I’ve discovered that vulnerability is the most fundamental and hardest-to-learn trait on the path to exceptional leadership—the path I’ve tried to follow for the past 30 years. It’s with this in mind that I admit to you, at age 52, that I know I have not always been kind or patient, and if I have offended you because of my drive, I am truly sorry. I am certainly a “work in process” and thankfully still have many more years to grow and develop. I live every day working toward being my “best self” and I know that I don’t always achieve that goal. My hope is to become fully qualified for the job of leader—long before I leave this earth.
“Effective leadership” used to be a loosely-defined term, often based on performance results. That is, until Jim Collins’ groundbreaking research and best-selling 2001 book, Good to Great was published. In his book, he describes “shock” at discovering that what he called “Level 5 leadership” was the common factor among companies that moved from being good to being great.
Most surprising to Collins and his research team were the characteristics that define these Level 5 leaders. They are not larger-than-life, egocentric, or bombastic. They do not set out to be heroes, nor do they look for fame, fortune, or power through their roles. On the contrary, the Collins team found that Level 5 leaders are “a study in duality.” They are both modest and willful; both humble and fearless.”
As a baseline, effective leaders have a clear and compelling vision and show competent management in pursuit of objectives. Level 5 leaders go way beyond mere effectiveness in surprising ways. They lead with a “small l.” These leaders aren’t looking for executive celebrity, don’t grab all of the attention, and couldn’t care less about getting the applause. They talk about the company and the contributions of others, not themselves. They have a ferocious resolve to produce results, and don’t mind being in the trenches with everyone else. If you’re looking to hire one, you have only to find a place where you find exceptional results and no one who steps up to claim credit for them. In short, they are the opposite of how we’ve traditionally thought about what leaders are like.
I believe, as Collins does, that you can learn to become a Level 5 leader. But there’s a caveat. Level 5 leaders can only develop if they have the right seed, which means they are primarily motivated by what they build rather than by what they get, like status, fortune, or power. This holds true for extraordinary leaders as well as extraordinary employees, and plays into something I’ve advised businesses for years: Hire for attitude and train for skills. It’s impossible to turn the wrong people into the right people, no matter how technically talented and experienced they are. Given the right attitude, or seed, people can learn the skills.
It’s not hard to imagine that leaders who model modesty, humility, and vulnerability are successful in attracting and retaining the very best talent which, in turn, creates exceptional business success. Leaders need a team. As Collins states, leadership begins with “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Understanding who these “right” people are and where they fit in our organization requires that we, as leaders, first understand ourselves. If we want our companies to grow, we need to grow with them.
Here are the questions I’m asking myself:
- Am I a fully integrated human being in terms of integrity, values, and practice?
- Am I stuck in my own filters and assumptions, or do I listen to both understand and hear through the lens of my employees?
- Do I have a great appetite for giving without expecting anything in return?
- How do others experience being and working with me?
- Am I willing to be vulnerable?
By being brave enough to admit that I have not always been my ideal self, the self that strives to be kind in all moments, I think I’ve taken a step toward vulnerability. Achieving the goal of full is a personal evolution that I will continue to seek. It is a lifelong process because, in the end, it will be others, not me, who decide whether I’ve succeeded.