Before my second year as a teacher, our principal had us read Jim Collins' Good to Great, a book about the key ingredients to business success. The lessons from the book helped me become a better teacher and continue to pay dividends as an investor.
Collins and his team spent five years looking for what helped companies excel. Their most important finding, for the purposes of this article, was the difference between "Level 4" and "Level 5" leaders. Here's a simplified breakdown of what I took from their discussion of the two groups and what sets Level 5 leaders apart.
|Level 4||Level 5|
|Perception||Rock-star CEO||Humble CEO|
|Ego||Is concerned with how he/she is viewed. Not overly concerned with succession plan.||Is concerned with how his/her company is viewed. Motivated to build lasting greatness, and has careful succession plan.|
|Failure||Looks out the window to blame others.||Looks in the mirror to take responsibility.|
|Success||Looks in the mirror to take responsibility.||Looks out the window to credit others.|
|Managerial approach||Imposes a vision on others.||Facilitates discussion to draw ideas out of others.|
A hidden risk
Level 4 leaders are often very successful in their own right. I own shares in a number of companies with Level 4 leaders, but I'm also mindful of something that many investors overlook.
Businesses with Level 4 leaders have a hidden risk: Things tend to fall apart when the leader leaves. Success often proves to have been too dependent upon that leader's charisma and ideas alone. For this reason, Fools always want to be on the lookout for stocks with Level 5 leaders at the helm who can take their companies to the next level.
Examples of Level 5 leaders
Shareholders in steel refiner Nucor
Level 4 leaders
As I see it, there's no better example of Level 4 leadership than Strayer
However, Silberman's true colors have recently been on full display. The U.S. Department of Education has for-profit schools under the microscope, citing low graduation rates and high federal student-loan defaults as concerns. During his most recent conference call, instead of dealing with these concerns directly, Silberman looked out his window. He blamed the 20% drop in enrollment on bad press. I don't think Buffett or DiMicco would ever pass the buck like this.
Joining Silberman is Netflix
However, there are two big ticks against Hastings. First, he has espoused a degree of unhealthy hubris in responding to his detractors recently. Furthermore, Netflix is in a very critical stage for growth: It needs to balance plans for international expansion against bandwidth issues and rising prices for content. I have little reason to believe that if Hastings were to disappear tomorrow, there would be a successor lined up who could navigate all of the potential pitfalls.
How would Steve Jobs rate?
And this brings us to Apple
- Perception: No company's image is more closely tied to its CEO than Jobs; he definitely holds rock-star status (Level 4).
- Ego: If succession were truly important to Jobs, he should be turning over the reins now, as this is his third medical leave in the past decade (Level 4).
- Failure: Jobs deserves a lot of credit here. He has talked openly and honestly about what he learned from his own ousting back in the 1980s (Level 5).
- Success: Jobs only sparsely appears during conference calls these days and has associates represent the company at some product launches (Level 5).
- Managerial Approach: This is the most troubling area. Jobs is said to be the ultimate micromanager, having veto power on everything from product launches to daily press releases. (Level 4).
Ironically, Collins inadvertently made the case for Jobs' Level 4 status while trying to praise him. In a 2009 interview, Collins stated, "Steve Jobs is an industrial Beethoven. I think that ... the iPhone is the Seventh Symphony." Taking the comparison a step further, the musical genius of Beethoven wasn't something that could be easily replaced or replicated. The same could be said of Jobs.
Remember, in the end, there's nothing wrong with investing in companies that have irreplaceable CEOs. What's needed is a balanced view of the risk such a CEO presents.
Have any opinions on Steve Jobs or any other CEO? Share your thoughts below.