Should a leader be a visionary?

With news that Steve Ballmer is going to step down as CEO of Microsoft and shares in the business jumping at the prospect, it got me thinking as to who makes a good leader. One of my favourite books at the moment is Jim Collin’s ‘From Good to Great’ which tracks a number of businesses over the course of 15 or so years as they turn corners and go from being a good company to outstanding.

A lot of this, according to Jim, is down to something they call Level 5 leadership. Basically every level of management is ranked according to your skills and most CEOs manage to get to Level 4 but only some truly exceptional people make it to Level 5. And interestingly the attributes of people who make it to Level 5 are not what you would usually expect.

Level 5 leaders “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”. Basically all the people listed as Level 5 are not the kind of people that you or I have heard of, but have managed dramatic turnarounds of their businesses. Attributes such as low egos, managing people effectively and letting them set their own direction are all skills that see these companies flourish. And it got me thinking that if Steve Ballmer wasn’t a Level 5 leader, then neither was Steve Jobs of Apple. They are both personalities in their own right and have dramatic, positive and negative, impacts on the businesses they ran.

So maybe the team setup to find a new CEO for Microsoft, which includes Bill Gates, should be looking for Level 5 skills rather than someone known or overly flamboyant. Microsoft may not be an old business but in the world of technology it is, and so it needs careful direction to ensure they don’t kill the golden egg (remember it still produces $22 bn of profits per year), and don’t go from fad to fad as they desperately try to mimic the competition. Steve Ballmer’s legacy will be products like Xbox which sold over 70 million units (nearly as many as the 100 million Windows 8 licences), and created a platform for games that Apple and Google can’t currently compete with – they just need to do more of the same. Hopefully a Level 5 leader will see that.

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