Jayashantha Jayawardhana checks the qualities of duality that define Level 5 leaders

In 1971, when an apprehensive board named Darwin E. Smith as the CEO of Kimberly-Clark – a failing old paper company whose stock had been lagging 36 percent behind the market over the previous two decades – little did they believe that the company’s gentle-mannered in-house lawyer was the right guy for the top job.

Even if they did, never would it have occurred to them that he was a godsend to turn the failing paper company around. Such was their sense of apprehension that upon his appointment, one Kimberly-Clark director pulled Smith aside to tell him that he wasn’t qualified for the job.

It would be naïve to think the Kimberly-Clark board consisted of bigots or hypocrites who did not want a seemingly ordinary person like Smith to be at its helm. Far from that, the board of directors had little to convince themselves that they’d picked the right candidate for the job at hand.

But despite all the odds, Smith would continue as CEO for the next 20 years and be the architect of one of the most amazing business transformations of the 20th century. He set Kimberly-Clark up to beat P&G in six of eight product categories. A quarter century of Smith’s leadership resulted in Kimberly-Clark’s stock outperforming the market by a factor of four.

Many years earlier, Smith had been told by the US Army officer training school: “You’ll never be a leader.”

Even though I may seem as though I knew Darwin E. Smith very well, it was through Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great that I came to know him. Leadership gurus and business pundits all talk at length about larger-than-life leaders such as the late Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Carly Fiorina, Lee Iacocca and Donald Trump. But they conveniently overlook the contributions of those who were reclusive or reserved and allowed their achievements to speak for themselves rather than the other way around.

As Collins argues, Smith invariably falls under the category of leaders he labels as Level 5. At its core, a Level 5 leader is characteristically a prime example of duality – someone who possesses a paradoxical blend of traits that Collins distils to personal humility and professional will.

In fact, Level 5 isn’t something Collins invented out of thin air; it’s the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities that are required for a business to make the leap from good to great.

A hallmark of Level 5 leadership is duality, which isn’t alien to human nature. We talk about the left and right brain, and the conscious and subconscious mind. When we walk, we move our right arm with our left leg and our left arm with our right leg.

There’s little need to mention the duality of our emotions as there is a constant battle between good and evil in everyone’s mind. If you take duality out of the human equation, contrary attributes such as timid and ferocious, and shy and fearless, fail to make any sense.

Duality is a characteristic of Level 5 leaders. What appear to be polar opposites coexist in Level 5 leaders. These seemingly uncharismatic and eccentric leaders are rarely noticed by the business press but it is they who do the real work to take their companies from good to great while consistently qualifying themselves for the top job until the very end of their tenure.

I may sound like I’m out of touch with reality because in this age of instant gratification people seek to become rich and famous as soon as possible – think about the number of people who desperately want to become reality TV superstars or find out how many lottery tickets are sold in a day in Sri Lanka. But these are Level 5 leaders; and they’re a rare breed.

Why is it that only discerning boards can read the paradoxical traits of Level 5 leaders? And why is it that only they have the guts to do the seemingly counterintuitive job of handing the reins to an oddball in the prying eyes of the business press?

In essence, Level 5 leaders don’t consider the leadership of their organisation to be an ego trip; nor do they view their leadership positions as a gift for their priceless service to the company. It is widely believed that it’s easier to lead if you don’t bother to take the upper hand all the time to prove how smart you are.

At the other extreme of the leadership spectrum, you can’t lead by trying to please everyone. It is second nature for Level 5 leaders to strike the right balance in any given situation as they always place the interests of the organisation ahead of theirs.

There’s much more to share about Level 5 leadership so I recommend you read Good to Great if you’d like to develop the requisite skills.

But I can’t help observing though that ultimately, Level 5 leadership is all about commonsense, which of course is not so common after all!