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Good to Great: The key traits of Jim Collins Level 5 Leadership

Characteristics of the top level of leadership ahead of Jim Collins event

Jim Collins - Blog

There is leadership and there is best practice leadership.

For sustained success, it's essential to understand the characteristics of best practice "Level 5" leaders.

Every leader should aim to be a Level 5 leader, as research shows they have an outsized impact on the success of a company.

Level 5 leadership is a term that was first coined by 'Good to Great' author Jim Collins, the world-renowned leadership researcher and thought leader.

Ahead of our exclusive Good to Great® immersion workshop with Jim Collins in Chicago, U.S., on 8 October 2024, we discuss here Level 5 leadership: What is Level 5 leadership? And, what qualities make someone a Level 5 leader? Read on to find out.

Free Download: 10 Leadership Qualities That Will Help Solve Challenges in 2023

Immersion workshop with Jim Collins

By the end of this blog, you will understand the fundamentals of Level 5 leadership. (CEOs and executive teams are invited to book into the invaluable Good to Great immersion workshop event. Jim Collins himself will explain the type of leadership essential for taking a company from good to great and his roadmap for applying his famous concepts).

Jim's global bestseller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't is one of most cited and successful management books of all time. 

A snapshot of a Level 5 leader

A Level 5 leader is one who exhibits a combination of strong personal humility and professional will. This top level leader is incredibly driven and ambitious, maintains a healthy sense of self-awareness, and is able to put the needs of others above their own.

It's this key combination of qualities (and more, as we'll explain below) which separates Level 5 leaders from even effective and competent leaders. While Level 5 leadership is often associated with the business world, this type of leader can bring success to all sorts of organisations, from nonprofits to government agencies. 

Level 5 leaders more important than ever

What's more, Level 5 leadership is especially important in today's rapidly changing, post-pandemic world. In a time when so many things are up in the air, Level 5 leaders are the ones who can provide stability and direction.

Leader effectiveness ensures that organisational objectives are carried out in accordance with a vision and mission, crisis or no. If you're looking to take your results to the next level, then finding a Level 5 leader (or developing these qualities yourself) is essential.

What is Level 5 leadership?

Ambitious, energetic, driven, often exhausting, utterly relentless. Level 5 leadership is all this, yes, but there’s an ‘X factor’ quality that sets it apart from Level 4, 3, 2, and 1 leaders. It’s humility.

"Humility combined with a ferocious will" is how Jim Collins defines Level 5 Leadership. This definition makes a Level 5 leader sound like any highly capable individual (or impact player) but nothing could be further from the truth.

“The ego-driven Level 4 leaders – they’re really good at inspiring people to follow them,” he presciently told the Global Leadership Summit in 2015. “The Level 5 leaders inspire people to follow a cause, and therein is all the difference.” 

Jim says Level 5 leaders can be developed, but the quality of their leadership is "far more than simply the sum of its parts."

"They are a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless. They lead in a spirit of service, putting the needs of their team and company first," he says of Level 5 leaders.

What qualities does a Level 5 Leader have?

Jim Collins identified 5 characteristics of Level 5 leaders as:

1. A personal sense of humility

2. A deep personal understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses

3. A laser-like focus on the organisation's purpose

4. A passionate commitment to continuous learning

5. A relentless determination to do what is right, not what is easy

What makes the concept of Level 5 leadership unique?

The Jim Collins Level 5 leadership concept is unique because it is backed by sound empirical evidence from a 5-year research project, which debunked the conventional wisdom that only a larger-than-life charismatic leader could lead a company to greatness.

Conducted by Jim Collins and his research team in 1996 the information was groundbreaking. Of 1435 established companies studied, only 11 were shown to have made a leap equivalent to a school high-jumper clearing an Olympic pole vaulting bar. That is, they went from good (no-better-than-average) results to great results.

In financial terms they had to "generate cumulative stock returns that exceeded the general stock market by at least three times over 15 years—and it had to be a leap independent of its industry." In Olympic terms, each had achieved a gold medal, if not an Olympic record. One surprise revealed by the research was this Level 5-type leader was at the helm of every one of the 11 good-to-great companies.

Why should your leaders care about this concept?

There are 1424 reasons to care. These are the 1424 studied companies which failed to leap from good to great perhaps because they were missing this Level 5 leader at the helm. If you like our Olympic pole vaulter analogy, these good-but-not-great firms were like the disappointed athletes who didn't qualify for the Olympic finals, let alone get on the podium.

The Leadership Hierarchy: What are the 5 Levels of Leadership?

Level 5 leadership is the summit for leaders, and it sits atop a hierarchy of leadership comprising a “base camp” Level 1 and three other levels.

