A smart team starts with its leader. If a team is failing, you typically have to look no further than its leader. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins believes the top leadership level a person can achieve is what he calls Level 5 Leadership.
“Level 5 refers to a five-level hierarchy of executive capabilities, with Level 5 at the top. Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”
One of the most advantageous aspects of writing about leadership and team building is how much I continue to learn about myself. As I analyze myself compared to the great leaders that researchers study, I am not sure if I am more like the bumbling self-absorbed Michael Scott from NBC’s the office or if I have a shot at becoming a Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark who turned a failing company into a Wall Street darling. Will I be Michael and buy myself a coffee mug declaring myself the “World’s Best Boss,” or will I be ferociously dedicated to my companies’ success with the humility of Smith when he said, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job”?
As Collins writes, “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.”
A couple of years ago I spoke to a person who had taken over a flailing company. I was excited about her vision for the company and how she intended on motivating its depressed sales force and confused employees. I was impressed with the plan, it was innovative and superbly thought out. However, I became disheartened in the future of her plan when she told me, “Besides, if it fails, I will make a nice stack of cash trying.” Ouch.
In a fast-food world, we are applying principles of convenient and disposable to our careers and our companies. Often times jobs are looked at as simply a stepping stone to pad the resume for the next big thing. No wonder our teams are uninspired and transient.
Good to Great found that Level 4 leaders often put their ambition and legacy ahead of the business. “In over three quarters of the comparison companies (underperforming companies), we found executives who set their successors up for failure or chose weak successors, or both.” How many people are truly more concerned about their legacy instead of the true health of the company? How many business Pharaohs are more concerned about building their personal Sphinx that will last longer than the kingdom?
Building a smarter team is not easy. Becoming a Level 5 leader is even harder. Something I do know, it is imperative that we take the attitude of Darwin Smith and constantly try to learn our position better. The minute you think you have it all figured out is when your foundation will begin to crumble.
Business is not easy. You can’t get too cocky with your victories because a lump on the head is right around the corner. You can’t get too down with a defeat because a win is coming. However, defeats can become too frequent and cause you to spiral downward if you do not learn to enable the right people and let go of the wrong people.
My current business has been profitable from day one, but our revenue goals are much greater than what we are currently experiencing. I believe that to achieve the lofty aspirations we currently desire, we must have the right people on our team. Unfortunately that means making some difficult decisions concerning personnel. Finding the right people and releasing the wrong people is something that has been difficult for me, because I have never wanted to hurt my people. However, as I have become a better manager that insists on accountability and performance, I have realized that keeping the wrong person on my team is not helping them or me. It is far better to release them and hope they will learn for their next venture or find an environment that better suits their skills. (Releasing a team member in Direct Sales may be as simple as moving on to another, more motivated person. I do not encourage removing them from your team, but instead, refocusing attention to someone else.)
Collins says that leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” Collins compares a company to a bus and filling the seats with people. He says that companies should start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.
You should find the right people who can be motivated by excellence and are excited to make your business better. These people don’t work just for more money, but they work first for the satisfaction of accomplishment and the ability to be creative. Although this may seem obvious, few businesses make the right personnel decisions. Many so called leaders say they want self-motivated people who will work for the betterment of the business, but in reality, many business people have too fragile of egos to have a team member have a contrasting opinion. They are really looking for obedience to their word, not creativity and independence.
When you find the right people and release the wrong people, freedom to work within creative boundaries, and giving your people the freedom to make choices can be a very powerful tool. Freedom of choice is inherent in the spirit of man. Without waxing too political or religious, the agency to choose is our inherited and inalienable right. When your business reaches the point where your leaders are free to make creative choices within a mutually desired direction, greatness erupts. I believe in this and I am becoming more and more vigilant of this within my own company. I am confident it will take us from profitability to greatness.
The world’s greatest leaders have based their leadership on the principle of freedom or agency. Although poor decisions have consequences, such as loss of trust or dismissal from a team, the best leaders do not advocate forcing anybody to follow. They invite others to join them through living what they are preaching.
It is the responsibility of your team members to choose their own path to success. You cannot force your path to success upon anyone. You will find that by concentrating on rewarding those who produce and releasing those who don’t, your business will achieve levels never possible with the wrong people.