Instead, what they found was that leaders of great enterprises had “the ability to make exceptional people decisions,” Collins said. Great leaders don’t assume they have all the answers, and they rely on a first-rate network for support.
He said the X factor of great leadership is not the force of one’s personality—“we confuse leadership and personality all the time”—but rather, “humility combined with an utterly ferocious will on behalf of the cause.”
In Collins’ framework, there are five levels of leadership:
Level 1: Highly capable individual
Level 2: Contributing team member
Level 3: Competent manager
Level 4: Effective leader
Level 5: Level 5 executive
The word “humility” might not come to mind when we think of Level 5 leaders such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Collins said. But, while it’s true that these men—and others like them—had big egos and were driven to succeed, all that drive and ambition was channeled outward, into the enterprise, and not inward toward themselves, he explained.
In other words, a Level 5 leader has the humility to ask other people for their opinions—and the will to confront the “brutal facts” and do something about them.
When you’re leading in a diffused power environment, where a lot of people have the power to stop change, “that’s when you need real leadership,” Collins said.
True leadership exists when people follow even if they have the power not to, he added—and that only happens when people can see that a leader isn’t acting out of self-interest, but is interested only in the cause. So, Level 5 leadership is even more important outside of a business environment, Collins asserted.
In Collins’ research for his books, he looked for what he called “matched pairs” of companies that were very similar in makeup, but achieved very different results. He then looked more closely at the inflection point where the results diverged to identify the factors that led to this discrepancy.
Collins told the AASA conference attendees that his team has applied the same “matched pairs” technique to the study of schools, looking at institutions with similar numbers of poor and minority students—some of which were successful and some were not.
In trying to isolate the common factors for success, he found that it wasn’t class size that mattered most, or the length of the school day, or the amount of funding a school received—or even how involved its parents were. What mattered most, Collins said, was having a great leader as principal.
“The beauty is, that’s the seat that you can change,” he told the superintendents. “There is perhaps no more important swing variable than getting all principal seats filled with Level 5 leaders.”
But great institutions don’t just need great leaders, Collins said; to experience sustained success, they also must practice disciplined thought and action.
Disciplined thought is necessary for school leaders to confront what Collins referred to as the “brutal facts” of their situation, while still maintaining “unwavering faith” that they can, indeed, improve. And disciplined action is necessary to keep this improvement going over a long period of time.
(Next page: Key questions to take away)
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