As well as their own unique traits, Level 5 leaders share the qualities of leaders further down the hierarchy (ie. The Level one, Level two, Level three, and Level four leaders). Let’s take a look at these.  

Level 1 leader: Highly Capable Individual

Thinkers 50 thought leader and global speaker Liz Wiseman calls highly capable individuals Impact Players. As an individual, they are invaluable. According to Jim Collins, this first level of leadership is about having good individual skills. The qualities of Level 1 leaders include productive contribution through talent, knowledge, skills, good working habits. They make a meaningful contribution to the team, and have a good understanding of the task at hand. They do a good job, and apply their knowledge effectively.

Level 2 leader: Contributing Team Member 

Team building is a key skill of the Level 2 leader. They use their areas of working genius to benefit the team and achieve group objectives. They know how to help the team succeed and they complete jobs effectively, successfully, and productively. They use their knowledge and skills to help others work as a team. Impact players are also found here in Level 2, and can step up to become Level 3s or higher.

Level 3 leader: Competent Manager

This hard-working impact player and team stalwart has excellent management skills. They effectively and efficiently pursue organisational goals with their team. Given most organisations are keen to achieve goals and objectives, a Level 3 leader is an asset.

Level 4 leader: Effective Leader

According to Jim Collins this Level 4 Leader is great at stimulating higher performance standards from their people. They’re not Level 5, but they are effective leaders who have the ability to motivate departments or companies to meet goals and performance objectives. They catalyse commitment to a clear and compelling vision, and help teams achieve the goals that bring it to life.

Level 5 leader: Great Leader

As we said earlier, Jim Collins found that the skills of levels 1 to 4 were present in Level 5 leaders, but these great leaders also had an "extra dimension": a paradoxical blend of personal humility ("I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job") and professional will (Kimberley Clark former CEO Darwin Smith’s decision to "sell the mills" - see story below).

These Level 5 leadership characteristics are essential for the success of a company because, as Jim Collins says, they motivate the enterprise with “inspired standards” more than an “inspiring personality.”

The Level 5 leader has, Jim Collins says, an “almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great."

They are lifelong learners, and passionately so. With a relentless determination to do what is right, they go after results with a laser-like focus on the purpose of the organisation. 


What Makes a Great Leader?  

Great leaders use their smarts and ambition not to advance themselves, but to inspire people to follow a cause. This subtle difference is the key to Level 5 ("great") leadership. Great leaders are highly ambitious for the success of their company and can communicate this to others.

Darwin Smith is a CEO that most people haven’t heard of. Yet Jim Collins describes him as ‘one of the greatest CEOs of the twentieth century’. This Level 5 leader headed up Kimberly-Clark when it controversially sold off its paper mills (the majority of its business) to concentrate on the consumer goods sector (by buying Huggies and Kleenex). Under the shy and self-effacing Darwin Smith, Kimberly-Clark became the number one paper-based consumer products company in the world.

Darwin Smith did not have charisma, rather he had connectional intelligence. Great leaders have this in abundance say Get Big Things Done authors Erica Dhawan and Saj Nicole. They describe it as “the ability to combine knowledge, ambition and human capital, forging connections on a global scale that create unprecedented value and meaning”. Smith was a great leader who inspired others to follow a cause. Having connectional intelligence sets great leaders apart from the Level 4 leaders, whose focus is narrower.

Jumping from Level 4 to Level 5 leader

To help develop qualities of a Level 5 leader, level 4 leaders must work on:

·       Absence of ego: A big ego was found to be more correlated with companies showing mediocre results.

·       Absence of self-interest: Leaders ambitious for themselves were seen to fail on creating enduring companies.

·       Ambition for the organisation uppermost in their thinking. 

·       Determination: A resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great

·       Becoming clock builders rather than time tellers. Level 5 leaders like that the company ‘ticks on without them’.

·       Focusing on results but without looking for public adulation when achieving them.

·       Motivating by relying principally on standards rather than on an inspiring personality.

·       Looking in the mirror when blaming, looking out the window (at others) when giving credit.

·       Self-reflection. Know your weaknesses, not just your strengths.

·       Be a passionate learner. Be fiercely conscious about and committed to your personal development.

Encouragingly, Jim Collins says Level 5 leadership can be identified, cultivated, and developed. Great leaders have humility and professional will, they take responsibility, they ask for help, they have discipline and passion, and they surround themselves with the right people. Let's look at each:


Humility & Professional Will 

For your team to succeed, you need A-players who get results but do so with humility. This combination of humility and professional will keeps the team united and working towards the same goal – the success of the company.

