The Five Pillars of Leadership

In any competitive environment – the military, business, and even sports — good leadership is the one thing that is going to make the difference between being mediocre and being excellent.

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In any competitive environment – the military, business, and even sports — good leadership is the one thing that is going to make the difference between being mediocre and being excellent. Having said that, there is no one magic bullet or ‘secret sauce’ for becoming a good leader. It’s a combination of many things. I have found, in my more than 40 years of engaging with and working with leaders, that there are five key pillars that any professional in business or government must learn if they are going to be a proficient and successful leader.

The first is leading yourself. This is about humility, integrity, trust, and lifelong learning. It is study, observation, and experience in order to learn the characteristics of what good leaders are actually like. If somebody tries to throw an obstacle in front of you or your people, you will find a way around it. Who do you look up to as a leader? Who is a role model? Can you emulate that behavior, adapting it to your specific circumstance? It’s about learning to think for yourself and conquering stress. Leading yourself is also learning to never give up on something you believe in, because success is usually found just beyond the point where most people give up.

The second is leading people. This is something that I learned from Colin Powell. I was his aide in the 1990s, and we were in a car riding to an event. He turned to me and said, “You know, the essence of leading people is holding them to the highest possible standards while taking the best possible care of them.” I found this to be very profound. I think the best leaders that I've been around do this. Leading people really means genuinely caring about those individuals and getting to know them, both as individuals and generations. It means hiring the best, developing them, and even firing them when necessary. Lee Scott, the former CEO of Walmart, once told me, “You can be bad at hiring or you can be bad at firing, but you can't be bad at both.”

The third is leading organizations. Good leaders know what types of structure and process work in a given environment, and they take great pains to build culture. Good culture is very hard to build, just like a brand name, and it’s very easy to destroy – it only takes a moment. To succeed in leading an organization, you need to establish a clear and compelling intellectual framework for what your organization is doing. You have to put in the hard work around what you are trying to get done. What are the fundamentals, what elements do you have to get right? And then distill that into something very simple in terms of a mission and a constant for how you will accomplish that mission.

The fourth is leading execution. This is about establishing operational excellence. High-performance organizations are founded on institutional integrity, a high level of knowledge, procedural compliance, solid communications, forceful backup, and a questioning attitude. Leaders also have to have the courage to make decisions and move forward with them. This seems simple, but it’s not. For example, part of making a decision is knowing how to run a meeting, which sounds as simple as blocking and tackling, but very few people know how to do this well. Very few decisions get made in a large meeting – you have to drive the size of the meeting, the focus, and the pace. So, it’s dipping into the tactical when you need to, and then coming back out to the strategic goal — good leaders know how to find that balance.

The final pillar is leading change, which is my favorite. Good leaders challenge all the assumptions. They know that creation is normally the result of a synergy of ideas that have never before been matched, which is further enabled by diversity within an organization.  Change leaders can see the difference between a trend and the trendy . . .  and they are good at recognizing trigger points at which they need to actually change their business. This is also about being willing to disrupt yourself.

Good leaders are passionate about what they’re doing, which in turn feeds and fires up their teams. You have to be curious and willing to do the grunt work of learning the basics of leadership. Go out and find good teachers and good role models. And finally, experiment along the way to learn what leadership techniques work for you. Get out there and practice. Read. Be passionate. Experiment. Make mistakes. Have successes. Roll it all together and you’ll find that in short order you’ll become a very effective leader.

Expanse recently announced the addition of retired US Navy Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld as an advisor to the company. Winnefeld joins the Expanse advisory board after serving as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States’ number two ranking military officer. This article is part one of a three-part series into some of Winnefeld’s thoughts as he joins the Expanse team.


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