Darwin Smith and Leadership (Who is Darwin Smith?)

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In his article for the Harvard Business Review, Jim Collins wrote about the characteristics of “Level 5 Leadership.” One of the profiles that Collins used to show level five leadership traits of outstanding leaders was Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark, who took the paper company from a middle-of-the-road performing company to a company that outperformed 3M, Coke, and GE. Darwin Smith was trained as an attorney and joined Kimberly-Clark’s legal department after law school with the idea of staying a couple of years to gain corporate law experience and move on to start his own firm. It never happened.

Collins categorized level 5 leaders as individuals who have personal humility, demonstrate modesty, shun adulation, never brag and act with calm determination. Smith’s introduction to leadership came through the Army, when he was told in officer-training school, “You’ll never be a leader.” Most level 5 leaders would not make the cover of any business publication. Their leadership style does not rely on charisma to lead and they channel their ambition into the organization, not themselves.

Lee Iacocca was a level 4 leader, who had effective leadership skills, but was more committed to his self-promotion and protecting his reputation, than to sustain the future of Chrysler. Level 4 leaders never complete long-term vision and play more of a “short-game.” When a level 4 leader’s tenure of the organization ends, the company, in a short period of time, usually experiences financial losses and uncertain viability.

Smith became CEO of Kimberly-Clark in 1971 and faced the brutal fact that the company was just average, with much of its capital tied up in giant paper mills. Darwin Smith offered no grand vision, mission statement, big acquisitions, or “hoopla-laden” change program. He simply questioned his key leaders: “What could Kimberly-Clark be passionate about? What could the company be best at in the world?”

Level 5 leaders have a “window” and a “mirror” approach to leading, Collins describes. When things go wrong, the level 5 leaders tend to look in the mirror and blame themselves for the mistakes or shortcoming. When things go right, the level 5 leaders look out of the window and claim, “everyone had a part in the success.”

Level 5 leaders have the “will” to execute a plan. They have the unwavering resolve to do what it takes for the organization to be successful. Smith sold off a large interest in coated papers mills, papers mills that were inefficient, product lines that were under performing, and even the first plant and headquarters the company owned in Neenah, Wisconsin, dating back to 1872 when the company started.

The focus of the company would become Kleenex and Huggies disposable diapers, that would compete against Procter and Gambles’ Pampers. The goal was to get out of the commodities market and focus more on the consumer goods market.

By the time Smith retired, Huggies had become the number one selling disposable diaper and accounted for over $7 billion in annual revenues for the company. Leaders must act boldly, but acting boldly is worthless if you get it wrong. It is better to get it right than be impressive.

Darwin Smith understood getting it right.

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As Featured in the Monitor November 19, 2017