Team members who understand the importance of avoiding arrogance are more likely to behave humbly and give credit where credit is due (team bonding and cohesion), admit to mistakes (team vulnerability and trust), work with calm determination (team productivity), and taking action on what needs to be done, no matter the difficulty (team problem-solving).

If we return to Darwin Smith for a moment, it’s inspiring how humble and full of professional will this impressive CEO was. According to Jim, when Darwin Smith described his time at Kimberly-Clark, he said he had “never stopped trying to become qualified for the job”. Despite clear evidence of outstanding success, Darwin directed any attention away from himself to the company and his people. 

Taking Responsibility  

From the moment we can walk and talk, our parents try to get us to learn to take responsibility: “Say sorry”, “Don’t take all the biscuits”, “Did you break the window?”. These lessons teach us to smoothly enter and move through society, and they become highly important if we want to become leaders and managers. When the team or the organisation posts poor results, it is the Level 5 leader who looks in the mirror, not ‘out the window’. Immediately they take responsibility and never blame bad luck, other people or external factors.

When there are wins, says Jim Collins, the Level 5 leader switches focus. Now they are looking out the window, ready to credit other people for the success, external factors, and good luck!

Key takeaway: When things aren’t going well, take responsibility. When things are going well, share or give others the credit. 

Ask for Help 

Asking for help can save your company. Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School Amy Edmondson says if your people don’t feel safe to speak up, you may create an illusion of success that will turn to bite you later.

“Early information about shortcomings can nearly always mitigate the size and impact of future, large-scale failure,” she writes in her bestseller The Fearless Organization - read our interview with Prof. Edmondson.

A great company will have at its helm a leader who models and encourages employees at all levels to put their hand up and ask for help. This stops people faking or lying in their job. It also highlights those who put the company first. Calling upon the expertise of others is not a sign of weakness, rather it’s a sign that this team member is working towards a common goal for the common good. The whole team benefits when asking for help is rewarded and encouraged.

Key takeaway: Admit to your own mistakes and when people admit to theirs and ask for help, congratulate them on coming forward.  


One key leadership trait of Level 5 leaders is discipline. In fact, disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action are 3 key stages for Jim Collins’s concepts to build a great company that lasts. In Level 5 leaders he sees discipline as ‘demonstrating an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult’.

His famed concept of the 20-mile-march set out in his book Great by Choice helps to illustrate this unwavering resolve. In 1911, two teams competed to be the first to reach the South Pole. One leader Roald Amundsen insisted his team stick to the discipline of a 20-mile march daily, no matter what. The other leader Robert Falcon Scott pushed his team to trek greater distances in better weather, and rest when conditions were poor. Amundsen’s team won and survived. Scott’s team lost and died. “Fanatic discipline” was one trait of Amundsen, says Jim Collins.

Key takeaway: Discipline, rather than erratic behaviour or blowing with the wind, gets you successfully to your destination.


Passionate leadership sounds loud and chaotic, with flailing arms and wild stunts. However, there is nothing wild or chaotic about a hedgehog. The Hedgehog concept described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great describes the intersection between:

·       What you are passionate about.

·       What you can be the best in the world at.

·       What best drives your economic and resource engine.

A Level 5 leader knows what the organisation is passionate about, and shows fierce passion for results, for the job, for the success of the company, and for continuous learning. Passion is not unimportant. It is essential to bring others along with you to achieve goals. Passion for learning is not just about personal development, it is good role modelling for the whole company.

Key takeaway: Passion for results, for the success of the organisation, and for learning will create more learners, better results, and more success.

Surround Yourself with the Right People 

In this changing world, it is important to find the right people; employees who are not just capable but flexible. Many companies find themselves stuck when they face disruption, and their original hires are not up to the task. For Jim Collins, it is always “Who, then What”. His research led him to understand the importance of finding the best people to surround and support the team in any organisation. Famously, he termed this “the right people on the bus” and he went on to say that getting the right people in the right seats on the “bus” (your organisation or team) helps you better adapt to a changing world.

To ensure you have a team that is capable of reaching their full potential, business adviser Chris Mursau says changing hiring processes may be critical. His methods to recruit more A-players are based on 3 pillars; Key criteria, Measurable accountabilities (What – Results), and Key and Important Competencies (How – Behaviours). 

Key takeaway: You need to have people who can perform brilliantly no matter what comes next, ie. the right people on the bus.

Level 5 leadership summary

The traits of Level 5 leaders are never half-hearted. There is a depth to their humility and determination to succeed, underpinned by a passionate commitment to learning and doing what's right.

And, if becoming a great leader, one with all the Level 5 leadership characteristics, is essential to lead a good company to greatness, surely there’s no better time for you to start than now.

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