The centerpiece of Mr. Collins’s talk on leadership this May morning is a CEO he considers one of the greatest of the century: Darwin Smith, chief executive of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation from 1971 to 1991. As he moves further into his presentation, Mr. Collins becomes thoroughly engaged in an improvisational give-and-take with his audience.
Asking for a show of hands, Mr. Collins establishes that no one in the audience has ever heard of Darwin Smith; then he launches into another story of a dream he had while writing Good to Great. “I hear a knock on the door and there is Darwin. With those nerdy Coke-bottle glasses. And the haircut that never quite worked. And a suit that looks like he bought it at J.C. Penney. He stares over the threshold at me and says, very solemnly, ‘I don’t like you making me a hero. Please take me out of the book.’ ”
Mr. Collins goes on to tell the crowd that Darwin Smith disliked personal publicity, and asked reporters to write about Kimberly-Clark instead. Mr. Collins observes that Darwin Smith always acted as if he weren’t quite qualified for the CEO job, but produced greater performance than any CEO before him. Diagnosed with throat and nose cancer just after he became CEO in 1971, Mr. Smith went on working, commuting weekly from Wisconsin to Houston for radiation therapy; he beat the cancer back and stayed on as CEO for 20 years.
When he first took on the CEO job at Kimberly-Clark, Darwin Smith asked two simple questions. First, Why have we been so mediocre for 100 years? Second, Is there anything Kimberly-Clark could be best at in the world? Mr. Smith then led an internal quest to find out whether the company, a gradually declining producer of coated paper, had any prospects at all for world-class excellence. It took management a while to recognize they had a unique asset: Their sideline Kleenex brand had achieved such dominance that it had become a generic name for soft tissues. “We’re probably not going to be the best paper company,” Mr. Collins recounts them deciding. “But maybe we can be the best consumer paper company.”
To go head-to-head with Procter & Gamble Company, they sold off all their paper mills — 75 percent of the company’s business — including the mills in the founding family’s hometown of Kimberly, Wis. (Mr. Smith took on the job of selling those himself). Today, Mr. Collins says, Kimberly-Clark is the No. 1 worldwide producer of consumer paper products; it beats P&G in six out of the eight product categories in which they compete. “I would say Darwin Smith was qualified for the job,” Mr. Collins remarks.
Again, Mr. Collins asks his audience for a show of hands: “How many have worked with a Level 5 Leader?” About half the hands go up. From the expressions on people’s faces, it’s clear they treasure the experience. “And how many feel you could become a Level 5 yourselves?” No hands go up.
Then a voice from the audience asks if Mr. Collins thinks he’s a Level 5 himself. “My father was both incompetent and indifferent as a parent,” replies Mr. Collins. “That left me with a tremendous need for attention. To be really Level 5–like, eventually, I will have to overcome that. Am I capable of it? I don’t know. But [after working on this book], I know why it’s important to try.”
Later, while he is mingling with a group at the front of the room, a young human-resources manager approaches Mr. Collins and asks him to sign her copy of Built to Last. “Ah,” he says, “if I were truly a Level 5 Leader, I wouldn’t have even put my name on the book.” (She replies, “But you’re not Level 5 yet, so sign it now.”) In another conversation, Mr. Collins is asked to name a current CEO who has the earmarks of a Level 5 Leader. He names two: AOL Time Warner Inc. CEO Gerald Levin and the Starbucks Corporation CEO Orin Smith. (Neither company made the Good to Great cut, because their accelerations occurred too recently for the requisite 15 years.)