By Ralf Quellmalz

“The sidelines are not where you want to live your life.

The world needs you in the arena.”

Tim Cook – Apple CEO

Is a charismatic leader better suited to lead an organization or is a ‘Level 5’ leader, as defined by Jim Collins, a better fit? Which style is better equipped to successfully lead an organization and fulfill the needs of both leaders and followers? An exact and definite answer is both complex and a challenge. To both effectively approach their differences as well as to compare and contrast each leadership style, one must first acquire a comprehensive understanding of what each style entails.   

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership relies upon the effective use of impression management skills, communication competencies, and force of personality to encourage followers to eagerly pursue and achieve a vision. Moreover, a charismatic leader’s ability to articulate a compelling vision that would purposefully “empower subordinates to believe that they can achieve this common goal and that their goal is indispensable”[1] enables them to connect with their followers on a profound, emotional level. Due to the fact that their influence arises not from reason, but from their delivery and presentation, they have the capacity to seduce their audiences to reflect and be open to new ideas. Although such trait can be good, charismatic leaders’ inclination to think more about themselves than the people they are supposed to lead can, as history has proven, have gloomy consequences.     

Even though charismatic leaders’ charm and genuine ability to influence can remarkably attract a cult, history is constantly reminding us of the dangers embodied within their personalities. As the world has witnessed, Adolf Hitler – a renowned charismatic leader – had the distinct capacity to strongly connect with his followers at an emotional level, which enabled him to “suspend rational analysis”[2] within his audience. His narcissistic and deceptive personality combined with his magnificent use of words gave him the “power to translate his fantasies into realities.”[3] As a charismatic leader, he aroused the passions and prejudices of the masses to exert complete domination over his own country. Even though he deceitfully portrayed himself as a ‘man of the people,’ not only did he deprived his followers of independent thought through the effective use of propaganda, but also used force and terrorism to bring his self-centered vision to life. As a result, he led the whole world to a devastating war, proving that “charisma has a dark side.”[4]

Level 5 Leadership

‘Level 5’ leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the successful synergy between personal humility and professional will. According to Jim Collins, this leadership styles’ main priority is “getting the right people onboard and creating a culture of discipline to turn a company from good to truly great.”[5] A ‘Level 5’ leader embodies a humble and committed persona integrating profound discipline towards people, reason, and actions. Furthermore, they would modestly develop an alluring vision of the future and set the standards for an enduring great company by channeling ambition into their organization and not the self – as charismatic leaders would. In contrast with charismatic leaders who rely on charisma to propel their visions, ‘Level 5’ leaders “act with a quiet, calm determination, and relies principally on inspired standards to motivate.”[6]     

In order for a ‘Level 5’ leader to emerge, however, Collins argues that there are certain requisites that must be instilled within the leader. Not only must they be highly skilled and capable, but must also be a devoted team member. In other words, they must excel at both an individual – through talent and exceptional work habits – as well as at a collective level – by propelling teams to the achievements of collective objectives. For a ‘Level 5’ leader to efficiently pursue its vision, however, Collins affirms they must also be both effective and executive individuals. Moreover, a ‘Level 5’ leader must prove to be a qualified and proficient manager with the capacity to organize people and resources towards the unified pursuit of objectives that will promote the common welfare.      

Tim Cook’s Level 5 Leadership at Apple

To comprehensively measure the degree of impact ‘Level 5’ leaders can have within their organizations, we can take a look at Tim Cook’s exceptional role in leading Apple. When Apple officially announced Tim Cook as CEO in August of 2011, very few people believed he had what it takes to lead the company. The fact that he was succeeding Apple’s co-founder and mastermind, Steve Jobs, who Fortune considered to be the “CEO of the Decade,”[7] created high ambiguity over the company’s future. How could one possibly do more than the almighty Steve Jobs? With practically all odds against him, Tim Cook proved everyone wrong when, years later, became the most successful CEO in Apple’s history.

Modest and unpretentious, Tim Cook perfectly embodies a ‘Level 5’ leader. Even though stakeholders and the media doubted him, Cook radically changed the way Apple was being led. Unlike Jobs, who was the center of the organization, Cook was determined to become Apple’s driving force. Coming from a background in operations, Cook knew right from the start that he wasn’t an expert on neither product development, design, nor marketing – Apple’s core ingredients for success. Yet, Cook’s commitment and ambition towards his company enabled him to propel Apple into becoming the most valuable company in history.     

Under Cook’s leadership, Apple’s stock shares increased by a massive 80%[8], outperforming all its rivals. Cook, however, has repeatedly credited his success to Apple’s employees, as a ‘Level 5’ leader understands that the achievement of an organization is the result of the combined efforts of each individual. Unlike Jobs, who micro-managed, Cook “behaves much more like a coach who trusts his players,”[9] which allows him to motivate Apple’s employees by empowering them to reach their true potential. As a result, the current CEO has achieved a level of stability in Apple’s senior management ranks that no one thought possible.  

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, with one of his most powerful quotes about being the pebble in the pond that creates the ripple for change

‘Level 5’ leaders understand that “the primary job of leadership is to make everyone a leader in their own job.”[10] Tim Cook’s shunning public adulation combined with his shy but fearless character allowed him to transform Apple from good to truly great. While Steve Jobs’s Apple was perhaps the most innovative and fascinating company ever founded, it is no secret that Jobs’s manipulative and egocentric leadership made the firm unstable and volatile. Tim Cook, on the other hand, made Apple not only the leading company in its industry, but also a dream place to work and be a part of.       

According to St. Augustine, “The first and final job of leaders is the attempt to serve the needs and the well-being of the people they lead.”[11] By focusing on the good of its followers, leadership becomes a purpose-centered duty guided by the desire to serve others. As a result, leadership helps make sense of our environment by offering a sense of belonginess, identity, and stability in an otherwise ambiguous world. While both charismatic and ‘Level 5’ leaders have their key differences as well as their similarities, there is no definite answer as to which style better enables leaders to serve their people. However, just as Daniel Goleman states, “leadership will never be an exact science. But neither should it be a complete mystery to those who practice it.”[12]

Yet, it is the way these two leadership styles use ambition that sets them apart. Unlike charismatic leaders, whose ambition is channeled towards themselves, ‘Level’ 5 leaders display a robust mixture of personal humility and professional will to direct their ambition towards their organization’s cause, not themselves. Consequently, ‘Level 5’ leaders are better equipped to lead their organizations. Even though they might not possess charismatic leaders’ alluring personality, ‘Level 5’ leaders’ motivate their people with inspired standards to seek collective rather than individual success.  

‘Level 5’ leaders separate themselves from other leaders by not only sharing the credit for their success with their people, but also by being the first to accept the blame for setbacks encountered along the way. Furthermore, they courageously face and accept brutal truths and realities – such as Tim Cook did when he succeeded the one-and-only Steve Jobs – and develop a discipline approach towards successfully overcoming adversity. By focusing on identifying and including the right people to then decide on their mutual destination, ‘Level 5’ leaders powerfully propel their organizations in a noble and inspirational manner.   


[1] Al Gini – Charisma in leadership organizations 

[2] Al Gini – Qualities of a charismatic leader

[3] “Adolf Hitler” – Hartwick Classic Leadership Cases

[4] “Adolf Hitler” – Hartwick Classic Leadership Cases

[5] “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve” – Jim Collins

[6] “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve” – Jim Collins

[7] Fortune headline

[8] Article – “Apple’s Tim Cook Leads Different.” Fortune,

[9] Article – Verganti, Roberto. “Will Tim Cook Ever Escape Steve Jobs’s Shadow?” Harvard Business Review

[10] Al Gini

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