Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What Matters Most? Being a Level 5 Leader

As CSR is becoming quite the catch phrase lately, many people and companies claim to be leaders in this movement. However, Jeffrey Hollender, CEO and President of Seventh Generation (the nation's leading brand of non-toxic and environmentally safe household products), does not make this claim—others simply make it for him. On Hollender’s blog, one can find numerous postings such as:

Dear Jeffrey and the Seventh Generation Team -
Thank you for your vision and leadership in catalyzing the social values driven economy. There is no question that Seventh Generation, and businesses that are evolving to embody a balance of life, planet and profit are the future. It takes courage to lead, and you are true leaders (as opposed to the self-proclaimed variety more common to the conventional business world).
Congratulations! George A. Polisner-Founder,

So, what makes Hollender such a great leader in CSR? Anyone who has read Jim Collins’ Good to Great could probably guess. Hollender is a level 5 leader: “he builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” But, this is not just my opinion, nor those of many others like George Polisner. Here, I will try to let the evidence speak for itself:

First, Hollender has somehow perfected the mix of humility and professional will. As previously alluded to, Hollender does not brag about himself in his blog or his books (What Matters Most and How to Make the World a Better Place). In fact, to find out more about his great leadership, I often had to read others bragging about him (like Polisner, above). Like most level 5 leaders, I rarely found articles about Hollender; instead, the articles were about Seventh Generation. Rather than focusing on his ego needs, Hollender’s focus and ambition are first and foremost for the company. He constantly displays this modesty and commitment to Seventh Generation through utilizing the words “we” and “our” rather than “I” and “my,” even when asked about something he has accomplished. For example, as a “Fast 50” winner in 2004, an award given by Fast Company to people doing “extraordinary things,” Hollender only used one personal pronoun in all of his answers to Fast Company’s questions.

In combination with this humility, Hollender demonstrates his professional will through his incredible resolve to produce sustained results. As Fast Company points out, from 1988 to 2003 alone, consumer purchases of Seventh Generation products saved 240,220 trees; 1,054,050 gallons of petroleum; 92,004,020 gallons of water; and 229,759 pounds of greenhouse gasses! Moreover, Hollender constantly strives to improve the sustainability of his company and the world through CSR efforts; however, he sets a high standard for building an enduring great company through his unwavering dedication not to compromise the company’s vision and mission. For example, Hollender recently could have made a lot of money for himself and his company by agreeing to partner with Wal-Mart. Below is a section of his explanation to customers why he did not make this move:

“If we care about the business practices and values of our manufacturers, shouldn’t we apply the same criteria to our distributors? The answer has to be yes. We might sell a lot more products in giant mass market outlets, but we’re not living up to our own values and really helping the world get to a better place if we sell our soul to do it. When we looked at the big picture, it was clear that we needed to find a mass merchant that would not only be a good business partner, but had a reasonable amount of alignment with our principles.” (

Lastly, Hollender embodies a level 5 leader through attributing success to factors other than himself but taking full responsibility for poor results. In What Matters Most, Hollender provides details about Seventh Generation’s failure to meet one of its goals of complete transparency by not disclosing that their baby wipes contained a small amount of chlorine in them. After fully describing the extreme dangers of chlorine, Hollender takes full responsibility by stating:

“I confess, I suffered something of a leadership lag. There were always plenty of good reasons why it made sense not to tackle the problem…I preferred to find a solution before transmitting to the world the message that we had a problem without a solution. This, I have subsequently learned, is not only wrong, but a fundamental part of the reason so many people don’t trust business.”

Yet, when he discusses how his company successfully combated this problem, Hollender does not take the credit; rather, he focuses on “we” rather than “I” through statements like “We spent quite a bit of time and effort and money formulating this new product.”

If you are still with me after this long post (sorry—but I’m blaming Collins, so you can too!!), the question is not if Hollender is a level 5 leader. He clearly exemplifies level 5 leadership through his humility, ambition first and foremost for his company, professional will, resolve to produce sustained results and build an enduring company, and habit of crediting others for success while taking responsibilities for poor results. The question is: now that we know these characteristics, can we find more level 5 leaders for the realm of CSR, or possibly, can we become them?

1 comment:

Jeffrey said...

Wow - thanks so much for the recognition. I am lucky to be able to do the work I do, I know many who would love the chance to be so directly enguaged in dealing with the challanges the world faces - and just haven't realized that they have the power and potential to do the same work that I do from where ever they sit. For what ever progress we've made we have so much more to do.
Jeffrey Hollender
The (hopefully) Inspired Protagonist