Good to great project leadership

Lynda Bourne
March 10, 2015

A Level 5 Leader (L5L) is an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will. The characteristics and success of these leaders were first identified by Jim Collins in 2001 and formed a central plank in his best selling book From Good to Great.

The Level 5 discovery derived from a research project that Collins began in 1996, when he set out to answer one question: Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how? The answer was the concept of a Level 5 Leader.

The L5L sits on top of a hierarchy of capabilities and is, according to Collin’s research, a necessary requirement for transforming an organisation from good to great. Individuals do not need to proceed sequentially through each of the lower four levels of the hierarchy to reach the top, but to be a full-fledged L5L requires the capabilities of all the lower levels, plus the special characteristics of Level 5.

The characteristics are:

  • Level 5 Executive: Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.
  • Level 4 Effective Leader: Catalyses commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards.
  • Level 3 Competent Manager: Organises people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives.
  • Level 2 Contributing Team Member: Contributes to the achievement of group objectives; works effectively with others in a group setting.
  • Level 1 Highly Capable Individual: Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.

Particularly in 1971, the concept of Level 5 leadership was (and probably still is) counterintuitive, even countercultural. People generally assumed that transforming companies from good to great required larger-than-life leaders with big personalities like Lee Iacocca, and Jack Welch, who made headlines and become celebrities.

And while Level 5 leadership is not the only requirement for transforming a good company into a great one—other factors included getting the right people ‘on the bus’ (and the wrong people ‘off the bus’) and creating a culture of discipline—Collins’ research showed L5L to be essential.

Forty years later, what does this have to do with project management?

The answer is project managers run ‘small temporary organisations’ and rather than focusing on being the ‘project management hero’, applying the lessons of Level 5 leadership can take you project from good to great!

Some of the key traits of a L5L are:

  • Humility; whenever your team has success, make sure that credit goes to them for their hard work. But a leader, you need to take responsibility for your team’s efforts, particularly when things go wrong.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Knowing how to ask for help lets you call upon the expertise of someone stronger in an area than you are. The result? The entire team or organisation wins; not just you (See: It’s OK not to know!)
  • Take responsibility for your team’s mistakes or failings.
  • Be disciplined in your work. When you commit to a course of action, no matter how difficult it is, stick to your resolve. It’s always important to listen to differing opinions, but don’t let fear be your driving motivator when you make, or change, a decision.
  • Take the time to find the right people, and then help them reach their full potential.
  • Lead with passion. When you demonstrate to your team that you love and believe in what you’re doing, they will too.

Striving to be a Level 5 leader is not easy, but rather than being a ‘hero’ fighting to make your project a success, shifting to ‘Level 5’ allows you to be successful and your organisation and your team will benefit.

If you want to become a ‘Level 5 Leader’ see more at Harvard Business Review.

Author avatar
Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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