Is it possible to define, in systematic terms, what fuels the effectiveness of great leaders? Is there a magical predictor of success? A specific recipe that, if replicated, can always produce a leader who delivers optimal results?
As leadership and talent professionals, we know that we need to look beyond charisma, raw ambition and oratory brilliance in search of specific, measurable qualities that can predict the level of positive impact a leader will have on their organization. Are there certain attitudes, principles and actions that will determine whether leaders are good, better, or the best?
We each define what it means to be a great leader differently. Maybe your vision is based on a great coach you had growing up. Maybe you are fortunate to have worked for a company whose leader made you proud to work there. Or perhaps you call up an iconic figurehead who rose to fame during an inflection point in history. Chances are, however, the characteristics that make up our collective vision of the perfect leader tie most directly to the person’s ability to project a sense of purpose in everything they do.
At first blush, choosing “purposeful” as the defining characteristic may seem to be patently obvious and oversimplified. Recently, we assessed and analyzed 30 years’ worth of more than 1 million data points collected from the leadership assessments of hundreds of thousands of leaders worldwide (including leaders from Fortune 1000 enterprises, start-up companies, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and more). We made some powerful discoveries that form an empirical basis for what makes a leader most impactful, according to the stakeholders around them. Once distilled, the data led us to a combination of five core commitments that the most effective leaders make and keep; five critical factors that characterized the leaders rated most highly by their managers, their teams and themselves.
First, the most effective leaders – where “effective” is defined by an organization’s success in terms of financial performance, competitive differentiation and employee engagement – hinges on the leader having a personal conviction to accomplish something that matters to them. We call this a “Personal Why.” This passion can take many shapes, noble or ordinary: the youth sports coach who is driven to ensure kids simultaneously learn the skills of the game and how to excel as a teammate; the founder of a company with the goal of financial exit; or the CEO of a publicly-held corporation who is accountable for increasing shareholder value.
Then, they are able to translate this personal drive into a vision that their teams want to pursue and that is aligned with organizational goals. We call this an “Organizational What For;” a broader vision and message that teams can rally around and support.
From Purpose to Action
The most powerful discovery here is not that great leaders can do this. Rather, it is the remarkable similarity in how the best leaders go about turning their purpose into action. In short, these individuals make five commitments to themselves and their organizations: they inspire, engage, innovate, achieve and continuously become better in their capacity to lead. A person’s ability to sustain and grow with these commitments is what defines their maturity as a purposeful leader.
The presence of the commitments not only predicts greatness, but also differentiates the authentic leader from the accidental leader who, by circumstance rather than intent, may have been falsely identified as great by the annals of history.
Let us look more closely at how the five commitments of purposeful leaders take shape.
A leader who inspires creates hope and optimism for the future by directing energy toward a clear and attainable outcome. The core practices demonstrated here are creating vision, communicating evocatively and providing goals and direction. A strong leader must be certain to create a view of the future that is not only inspiring to others, but also distilled into actionable messages that will galvanize support.
To engage refers to a leader’s ability to create an atmosphere that is energizing and motivating to bring out the best in their team. Success on this front means demonstrating that the work at hand is meaningful. The leader understands the strengths of and cares about the team members who are striving to accomplish the work, and identifies opportunities for team members to grow. Diversity of thought and inclusion are important, as well as the ability to create a certain psychological safety. Successful leaders are not only able to clearly articulate a vision, they successfully create an environment in which teams want to commit themselves to push beyond limitations.
A leader who innovates eschews the status quo in favor of exploring new opportunities, altering the fundamental nature of the game and putting real changes in place. Leaders who embrace innovation challenge their team members to make new connections between ideas and events, and empower them to find better solutions to common problems. Innovation requires that a leader must have enough objectivity to understand that legacy and opportunity may, in fact, be mutually exclusive. It also demands confidence because there is a risk if innovation requires the leader to severe ties with an organization’s, and even their own, legacy to think in favor of future opportunity.
To achieve is to drive outcomes that deliver on the articulated vision. Leaders who demonstrate achievement favor progress over effort and outcome over process. Achievers ensure successful implementation by building and connecting processes within the organization, and the most successful leaders go even further; they carefully match goals to the capabilities of the team enlisted to reach them, and understand how far the team can stretch before it breaks.
Among the five foundational commitments for effective leadership, becoming more purposeful is the cornerstone. The ascent to great leadership is a journey more than a destination. It is the purposeful leader’s process of learning how to use their strengths most efficiently, and how to recognize and improve their weaknesses. Purposeful leaders understand that the journey requires both patience and perseverance to continuously evolve, knowing there is never finality in the process. Becoming reflects the commitment to the ongoing learning journey of a leader.
When they commit to becoming more purposeful, leaders earn the perception from their superiors, peers and team members that they have balanced self-awareness, respect, humility, courage and fairness to feed the other four commitments of purposeful leadership.
For Sonya Jacobs, the chief organizational learning officer at the University of Michigan, her personal rise and the success of her programs can be traced to purposeful leadership, and her ability to amass respect and admiration from many around her, consistently buys into her vision and her actions to make it so. People respect her input. She has influence and she gets things done because she infuses everything she does with an extreme sense of purpose: to produce equity and inclusion within diverse populations by helping them advance into leadership positions.
It would be disingenuous to propose that a leader – any leader – lacks a sense of purpose in what they do. They would not be where they are without it. However, it is the degree to which a leader is able to uphold specific commitments to support their purpose that determines their success in reaching their goals, and their ability to engage others in this pursuit.
In closing, while the effort is more of a journey than a destination, every leader can move toward a more purposeful state of leadership through guided introspection, practice and sustained attention to the five commitments. Perhaps most important, through adoption of purposeful leadership behaviors, every leader, from the most effective to the least, can continuously and consciously improve for the benefit of themselves, their organizations and the marketplaces in which their organizations operate.