Direct Sales Success: “Level 5” Leadership

I’ll admit I’m not an early adopter. I don’t wait in long lines to have the newest gadget or gizmo, and I rarely buy a book hot off the press.

So don’t be too shocked when I tell you that last year was the first time I cracked the covers on Jim Collins’ perennial best-seller, “Good to Great“.

When it was first recommended to me, I was working in automotive manufacturing, and saw it as a book for executives, CEO’s and folks a bit higher on the “food-chain” than the administrative assistant I was at the time.

Then a friend of mine, pursuing a career in ministry, offered it up from a batch of books her mentor passed to her when he retired.

A minister with a book about corporate development? Clearly, I had missed the boat.

So I cracked open a book that would not let me put it down.

For about 10 years, this book has been required reading in many MBA programs and in corporate boardrooms across the country. Why in the world am I making mention of it to direct sellers?

Level 5 Leadership.

Simply put, if you want to be one of the top income earners in your company, you must be a Level 5 Leader. You cannot achieve and sustain the level of success that multi-million dollar earners make, year after year, without being a Level 5 Leader.

The premise behind Collins’ book is that great companies aren’t born, they’re made. Data points from hundreds of interviews were plotted, and ultimately, Collins and his team identified the “key factors that enable a company to move from mediocre institutions to great institutions.” Level 5 Leadership turns out to be one of the core components of making a powerful impact in a growing organization.


So many clients rail about how their teams aren’t performing, aren’t “getting the job done”, and worry that they may not be leading their teams appropriately to ensure consistent growth and that powerful lasting impact that translates into a substantial bonus income. Thus, it may be time to introduce the direct sales world to the world of Jim Collins.

According to the book, a Level 5 Leader is someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Here’s a sample of Collins’ Level 5 Leadership qualities, and some suggestions on how you can hone your own Level 5 Leadership potential in your direct sales business:

Humility: Quiet, and Fearless

Think Abraham Lincoln, and the strong, silent type. These leaders aren’t bossy, brassy and loud-mouthed by nature, but instead walk softly and carry a big stick. They are action takers, moving swiftly at the proper time, and judicious in the decisions they make. They are not a Caesar or even an Iaccoca. Quietness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. They bide their time, seize the right opportunities, and remain humble in their dealings. They accept the blame when things go wrong and give credit for success to others – even if they deflect a little recognition from themselves.

As a direct sales leader, it’s not about your flashy “stuff” or the awards you’ve won that inspire your team to greatness. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s about being in integrity with your team and walking your talk. Take appropriate risks – and never ask your team to do more than you yourself are willing to do in order to be successful. Remember that your success (read: your bonus check) is directly impacted by the performance of your team. You need them, and they need you. It’s a synergistic relationship that requires everyone’s participation. Set high standards and lavish praise and recognition on your team when they meet those challenges. Show them your honest gratitude for their efforts, and their performance will increase.

Inspiration: Standards, Not Charisma

Level 5 Leaders are inspiring not so much because they are charismatic (they can be), but because they set a higher standard, and encouourage their team to strive for that standard. They build a culture that includes appropriate amounts of discipline – which in turn empowers team members and gives them freedom with responsibility.

One of the key elements of inspiring team performance is tapping into the passions of your team members, and driving them to pursue their passion as it relates to their work. In direct sales, we talk about the “why” or the “what behind the why”. This is the core component to engaging your team. Understand the real motivators of your team, and involve them in setting the team challenge goals. Show them how, by taking part int he team challenge, their own goals can also be realized.  Be relentless in your pursuit of serving, not achieving. Create goals around making a difference, not around sales dollars or total number of recruits. Choose instead to make it a goal to serve 50 clients this month, or collect 100 orders – regardless of the size. This is the key to seeing more people, filling the lead pipeline, and engaging your team to pursue success.

