Is There a “Leadership Code”?

James MacGregor Burns wrote, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” So to better understand leadership, Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman set out to discover if there is a “leadership code” —a set of leadership characteristics that are transferable from one context to another.

Perhaps you have heard someone say, “Leadership is leadership.” The authors would agree. After interviewing leadership experts, reviewing works about leadership from multiple generations, and processing their own observations, they concluded that 60-70% of all leadership is transferable. In other words, up to 70% of what makes a leader effective in one environment is transferable to another environment. Some know this intuitively and hire proven leaders for the “transferable 70%” of the job and train for the 30% of the job that is industry or discipline specific.

So what characteristics make up the “leadership code”? The authors articulate five essential qualities in all leaders, regardless of the context:

1. Strategist

Strong strategists help others understand the direction and position resources to get there.

2. Executor

Executors are able to transform strategy into action. They get it done.

3. Human capital developer

Developers build leaders for the future. They think proactively about the individuals on the team.

4. Talent manager

Talent managers leverage today’s team members to fulfill the mission of the organization.

5. Personal proficiency

Leaders who are personally proficient are healthy. They possess character and act with integrity.

According to the authors’ research and observations, all great leaders have personal proficiency. Without integrity, a leader will crumble as responsibilities increase. Without integrity, excelling in other aspects of leadership won’t matter in the long run.

Every leader has at least one other “towering strength,” one characteristic the leader excels at. However, “the higher the leader rises, the more he or she needs to develop excellence in more domains.” And all leaders must be at least average in all domains or that domain will be a debilitating weakness that crushes them.

The framework below, provided in the book, is helpful to evaluate yourself and the team you lead. Where are your strengths? Where do you need to improve as a leader? As a team, do you have all domains covered?

052615 Leadership Code Pic

Notice that the right side of the chart is focused on the organization and the left side is focused on individuals. The top half of the chart is focused on the long-term and the bottom-half is focused on the short-term.