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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Climbing to Greatness with Jim Collins

Mr. Collins says, “Orin is the only executive I’ve ever met whom I could have worked for. He’s a man with tremendous integrity.” Mr. Smith, for his part, gives a Level 5–like reply to the compliment: “I’m flattered, because he’s talked with a lot of CEOs. I would also add that I don’t look at myself that way. [Being CEO] is a job that, in some ways, I try to figure out how to do every day.” He says that the Level 5 concept “made us look more carefully at the people in our own organization who haven’t had their heads up in a very visible sense. We are beginning to develop a more systematic awareness of people who tend to be invisible, and I am sometimes surprised by their accomplishments.” Indeed, Mr. Smith and Mr. Collins both argue that there are more individuals with Level 5 personalities and skills in positions of responsibility than most people think.

People clearly connect with the Level 5 concept; at the Wharton conference, many attendees come up to Mr. Collins and share with him names of Level 5 Leaders they know from all walks of life. Although it’s the most visible part of his research, Level 5 Leadership is also the least developed and tested. The idea of a hierarchy of leadership competencies with the Level 5 executive at the top (followed in descending order by effective leader, competent manager, contributing team member, and highly capable individual) didn’t emerge from the study, but from conversations among his researchers. Nor is it clear yet what characteristics in the Level 5 Leader are the crucial ones. Is the modesty important? Or is it the stoic resolve to pursue a goal to its end? Or is it both?

Photo by Joel Grimes
The Good Seeds
Jim Collins’s childhood was spent on the edge between bohemia and the middle class; his father had moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the mid-1960s to be close to the hippie scene. Mr. Collins spent three years there as one of the few white students in his elementary school. “Very few of us blond-haired, blue-eyed white males ever experience being in a minority and having to adapt to someone else’s culture. For probably 10 years or so after that, whenever I met a black person, I noticed that my first instinct was to assume that this person was better than me.” He returned to Boulder with his mother after his parents divorced, and he realized he never wanted to be dependent on adults again. “When I was in eighth grade, I decided to escape my family with my brain,” recalls Mr. Collins. He decided then and there he wanted to go to Stanford University and deliberately made his own “good to great” transition — from mediocre to excellent report cards — in ninth grade, just when test scores and grades would begin counting toward college.

Sure enough, he was accepted to Stanford in 1976, and majored in mathematical sciences. To support himself, he ran a rock-climbing school: “My real education was at Yosemite.” Then came another epiphany. “I looked at the people in the computer center and thought, ‘I do not want to spend my life with these people.’ ” That led to an MBA at the Stanford Business School, where he was a student in Professor Porras’s Interpersonal Dynamics course. He immediately stood out. “His rock-climbing background was unique,” Professor Porras recalls. “He knew how to take risks and make tough decisions.”

During a 1981 stint at McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office, Mr. Collins worked briefly with Tom Peters and Robert Waterman on the project that later became the book In Search of Excellence (Harper & Row, 1982); after that he worked at Hewlett-Packard Company as a product manager for the personal computer line, but corporate life didn’t suit him. (“The company felt like a Soviet Empire,” he says.) He left HP and spent several years managing his wife’s triathlon career and starting a short-lived venture in expert systems software for managing health and fitness.

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  1. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001)
  2. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 1994)
  3. Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Harvard Business Review, January 2001; Click here
  4. Jim Collins’s Web site: Click here
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