Ambition: It’s Not About You

We’ve mentioned humility already, but this time, we’re looking at the intentions behind your own motivations. Level 5 Leaders are focused on building an organization that will thrive without them. Often, they make personal sacrifices that will ultimately better the entire organization, rather than further their own good name. These are leaders focused on building the organization from within – sharing their “secrets” with those following along behind them, rather than “hoarding” their best practices to prevent the competition from outshining their own efforts.

As a direct selling leader, a rising tide lifts all ships, and by sharing your best practices across your organization, you allow everyone to reap the benefits. The top seller this month may offer an insight into the closing process that other leaders had never considered. Sharing your own secrets to success – like delegating the paperwork, and creating effective follow-up systems – may feel like you’re tipping your hand, but in reality, you’re paving the way for continuous improvement across the organization.

Responsibility: Yours and Theirs

All blame and failure is readily embraced by a  Level 5 Leader. The buck stops here, and no one else is to blame for a failure to perform. Bad luck doesn’t exist, and poor planning isn’t attributed to the team. The onus for success belongs entirely to the Leader.

Success, however, is credited entirely to your organization. Even if it may seem undue, a Level 5 Leader never hesitates in giving credit for organizational success to the collective strength of the team. “I couldn’t have done it without you” is not some empty phrase spoken from the podium while brandishing a new diamond ring or the keys to a fancy new car. It is a heartfelt mantra that is lived each day of the journey towards that reward. It is acted upon in the regular course of a hard day’s work.

In direct sales, with apologies to Shakespeare, there are no small parts, only small leaders, who fail to express gratitude and compassion for their team. A Level 5 Leader takes the time to acknowledge everyone that participated in achieving the team goals – at every level of involvement. And they do so with honest enthusiasm, integrity, and sincerity. Too often, praise is heaped on the tops in sales or recruiting, and those consistent performers are ignored – not because they aren’t important – but because they just don’t happen to be tops in their category. This blindness to consistency leaves those consultants feeling like they’ll never measure up, when in fact, without them, your team turnover rate would skyrocket.

Recognition is one of the top five motivating factors for consultants on a team, and it is also the easiest, least expensive tool you can use as a leader to inspire your team to achieve more.

When a Level 5 Leader is seen as successful, it’s never because they’re such a great leader. According to a Level 5 Leader,  it’s because they have such a great team that they’re so successful.

The Long Haul: In It To Win It

“Good to Great” organizations didn’t look like much to the outside world before Level 5 Leadership. They struggled, failed, tasted success and just as quickly lost it again. They key in moving these organizations from good to great was that the Level 5 Leader faced the facts and made a plan for the long-term growth of the organization. Even if the truth was ugly, they faced it head-on because you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. According to Collins:

“… leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted. There’s a huge difference between the opportunity to ‘have your say’ and the opportunity to be heard. The good-to-great leaders understood the distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.”

If you’re a direct sales leader that “rules from on high” chances are good your finger is far from the pulse of the field. Regular coaching sessions with your front line leaders, and occasional “check-in” calls with your downline organization, pave the way to a stronger bond, and better communication across the board. It allows you to see problems before they are entrenched. It allows you to communicate pervasive issues (like quality control or deliverability issues) to the home office before they become an epidemic. In short, open communication with your team allows you to create a long-term game plan for growth that takes into account your strengths and weaknesses as an organization.

In short, a Level 5 Leader delivers the goods, makes no excuses, underpromises and overdelivers, giving the credit to their team every time. They set high expectations, even higher standards, and empower their people to soar to greater heights.

Who wouldn’t want to be on a team like that?

© 2010 Lisa Robbin Young



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Lisa Robbin Young offers direct sales training and coaching to direct sales professionals looking to grow their business like a real business instead of an expensive hobby. Sign up for her free weekly ezine at


Action tip: Read through Jim’s work for more insights on what it means to be a Level 5 Leader:

*  Collins, Jim, “Good-to-Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t”, Random House, London, 2001

** Collins, Jim, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve” Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2001

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