Level 5 Leaders, Few and Far Between

Posted by Scott Westerman
“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” Jim Collins – Good to Great

Good to Great is still one of my favorite books. Although it’s classified as a business book, it’s a great handbook for personal success, too. The quote, above, is on my mind this week. I’ve been thinking about those people in my circle who approach Level 5.

I was blessed to be raised in a Level 5 household, without knowing it. My Dad is a great example. He’s always considered himself a teacher, even though he had great success in school administration and as a Dean at Eastern Michigan’s prestigious College of Education. He was superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools at the height of the tumultuous 60s and served with grace and good will amidst the storm. He always focused on what was right for the students, even if it meant profound change from the conventional wisdom of the day. I never saw him seek recognition and he is still quick to pass the credit on to others. When I was interviewed recently about my modest success, I attributed it to the one question I always ask myself “WWDD”: What would Dad do?

It was the same with my mother, who was always committed to leaving the world in better shape than she found it. She had a passion for kids and continued to volunteer in the classroom until the final months of her life. And our house was often filled with a world of diversity as she adopted the wives of foreign students who came to town to study at the University.

In my career, Amos Hostetter and Jeff DeLorme were great Level 5 role models. Amos was the modest, yet powerful chairman of Continental Cablevision, who became an architect of cable deregulation. His success was a result of a long record of collaboration with our communities to bring the promise of technology to every corner of the Continental world. Jeff was my mentor and role model for what a good leader should be: honest, hard working, people centered and committed to continual self improvement. Neither he, nor Amos ever sought the spotlight, but their influence continues to be felt in the long line of successors who never had a problem finding work because the were “Continental People”. Even after five years of retirement, I believe the Continental reputation played a role in my easy return to the industry.

Recently several of us had a discussion about how a company can continue to grow and remain relevant in Thomas Friedman’s Flat World. It sometimes seems to be a frightening place where everything is becoming a commodity and fierce competition threatens to create a climate where we can’t guarantee that our children will have a better life than we’ve enjoyed.

How do we thrive in such a world? Many of the Good to Great fundamentals apply: follow our passion, build slowly carefully and well, face the brutal realities of the current situation and keep the faith that we will ultimately find what we seek.

But I’d throw in a bit of Keith Ferrazzi into the mix. This modern day cross between Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar would tell us to find ways to give without thinking of a payback. To paraphrase Zig , “Help everybody get what they need and you’ll get everything you need.”

Harry Truman said, “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.” That’s definitely true, but it’s also true that those whos lives you touch won’t forget the role you played in helping them make their dreams come true. We can’t help but be intensely loyal to those who we feel genuinely care about us. We instinctively want to help them succeed, too. And perhaps that’s the most powerful trait of a Level 5 leader.

Scott Westerman
December 3, 2005