Five Secrets To Successful Leadership

We should spend less time bettering ourselves and more time choosing better leaders.

Is great leadership measurable? Or does someone have to be experienced to be any good at it?

After analyzing great leaders current and historical, my conclusion is that five crucial attributes determine whether you succeed or fail as a leader. This applies whether you’re running America, Google, the American army, or a startup in your garage.

The five are: vision, organization, inspiration, character, and ethos.

If a leader is bringing it, you hear a five-part harmony. But when leadership fails, the five are in a tug of war. That is why we get stuck with tragedies or travesties like Enron, BP oil spill, or Iran nukes.

Rinse and repeat.

Dealing with failure is a leader’s worst nightmare.

A powerful survival instinct takes over when there is the scent of failure and the hunt is on for something or someone to blame. It can be a faceless institution like Capitalism or a country like the United States, or an individual, especially one who is down for the count and can’t fight back. Elizabeth Warren thrashes the bumbling, gray-haired CEO of Wells Fargo for poor business practices. This also allows her to sidestep an inconvenient fact — her Committee was overseeing this bank during this period. But the media often ignores these minor contradictions, and as Yogi Berra would say, ‘deja vu’ all over again.

First, become a connoisseur of leadership.

The five attributes run like a strand of DNA from Lincoln through Google’s Larry Page. I propose that we factor for them the next time we select a leader. The attributes form the acronym, VOICE.

  1. Vision
  2. Organization
  3. Inspiration
  4. Character
  5. Ethos

Then, remember that leadership like most skills requires strength, balance, but most of all, coordination.

What makes the VOICE formula a useful tool for choosing leaders is that it emphasizes harmony over hegemony.

There is unity in leadership. No single attribute is more critical than another, we need all five to work together and there is no hierarchy. That creates a balanced leader which allows wisdom to flourish. Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela are nearly perfect representations of this dynamic. At a business level, someone like @Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and @GE’s Jeff Immelt possess these qualities.

Finally, ask yourself, what happens when a key ingredient is missing?

If we fail to assess all five attributes we risk choosing a leader who starts out like Mother Theresa but ends up like Al Capone.

Think of the many occasions in your life when you’ve observed a leader close up. Now look back to those times when everything went to hell. Was there an inspiring chief but one that was compromised by lack of character? Did you admire a boss with a compelling vision, then found he or she lacked the organizational ability to carry it out? Were you ever misled by powerful rhetoric that didn’t face reality?

1.Vision liberates people to achieve dreams.

A leader’s vision does not have to be lofty, it just has to be bold. Ralph Lauren’s vision was aristocratic merchandise. Sam Walton’s was massive inventory and price. Lee Kuan Yew, the famed leader of Singapore, had a vision of socialism based on capitalist rules.

2. Organization is how we allocate resources to enable results.

Organizational excellence is crucial to leadership, just ask Napoleon after the Russia campaign. In business, it is also just as crucial to marry organizational skills to a moral compass or else you can end up with the example of Bernie Madoff. He began as a legitimate investment advisor but when he found he was better at raising funds than investing them, he simply shifted his business model to the dark side.

3. Inspiration instills enthusiasm to the end of the line.

Many leaders spend their time courting elites, but great leaders know better. Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy had an instinctive feel for ordinary people, and it’s why we still revere them.

4. Character recognizes the important distinction between best and optimal.

The famous Tylenol recall is a classic example of a leader making the right choice in the face of pressure to stonewall. Johnson and Johnson’s CEO, James Burke, knew the safety of his customers was more important than the risk of losses and a rash of lawsuits.

5. Ethos fuses the urge of a sudden impulse with tomorrow’s long memory.

Ethos is the spirit of an organization’s past, present, and future. It is what attracts outstanding people to Google or General Electric or makes someone want to invest money with Warren Buffett. When ethos gets shipwrecked, we are adrift. Ask Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro how great it feels to sort out the ethos left by Chavez.

Leadership is one part experience and one part organic. We need to be a judge of both if we are to pick good ones.

It took thousands of years, thousands of wars and millions of fatalities to arrive at the understanding of leadership we have today. It is a multi-faceted issue, and the VOICE formula also allows circumstance a key role in defining a leader. One could argue George Washington would be nothing more than a gentleman farmer if he had not been chosen to lead the Revolutionary Army. Yet his personal attributes were the key ingredients in his ability to transform himself into a warrior and his followers into an effective army.

This is the point of VOICE. We don’t choose our circumstances, but we do choose our leaders. If we choose them based on the five principles of VOICE — vision, organization, inspiration, character, and ethos, the outcome will always the kind of leadership you can trust and verify.