Your company needs a new chief executive so it decides to hire a hairy-chested alpha male. Big mistake.

That’s one of the key lessons from Good to Great, the business classic I finally got around to reading.

The book’s researchers found that the best companies aren’t led by superhero chief executives who crave the spotlight. Instead, they’re led by quiet, humble people.

Good to Great, which was published in 2001, set out to answer the question of why some companies make the leap to greatness and others don’t.

To answer that question, the researchers first compiled a list of the ‘best’ publically listed American companies. To make the list, companies had to have outperformed the market by at least 200% over at least 15 years (among other criteria). Only 11 companies made the cut:

  • Abbott
  • Circuit City
  • Fannie Mae
  • Gillette
  • Kimberly-Clark
  • Kroger
  • Nucor
  • Philip Morris
  • Pitney Bowes
  • Walgreens
  • Wells Fargo

The researchers were then shocked to discover that all 11 companies were led by modest chief executives, according to the author, Jim Collins.

“Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars,” he wrote.

“Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln or Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”

These ‘Level 5 leaders’, as the book calls them, prefer to talk about the team than themselves. Alpha male chief executives, on the other hand, are very self-centred.

Level 5 leaders deflect credit for company successes; alpha male leaders claim it for themselves.

Level 5 leaders blame themselves when things go wrong; alpha male leaders blame others.

Level 5 leaders are ambitious for their companies; alpha male leaders are ambitious for themselves.

Level 5 leaders like to ask questions; alpha male leaders like to bark out orders.

Level 5 leaders create succession plans so their company can run smoothly once they’re gone; alpha male leaders enjoy the thought that the place will fall apart after they leave.

Unfortunately, as Collins explains, there’s a great irony at play in the corporate world: alpha males often rise to the top because of their personal ambition, while Level 5 leaders often don’t because of their humility. To make matters worse, many corporate boards falsely believe that larger-than-life leaders are naturally better than unassuming executives.

The Sydney Swans are famous for having a ‘no dickheads’ recruitment policy. Good to Great spells out loud and clear why businesses should follow their lead.

[Bonus read: The money-back-guaranteed way to get attention]