In my twenty years of existence, I have never experienced what Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, refers to as level five leadership. Many people like to say they have great leadership qualities, but Collins exposes the truth that most people do not know what it means to be effective in leading a group.
I have been a part of many organizations that attempt to teach younger people how to lead others such as the Boy Scouts of America, my fraternity, student counsel and various athletic teams, but all of these groups only teach one how to be a competent manager.
Going into my junior year of high school, I experienced a flawed system of leadership when I joined the football team. Regimented and brutal practices were supposed to be the binding factors of our team which would bring us together to defeat our rival, and former state champion school, which we would play for our first game of the season that year.
However, there was a clear separation within our team of those who were varsity level and those who were not. In a sense this created two different teams on the practice field, but we were all supposed to be one unified group.
Our leadership, the coaches, gave special attention to the more qualified athletes leaving most of us wondering why we were on the team in the first place. Collins refers to this type of leadership as level three as my coaches only managed us, told us what to do, but never had any real influence over our desire to improve to varsity standards. Similarly, those who were on the varsity team followed this mindset and only focused on their ability in order to win against our rival.
This type of culture lead to what Marc Andreessen calls “The Law of Crappy People”, where the abilities of an organization converge to the quality of work of its least capable person. Due to the fact that myself and many others felt we did not have anything to contribute to the team and did not feel unified, we slacked off. Many of us did not have the motivation or desire to get to the varsity level because we were always pushed to the side, told to lift more weights, run more by our managers, coaches.
This did not go unnoticed and for those on the verge of starting on Friday nights, mediocrity was a simple solution after a long day at school and they too were standing with us on the sideline. Our coaches could have gone to the next level of leader ship, level four, and been influential in creating a desire to be better every day and wanting to be at practice by incorporating us, but in their eyes we were not all star players. Nonetheless, at the end of each long practice we were told we are going to beat our rivals come the first game and that we would win every game that season.
Having our leadership tell us after every training session that we were going undefeated that season goes directly against what Collins refers to as “Confronting the Brutal Facts”. This concept, also known as the “Stockdale Paradox”, revolves around the idea that one cannot be too optimistic when facing large tasks and that one must be realistic in analyzing the abilities of oneself or a group.
Our team was not better than our former state champion rivals, yet every day we were told we would beat them. So much confidence was cultivated even though we knew we were a smaller team, our defense had poor secondary coverage, and our star running back was always in the trainer’s office for a bad knee. When it came time to play our rivals we were up by a touchdown at the half and our team was ecstatic. However, with a limited varsity lineup and our running back getting injured in the third quarter, we lost by three touchdowns. That season we only won four of our twelve games with no chance of making it to the playoffs.
I joined the football team because I heard of the hard work and discipline I would be taught, as well as the leadership qualities that I could refine. I found myself in an awkward grey area because I had not played since I was younger and therefore was not the best of the best.
A level five leader has the ability to combine their own goals with humility to strengthen a group of people, take blame for mistakes and further the overall quality of a structured culture. In my current leadership positions, I try to avoid the idea that I am great and focus more on the belief that we, the people in my organization, are great.
Too often leadership is placed on a resume without a second thought as many people do not want to believe that they are poor leaders, though this mistake is a destructive one because they are not facing the brutal fact that leadership is not a trait one attains and has forever, it is worked on and refined every day.