A True Level 5 Leader

Level 5 Leaders are rare.  Having worked with and observed thousands of leaders in my professional career, I’ve only worked for one and I’ve personally observed very few.  I had the pleasure of meeting one last week and hearing her speak to a group of business professionals—mostly women—as the Morris County Chamber of Commerce kicked off it’s Women in Business program with keynote speaker Sheri McCoy.

McCoy took the risk of leaving a truly stellar 30-year career with Johnson & Johnson last year to take on the challenge as CEO of Avon Products, Inc.  She spoke about that move as one of three examples of taking big risks in her professional life.  She encouraged us all to step out of our comfort zones as the place where true growth occurs and the rewards can be more than we imagine.

Each time she took a big risk, it paid off in ways she didn’t even anticipate as she deliberated the decisions.  However, she counseled us of the need to have a good support system in place as well, including great mentors.

Among Sheri McCoy’s mentors were her two grandmothers and her great grandmother.  The stories she told about each were both humorous and poignant and reminded me that we can take leadership lessons from just about any life experience, if we’re paying attention.

Finally, she spoke about the importance of networking, especially for women, who don’t do enough of it in McCoy’s opinion.  Allowing that it’s difficult with all the other responsibilities we carry day-to-day, connecting with people has nevertheless been a critical ingredient in her success.

So, what’s a Lever 5 Leader and how is it I put Sheri McCoy in this category?

The first time I heard about Level 5 Leadership was when I read Good to Great by Jim Collins.

The basic premise of the book is that Collins set out to determine what are the factors that distinguish good companies from really great ones?  He defined “great” companies as those that were able to achieve extraordinary and sustainable growth and increasing profits. He studied and compared 11 pairs of companies to determine the elements that set them apart.

Level 5 Leadership was among the 6 distinguishing factors Collins & his team found that made a difference.   A Level 5 Leaders is an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will and a fierce resolve.

 “Level 5 leaders are not high profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and achieve celebrity status.  Instead, they seem to come out of nowhere.  They are self-effacing, quiet, reserved, maybe even shy with a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will. (More like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton and Caesar).

These are leaders who channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great organization.  It’s not that they have no ego or self-interest, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

Can you see how rare that might be?

The book contains several great stories about the leaders on both sides of the fence and my personal favorite is about Darwin Smith.  Read the book!

This is clearly a style of leadership to aspire to.

John C. Maxwell, considered one of the world’s authorities on the subject of leadership, also teaches about the 5 Levels of Leadership.  In John’s recent book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, he traces the progression of leaders from the initial “Position” level, where people follow you because they have to, all the way through to the Pinnacle Level, where people follow because of who you are and what you represent.

This in turn, reminds me of the great quote from Frances Hesselbein:  “Leadership is much less about what you do and much more about who you are.”

What I saw in Sheri McCoy was the real deal.  She combines humility and grace with a fierce underlying resolve to do the right thing and to make a difference.  Her personal commitment to the mission and core values of Avon was obvious. And, her intention to help others—especially women—along the way through mentoring, coaching, developing and challenging them beyond their comfort zone—was especially refreshing.  And rare.

I couldn’t help feeling that the stockholders, customers, team members and other stakeholders at Avon are in such good hands with Sheri McCoy leading the way.