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Is there a "DNA" of effective leadership? If so, what is it?
on January 29, 2009
Those who have read any of Dave Ulrich's fifteen previously published books already know that he is one of the insightful thinkers and most eloquent writers in the contemporary business world. In his last book The Leadership Brand, Ulrich and Norm Smallwood make this affirmation: "We believe that leaders matter, but leadership matters more. We have all experienced a gifted leader who engaged all of us -- our hearts, minds, and feet. Dynamic leaders enlist us in a cause, and we willingly follow their counsel. But leadership exists when an organization produces more than one to two individual leaders. Leadership matters more because it is tied not to a person but to the process of building leaders." By no means do Ulrich and Smallwood question the importance of individual leaders. On the contrary, they assert (and I agree) that one of the most important obligations of being a leader is to strengthen or at least sustain a process by which to identify, hire, develop, and then retain high-impact leaders at all levels and in all areas throughout her or his organization.
Efforts to write most of the best business books are driven by an important question (e.g. How can a company "leap" from good to great?) and, in fact, this book responds to two basic sets of questions:
"1. What percent of effective leadership is basically the same? Are there common rules that any leader anywhere must master? Is there a recognizable leadership code?
2. If there are common rules that all leaders must master, what are they?"
Stated another way, is there a "DNA" of effective leadership? If so, what is it? Are leaders born with it or can it be developed? In this book, Ulrich, Smallwood, and Sweetman respond to these questions. They offer "a unified way of [begin italics] thinking about] being a better leader and [being] a better leader." After rigorous and extensive research, "we have discovered and validated what we now know to be the five essential rules all excellent leaders must follow. Since these rules form the basis for all good leaders, just as our genetic code determines our elemental core as people, we call it the [begin italics] leadership code [end italics]. " Ulrich, Smallwood, and Sweetman devote a separate chapter to each of these five essential rules. I see no need to identify them. Other reviewers have already done so. What I prefer to do, rather, is explain why I think so highly of this book. Here are three reasons.
First, the co-authors approach their reader on two separate but interdependent levels, suggesting (1) what effective leadership requires and (2) how to help others to become effective leaders. (Note: CEO Jeff Immelt spends 20-25% of his time mentoring GE's middle managers.) "Modeling the rules of leadership ensures that you lead well, but helping others master those rules guarantees success." It is important to keep in mind that the title of one of Ulrich's books, co-authored with Jack Zenger and Smallwood and published in 1999, is Results-Based Leadership. Obviously they agree with Thomas Edison that "vision without execution is hallucination." "All leaders must excel at personal proficiency...have one towering strength [e.g. impeccable integrity that inspires respect and trust]...be at least average in their `weaker' leadership domains...[and] the higher up that the leader rises, the more he or she needs to develop excellence in more than one of the four domains." I commend the co-authors on how brilliantly they explain why and how the most effective leaders help others to become effective leaders.
I also appreciate how skillfully Ulrich, Smallwood, and Sweetman establish and then sustain a direct, indeed cordial rapport with their reader. This book comes as close as a book could to approximating what would occur if they were their reader's personal mentors. Consider the following: "Strategy is being clear about where you want to go" to which Michael Porter would add, "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." (Page 25) "Execution is making sure that you get where you are going." (Page 53) "As you communicate, you need to consider your audience, tailoring your message differently for the boardroom and the lunchroom, and learn to succeed in both...You need to share your emotions and self, not just your intellectual ideas" (Page 85) "To build the next generation, be a human capital developer." (Page 105) "Personal proficiency is the ultimate rule of leadership, it starts by knowing yourself." (Page 129) These are not head-snapping revelations, nor do the authors make any such claim. I include them merely to suggest the co-authors' use of direct address throughout their narrative. Many who read this book will think that it was written specifically for them.
Finally, I hold this book in high regard because it provides so much information and counsel in less than 200 pages (180 to be exact). After introducing and then examining each of the "five essential rules," they explain how to ensure better leaders and leadership in the final chapter, Chapter Seven, by taking five action steps: establish a clear theory of leadership that is most appropriate to the needs and objectives of the given organization, assess all leaders and potential leaders in terms of their value (and potential value) relative to that theory, make whatever investment may be necessary to develop leaders and leadership at all levels and in all areas throughout the enterprise, and follow-up to keep all organizational practices in proper alignment. The co-authors also provide (in Appendix 7-1) a "Leadership brand assessment." Those who read this book are strongly encouraged to complete as assessment (as well as others inserted previously on Pages 21, 65, 89, and 135) and visit [...] where they have access to a wealth of resources that include Ulrich's brief video lesson on how to interpret the results of self-assessment 1, Smallwood's videos (during which he explains the customer value proposition and the strategic options matrix, and in another provides the closing chapter and a discussion of leadership brand), and Sweetman explains how the viruses tool,(figure 3-1) has worked at other companies to lower cultural barriers to the change execution process. Visitors to this Web site can also take a full-length code assessment (self or 360º) if they have not already done so.
Whenever appropriate, I like to conclude a review with an excerpt from Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching that expresses, in my opinion, the essence of great leaders and leadership. Here it is:
"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves. "