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How to Improve School Cultures, Part 2: Collins’ Level 5 Leadership

By Dave Stuart Jr.

When school cultures get toxic, everyone suffers: kids, staffs, communities. Long-term flourishing falls from view, obscured by angst and turmoil and distraction. One method for improving school cultures is to develop Dan Coyle's three essential skills of great cultures: psychological safety, mutual vulnerability, and shared purpose. (See this blog post, or see Coyle's book The Culture Code.) These skills are leadership essentials at every level of a school's hierarchy.

Today, let's take a different tack toward building high-performing school cultures: Jim Collins' “Level 5” leadership. But first, a warning: It's not enough to know what a Level 5 leader is — you have to relentlessly pursue becoming one, whether you are a classroom teacher or a superintendent, starting right now and going all the way until you retire. Woe to us when we can cite Collins' Good to Great ​even as we habitually impair school cultures through things like blame-shifting, credit-taking, and self-promotion.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, what is Level 5 leadership?

In Good to Great, which is actually a book about great businesses*, Jim Collins and his team of researchers demonstrate that outperforming organizations tend to have what he calls “Level 5” leaders at the helm. In your mind, switch “business” or “company” for school. And if you're a classroom instructor, keep your brain turned on for applications, as they are right there for the plucking.

Here are some ways that Collins describes Level 5 leaders. ​I'm just going to make a list here with some representative quotations so that you get a good sense for what Level 5 leadership is like:

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” (p. 21)

Level 5 leaders “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (p. 20)

Given that Level 5 leadership cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, especially the belief that we need larger-than-life saviors with big personalities to transform companies, it is important to note that Level 5 is an empirical finding, not an ideological one.” (p. 22)

Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” (p. 22)

In contrast to the very I-centric style of the comparison leaders, we were struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn't talk about themselves. During interviews with [them], they'd talk about the company and the contributions of other executives as long as we'd like but would deflect discussion about their own contributions.” (p. 27)

It wasn't just false modesty. Those who worked with or wrote about the good-to-great leaders continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings; and so forth.” (p. 27)

Level 5 leaders are “…seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” (p. 28​)

In over two-thirds of the comparison cases, we noted the presence of a gargantuan personal ego that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.” (p. 29)

In short, Level 5 leaders are the kind of people who look outside the “window” when things go well — they attribute success to external factors — and look in the “mirror” when things don't go well — they take responsibility for failure. In one more analogy, Collins describes how Level 5 leaders are “more plow horse than show horse,” displaying a “workmanlike diligence” (p. 39).

I find so much to be refreshed by here. I don't need to be larger than life to create a better culture in my classroom or school.

But don't miss the tiger

Reading those descriptions, it can be easy to oversimplify the kind of Level 5 leadership that we all can work toward as a means to improving our school cultures. “Oh,” we think, “it's all about being humble, selfless — servant-leadership stuff.” But humility is only half of what Collins and his team observed in the good-to-great companies. He writes, “It's equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”

Here's how Collins describes one of these Level 5 good-to-great leaders:

He could not stand mediocrity in any form and was utterly intolerant of anyone who would accept the idea that good is good enough. … [He] made it clear that neither family ties nor length of tenure would have anything to do with whether you held a key position in the company. (p. 31)

​What could school cultures be like with a bunch of humble tigers running around? Answer: awesome.

Now searching for Level 5 leadership… in all of us

It doesn't take some epic search to find your next Level 5 PLC leader or principal or superintendent or to find the Level 5 leader in yourself. According to Collins, “ten out of eleven good-to-great CEOs came from inside the company…. Comparison companies turned to outsiders with six times greater frequency–yet they failed to produce sustained great results.”

So: if you want to improve your school culture (and we all need to because cultures are like gardens that need constant tending), Level 5 leadership offers good food for thought.

*Note from Dave: Just to be clear, I'm not the kind of person who sees that running a school or a government requires the same exact skills as running a business. However, I do strive to read all over the place professionally, from business to religion to cognitive science to Kelly Gallagher. I first came across Collins' Good to Great in Mike Schmoker's classic Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. I feel the need to make this disclaimer because people who have different professional reading habits may not find Collins' book useful. For more on how I read professionally, try this post or this one.

Also, quick disclosure: I support my reading habit with Amazon affiliate links, meaning that I get a small amount added to an Amazon gift card every time someone heads to Amazon through my site and makes a purchase. Don't worry — I won't start recommending vacuum cleaners and big screen TVs — just books that I reference in my posts. I just wanted to let you know. Thanks for reading.

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