Sutton on self-identified Level 5 Leaders

kinnon —  September 5, 2008 — 12 Comments

I once had someone, who in hindsight was more likely NPD, tell me people considered him a Level 5 leader (as per Jim Collins’ Good to Great). Bob Sutton has the best response:

The concept from the book that especially caught attention, as most readers will recall, was the notion of Level 5 leaders, those humble and relentless leaders who work like crazy to make the organization successful, while consistently putting the needs of the organization ahead of their own needs and wants…

…the thing that struck me, however, was that I had conversations with at least five leaders during one stretch who all claimed that they were Level 5 leaders. In all five cases, these were people who talked relentlessly about themselves and — following the research on how power turns people into self-centered jerks — all were remarkably oblivious to the negative reactions to their leadership style. Indeed, at least two I can think were classic narcissists.

Thus, my hypothesis (which may be wrong, so I would love your reaction): “Leaders who claim that they are Level 5 leaders rarely, if ever, turn out to be Level 5 leaders.(emphasis added)



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

12 responses to Sutton on self-identified Level 5 Leaders

  1. I’d put them in the same category as those claiming to be fully sanctified. That means that I would always strive to keep my back to the wall while in their presence, as I suspect you would also do.

  2. Pastor M,
    This is one of my favourite stories on fully sanctified. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I grabbed this from here. It’s a Spurgeon story that D.A. Carson apparently loves to tell:

    Spurgeon was at a conference and heard a perfectionistic speaker instruct the attendees. His students expected the great Spurgeon to rise of up and defend the truth. He didn’t. The next morning, while the man sat eating, Spurgeon approached him from behind an poured a pitcher of milk on his head. The man sputtered and cursed, filled with rage. Spurgeon instantly exposed the falsehood of this man’s theology.

  3. When I was in college I learned from experience with a particular classmate that if someone has to tell you that they are a particular thing, then likely they are not. The more they tell you about it, the further they likely are from it. If they are brazen enough to write a book about it … well then. ‘Nuf said.

  4. Favorite related Spurgeon story – I may have the number of years wrong, but the essence of the story is right:

    An elderly woman was speaking with Spurgeon and stated, “Pastor, I haven’t sinned in 27 years,” to which he responded, “You must be proud of yourself.”

  5. NPD? Ah yes … NPD. When all else fails to fill in Wikipedia with examples, one simply must turn – not to the DSM – but to one of the most eminent psychological observers of character in recent Western civilization. I speak, of course, of Jane Austen. Austen’s *Emma* (1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow) offers some quite illuminating quotations on NPD from the perfect complement (if not the deservedly purgatorial match) to the antagonist Mr. Elton himself – namely, the Level 5 NPD Indominatrix herself, Mrs. Elton. Enjoy …

    Upon First Meeting and Teatime with Emma

    EMMA. Mrs. Elton! I have not asked you if you are musical and that is because your reputation has preceded you. All the town knows that you are a superior performer.

    MRS ELTON. [Cuts off Mr. Elton’s mumbling.] Well, I am dotingly fond of music, and my friends say I’m not entirely devoid of taste! In fact, I told Mr. E., when he asked me to marry, I said I did not have to have two carriages, as I did before, and I could even accept a smaller house! My house before was a good deal roomier, I assure you. But no! The world is not necessary to me because I am blessed with so many resources in here! [Puts her hand over her heart.] But, said I, without music, my life would be a blank. In fact, you and I must establish a musical club, and we could have regular meetings at your house or ours, because I don’t want to give up my talent, do I?

    EMMA. Mrs. Elton, I am certain it would take something more dramatic than a change of town to dislodge a thing as great as your talent.

    MRS ELTON. Oh, well, I myself don’t call it great! I only know that my friends think it so.

    At the Box Hill Picnic

    FRANK CHURCHILL. These sandwiches are delicious, Mrs. Elton. You really are a gourmet!

    MRS ELTON. [Chuckles.] Well, I never compliment myself, but my friends tell me I certainly know how to make a sandwich.

    At the Wedding of Mr. Knightley and Emma Woodhouse

    NARRATOR. There are those who thought the wedding a little shabby.

    MRS ELTON. I do not profess to be an expert in the field of fashion, though my friends say I have quite the eye, but I can tell you, there is a shocking lack of satin.

  6. Reminds me of the saying, “People who think they are perfect really irritate those of us who are.”
    It has been a while since I read GTG, but I think I recall Collins making the point that Level 5 is an aspiration to strive towards, rather than something more fixed.

  7. Another thought …
    Is either McCain or Obama Level 5 leaders?

  8. Well, the awkward thing here is that I’m — seriously — a Level 5 leader.

  9. Brant,
    Most of us have felt that way about your leadership – of course, we’ve been using a scale from 1 to 100.

    I’d have to say neither of your two primary presidential candidates fit that description. Love the expression.

    The Spurgeon quote cracked me up. He’s almost as funny as Brant Hansen. And quoting Jane Austen caused the literary quotient of this blog to go up by a million per cent. How erudite of you. 🙂

    Nuf said, indeed. I’ve come across way too many Horton Hornblower’s in my life.

  10. umm … if Ed’s correct, and achieving Level 5 is meant to be an aspiration, then what do those of us who are post-everything supposed to do?

    and okay, so i’m aridite. not the first time i’ve been accused of too-dry humor. think i need to stick with makin’ sammiches … they’re bad’ns, too!

  11. I feel a bit embarassed to say this, (but I’ll say it anyway) that I recently became a Level 7 leader. My pastor/coach told me that was a more ‘biblical’ number and that in any case, number 5 is SO unlucky!

  12. … Collins would say ( I think ) that a true 5 leader deflects, deflects, deflects … in every way. So, anyone drawing any attention to themselves in this arena is, uh, automatically disqualified. But how ironic is this, eh? The moral of the story? if one claims to be prophetic, he ain’t. If one claims to be wise, she ain’t. If one claims to be whatever, they ain’t. Thanks Bill, for floating this up here.


    ps. in a precursor to level 5, I heard Jim @ Willow once upon a time ( late ’90’s? ) as he unpacked his first book, Built 2 Last. He now suggests G2G should be read first, then B2L. He stood up in front of 6000 Willow type leaders and told them organizations have to recover from the Type A charismatic take-the-hill leadership so popular in North America then ( and now ). Hybels went a little wild … “you can’t say that” … Jim … “I just did” … “well, not here, @ Willow” … “I’m telling you, it’s true” … “but this is the Summit, the pinnacle, the nexus of church leadership in North America” … ” so what? it is true. Deal with it” … it was a highlight in my pre-5 developmental path 🙂


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