The Five C’s of Leadership


I recently came across yet another book about leadership, written by a former college president and an assigned reading from my daughter Sophie’s freshman year of business school.

When I inquired if she would mind if I borrowed the book, I also asked what she thought about it. Not unlike her father, she is quick to decide and clear with opinions; she declared that it was boring and she wouldn’t recommend it. The learner in me, however, was interested in what I could learn from this author and his perspective on leadership.

I was encouraged by the Walter Isaacson’s foreword, which read, “There is no one formula for being a great leader” – although the cynic in me believed this former president was about to share his formula with a “this way is the right way” bias. He discussed the ten elements of leadership that shaped his journey, not totally losing sight of the privilege that put him on an early fast-track trajectory; however, he worked a little too hard (in my opinion) trying to connect with the “average guy’’ as he shared his modest roots. Then he did a reasonably effective job of laying out his ten elements which, while useful and helpful, really only tell a small part of the story.

When you study leaders from all walks of life, you can come up with any unique combination of elements and characteristics that helped make them successful. However, their consciousness – their awareness of assumptions, thinking, and beliefs that drive their behavior – is often overlooked. In fact, one of the first assumptions we should question is what, in a particular leader’s mind, determines success. S/he is making up the rules, and ultimately determines a positive impact on an organization, community, or the world.

Most leadership books talk about the competencies and characteristics that leaders must possess to be successful. What they fail to fully comprehend, and what gets lost in many discussions about leadership, are things such as starting position, circumstances, and conscious awareness.

Starting position in life has a great deal to do with the positive and resourceful nature by which many of us view our worlds. And while capability and style can contribute quite a bit to overall effectiveness, the key to long-term sustainable effectiveness is mindful awareness of one’s assumptions – and whether those assumptions and the behavior that flows from them is scalable and resourceful.

The circumstances that arise when you are in a leadership role provide the opportunity for you to shine – or not shine – based on your consciousness, capability and style. For example, Abraham Lincoln was always Abraham Lincoln, but he would not have been the Lincoln we remember if he hadn’t been president in 1865.

What we are unaware of, we cannot change, and many of our beliefs – both empowering and limiting – were imprinted on our less than conscious minds long ago. They are part of our story, learned as a means of keeping us safe throughout our childhood, adulthood, and professional careers. We must combat those unconscious beliefs by developing the practices that help us become more consciously aware of our thinking and behavior, and by closely examining the impact they have on ourselves, our team, and our organizations.

And there are other critical competencies found in most successful leaders. Compassion is one such skill. Because of the interdependence that exists in our world, it is both short-sighted and unsustainable to ignore the pain that the people you interact with might be in. More importantly, when we bring presence and compassion to all our interactions, we also bring a genuine and authentic concern to help people through their challenges. Any barrier, whether physical or emotional, prevents individuals from realizing their full potential and contributing to creating what matters most.

Capability is another, and includes the skills that are important to be successful in any leadership role. There are a handful of these particular competencies in which effective leaders have demonstrated proficiency that enable them to scale their leadership and the leadership of their teams. These skills can be defined in a number of different ways – and at the risk of generalizing, I would suggest them as follows:

  • Emotional Agility
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Systems Awareness
  • Authentic and Transparent Communications
  • Results Oriented

Collaboration a key element of effective, scalable leadership. Teamwork is a competency that is often listed in many assessments as a key skill to be proficient with. Simply put, it is about working and playing well with others to create solutions that meet the interests of all stakeholder groups. This requires the self-awareness and self-management skills to subordinate the ego and self interests to the greater good.

Finally, a sense of community involves a genuine interest in service beyond the organization you lead and into the communities that your organization serves. Leadership goes beyond generating positive results for your employees, shareholders, and customers, and includes making a positive and proactive contribution to the communities where you reside.

As a leader, what is your unique combination of competencies and characteristic? And more importantly, what areas do you need to strengthen to become the leader you are capable of being?

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1 Comment

  1. Jef Sneider on June 3, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Ralph, what seems to be missing from the five elements is a commitment to basic values. I see strategic and tactical skills which need to be guided by values about customer focus, employee and community empowerment, fairness, etc.

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