napoleon Hill to study 500 great men and women including Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to ‘publish their formula for success’. Hill’s book ‘Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude’ sums these interviews and features of great leaders. They essentially hold the same values and thoughts as above: great will, fierce resolve and a positive energy. This is summed up in his hallmark expression: ‘What mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.’

Personally, I feel leadership is not about having a ‘position’. It’s about creating change wherever you are. It’s about drawing people to ‘follow’ you and do the right thing without the authority to do so. The greatest leaders in the world have this style of ‘free-rein’ leadership. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and several others have risen from adversity and liberated people, brought hope and changed the lives of millions without ever becoming ‘powerful’. Incidentally, a profound saying about leadership that impacted me deeply came from an unusual source: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter in which the wise Dumbledore tells a reluctant Harry Potter the irony of leadership; that when people seek power it becomes their weakness and temptation and such people are the least adept to being leaders. But others who are the best suited to power are those that have never sought it. In effect, great leaders seek responsibility not power. It is such a mentality that drives change, helps one get the better of his ego, and become that person who inspires millions. It is such a mentality as well that shapes strategies, builds great companies and countries and wins wars.

A last thought on leadership: I do not think there is anything like a poor or a bad leader. If the person is given that tag then it simply means that a person is not a leader; he or she is effectively just a manager or an executive. A person who rises beyond that title becomes synonymous of a leader. And then there are various levels of leaders culminating with Level 5. Who are the level 5 leaders that you know of?


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