Theo Epstein, the level 5 leader

If you’ve ever read Good to Great, then you probably remember the chapter on level 5 leadership. It was a meaningful, impactful, memorable chapter of Jim Collins’ book and is perhaps what he is most famous for. If you haven’t read that book, then here is a level 5 leader in a nutshell: They have an amazing drive for professional success, and an amazing level of personal humility. They care more than anyone else about the success of the organization, but they don’t want anyone to know their name.

Theo Epstein celebrates the Chicago Cubs World Series title. Image courtesy of The Boston Globe.

So what’s so special about Theo Epstein?

For anyone out there who doesn’t closely follow baseball, here’s what makes Epstein special. He took over the Boston Red Sox, and led them to their first World Series title in 86 years. He then left and took over the Cubs, and led them to their first World Series title in 107 years. He took two failing organizations, and led them to the pinnacle of success in their industries.

How does that make Epstein a level 5 leader?

It doesn’t. Not yet. Let’s dig deeper. Fortune recently published a list of the 50 greatest leaders in the world — IN THE WORLD — and Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs is ranked number 1.

Jeff Bezos, who has built one of the most successful, enduring companies of all time, is number 5. Pope Francis, who has brought the Catholic church back into the mainstream, is number 3. Theo Epstein, who’s sole product is a group of grown men playing a game, is number 1. If your product is men playing a game and you’re still recognized as an amazing leader, you’re an amazing leader.

How does that make Epstein a level 5 leader?

It doesn’t. Not yet. Let’s dig deeper. How did Epstein respond to this recognition by Forbes? By saying that it’s insane, saying that it was largely due to luck (a common trait among level 5 leaders), and that the true leaders are the folks who work for him. Epstein doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He wants the members of his organization to receive the praise. Here is exactly what he said in a text to baseball writer Buster Olney about the award:

“Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in the house. That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It’s baseball — a pastime involving a lot of chance. If (Cubs outfielder Ben) Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I’m not even the best leader in our organization; our players are.

He deflects the praise from himself and onto the members of the organization. That is what makes Theo Epstein a level 5 leader. He has a drive and a talent for managing baseball organizations that others lack (as evidenced by his success with two separate, failing organization), coupled with loads of personal humility. Thanks to his past success and leadership style, this is going to be someone players want to play for for years to come.

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