Good to Great : Level 5 Leadership for Nonprofits

In his book, Good to Great , (Harper Collins, 2001) management author Jim Collins describes his empirical research into what qualities help companies move from average to spectacular. Looking at leadership, he expected to find dynamic, high-spirited leaders taking organizations to new heights. But his data did not support his assumption.

Instead, Collins found a different kind of leader was essential to the success of organizations he studied. He states “Level 5 leaders display a workmanlike diligence—more plow horse than show horse.”

Level 5 leadership refers to Collins's model for assessing leadership capacity in individuals.

Level 1 is a highly capable individual, Level 2 a contributing team member, Level 3 a competent manager, Level 4 an effective leader and Level 5 executive is a person who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (Good to Great, page 20)

This model may have profound implications for the nonprofit world and the generally accepted practices of hiring leaders for the sector.

When faced with a vacancy at the top levels of the organization, board members or organization executives gather to define the type of candidate they want to fill the position. Often they define a movie star rather than an executive. They may say, “We need someone who is dynamic and can get attention. We need someone friendly, outgoing, and persuasive. This person needs to be charming.”

All these attributes are nice, but if your organization is trying to go from good to great, the research suggests a different type of candidate may be more successful.

Here are some the characteristics of level 5 leaders described by Collins:

•  Level 5 leaders set up their successes for even greater success in the next generation, whereas egocentric level 4 leaders often set up their successors for failure.

•  Level 5 leaders display compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. In contrast, two thirds of the comparison companies had leaders with gargantuan personal egos that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.

•  Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions.

( Good to Great , page 39)

When well-meaning but misguided boards and executives choose employees based on flash factor rather than sincerity, personal tenacity and commitment, the organization often loses. Often the tenure of such a person is short-lived, since the person may seek out better positions for themselves instead of staying loyal to the organization. A leader with a big ego can cause damage to existing staff and structures by disregarding them or changing them arbitrarily.

Collins states, “One of the most damaging trends in recent history is the tendency (especially by boards of directors) to select dazzling, celebrity leaders and to de-select potential Level 5 leaders.”

It is tempting to want a larger-than-life leader. A person with the right charisma can seem more like an organizational savior than a new executive director. “We hired an executive director with a lot of personality,” said Julia Abel (name changed), board member for a nonprofit organization, “We thought he would give our organization a real boost in fundraising and marketing. Unfortunately personality was all he had. When it came to really doing the work and making the organization go he didn't have the skills or the inclination.”

Such a situation can make for a costly hiring mistake, especially for nonprofits that depend on long-term and authentic relationships with staff to bring in donations. “We had to start all over with our relationships,” say Abel, “another untimely transition made the organization seem unstable.”

When your nonprofit is hiring a leader, look for the characteristics of a Level 5 leader to take your organization from good to great.

Next article, What to Look for in Hiring a Level 5 Leader

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