There is a bidding war going on for J.J. Abrams's production company, Bad Robot. This is the studio under which Abrams conducts his master class in 21st-century storytelling, with works including Star Wars, Star Trek, Lost, Fringe, Alias and many more.

So why is the 52-year-old creative artist in such high demand?

Simply put, he's what I see as a perfect example of a Level 5 leader. And the good news? You can be, too.

Level V Leader Defined

The term "Level 5 leader" was coined by author Jim Collins in his bestseller Good to Great. A Level 5 leader, according to Collins, is someone who embodies a "paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will." They are a mirror for praise and window for blame, meaning they take personal responsibility for failure, but attribute success to the team effort. 

In 2017, Abrams famously said, "If a project's successful, I feel that it's the success of everyone who worked on it. If it isn't, I always feel I'm to blame." Hearing this quote is when I first flagged the Star Wars director as a Level 5 leader. What's more, as Collins writes:

"Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves." 

Level 5 leaders inspire their teams selflessly, which often results in less staff turnover and less need for micromanagement. 

The Five Levels of Leadership

According to Collins, leadership is a ladder with five levels. To climb the ladder, you must first master your current level.  

  • Level 1 individuals are highly capable. At this level, you make high-quality contributions with your work. 
  • Level 2 are contributing team members. Here, you know how to work effectively with others in a team environment. 
  • Level 3 are managers who are able to organize people efficiently toward a predetermined objective.
  • Level 4 are effective leaders who are able to inspire others to generate and contribute their best performances to further the goal.
  • And finally, Level 5 leaders build success through a blend of personal humility and indomitable professional will. 

Leveling Up

The good news is that no matter what level you start at, you can grow and improve to move up the leadership ladder.

To do so, you must be mindful and present, and rigorously apply the concepts of humility and willpower. Like so many things, leveling up is about practicing key approaches, not just knowing them.

That being said, there are certain actions (as outlined in Good to Great) that separate Level 5 leaders from the rest of the leaders and senior executives. Here's what Collins suggest you should focus on if you want to be a Level 5 leader:

  1. Cultivate your ability to identify and include the right people with you as you move toward your goals. Collins refers to this as the "bus concept," saying, "it's about getting the right people on board and then deciding on the destination."
  2. Accept the brutal truths and realities of data, numbers, and situations, but balance that with hope for a better future. Collins names this the Stockdale Paradox, after Admiral James Stockdale, who during the Vietnam War was captured and tortured regularly but used this technique (of balancing hope with grounded reality) to survive. 
  3. Accept that true success isn't the result of one massive effort or decision; it is the result of never-ending smaller actions that accumulate over time. 
  4. Practice and encourage a mindful, disciplined approach toward work. 

J.J. Abrams has proven himself a great leader, leading his projects to huge success time and time again. He is a box-office draw and a ratings magnet--a talent that both critics and audiences love. But the good news is that you, too, can learn Collins's approach. All you have to do is strive to be no less than a Level 5 leader. 

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Published on: Jan 30, 2019
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