Project Practitioners > Level 5 Leaders

Level 5 Leaders

By Chris Cook, PMP

“Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things end up well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.” – Good to Great by Jim Collins

READ TIME: 5 minutes


In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses five stages of leadership with Level 5 being the pinnacle.

Level 1 is a highly capable individual who makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits. Level 2 is a contributing team member who contributes to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting.

Level 3 is a competent manager who organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives (project managers). Level 4 is an effective leader who catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision. Also, a Level 4 leader stimulates the group to high-performance standards.

Most people can reach Level 4 or have experienced that type of manager. However, not many reach that fifth level of leadership.

It is a distinguishing difference. A Level 5 leader has a combination of will and humility that separates them from the group. The ability to take responsibility for failure yet push all credit to others after success. Their willpower gets them through seemingly impossible tasks. They recognize struggle is part of the position but do not let that stop them.

There is a realistic optimism that surrounds them. Sure, the present is not looking good, but there is a way out eventually. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be a month from now. But, eventually, that light at the end of the tunnel is realized.

That internal ability to push through and keep it about the cause distinguishes a Level 5 leader. One way to do so is described above with the window and mirror. It is so easy for a leader to take credit in glory and pass blame in defeat. A Level 5 leader does not do that.

Here is what a Level 5 leader does:



Leaders can be selfish. Awards and accolades get credited to an individual, even though a team helped create success. Some leaders internalize that praise. Of course, it was a success because I was involved. Without me, there is no winning. Me, me, and more me are what satisfies them. Instead of a window to see why the success is so, they point a mirror at themselves.

Level 5 leaders point to everyone but themselves for the credit. Without the team, there is no success. The leader facilitates but does not take responsibility for success. Putting the pieces together does get some credit, but without those pieces, there is nothing. You do not have a project without the team.

You cannot be a leader of one. You need followers to be considered a leader.

If no one wants to accept the credit, then luck gets the lion’s share. Good luck prevails as the reason for the success. Everyone works hard. Everyone has skills. Why was this project any different than the rest? Must be luck.



A reversal occurs during failure. Some leaders start to point fingers and blame others. If this crew had not performed so poorly, then success was inevitable. They open a window to start seeing what the issues were and give excuses as to what happened.

However, Level 5 leaders, instead of looking out the window at who to blame, they take a look in the mirror. What could the leader have done differently to affect the outcome? There was a direction the leader took when he or she zigged when they should have zagged. No one is to blame but themselves.

Contrary to success, luck does not play a role in the failure. A Level 5 leader does not chalk the loss up to bad luck, and nothing can be done about it. Someone is responsible, and Level 5 leaders are at the brunt of their criticism.

Many factors combine to create failure. Instead of singling out all of the potential excuses, a Level 5 leader turns that energy inwards. This ability to self govern and take responsibility separates them from the rest of the group.



Think of how you can use the window and mirror better in your circumstances. In success, are you giving credit where credit is due, or does it feel better to accept it all? Do you think you are the reason for the success of the project, or is it a team effort? How does the team perceive you?

In failure, are you quick to blame others without first taking a look at yourself and what you could have been done differently? Do you see the faults in others without seeing your own? Instead of getting out a mirror, do you open the window to look out for excuses?

Teams and individuals can recognize these differences. They may not be upfront about what they observe but how you perceive success and failure goes a long way in their eyes. If you share the glory, they are more willing to experience more of that with you. If you take on the blame, they see you have their backs and put the cause ahead of your interests.

In success, open the window to see the reasons why you share that victory. In defeat, bust out the mirror and take a look at what you could have done differently. Time to level up.

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