The Five Foundations of Effective Leadership

Note:  This is reblog of a post I wrote in December, 2012, but I have had numerous requests to repost it.


To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I’m working on the foundation.                              ~ Marilyn Monroe


Marilyn Monroe’s tragic ending may have been different with a stronger foundation underneath her great and growing talent. Sustainable success in most endeavours requires a strong foundation.

Like a tree that can successfully survive the harshest weather and ravages of time, successful leadership must be based on a solid foundation.  And the deeper the roots, the taller the tree.

The literature on leadership is filled with attributes, some simple, some complex, many colorful and representing the way the leader (or the person describing the leader) sees the world.  For example, for a down-home, straight talking, no-BS set of leadership attributes, dip into the book by Gordon Bethune on the turnaround of Continental Airlines: From Worst to First.  For a more academic and exhaustive treatise on leadership, read John W. Gardner’s 1993 classic: On Leadership. And it seems that “leadership” is a popular topic these days.  A Google search for the word “leadership” turned up 500 million hits; just 57 million less than “Gangnam Style”.

In my previous post I laid out my list of The Five Failures of Leadership.  Today, let’s turn the coin over and talk about The Five Foundations of Effective Leadership.

  1. A Commitment to “Make a Positive Difference”

I want to put a ding in the universe.  ~ Steve Jobs

Effective leaders seem to have a strong commitment to a goal (dream, vision, objective – whatever you call it) that is much bigger than themselves.  They are not content with last year’s results plus 5%.  They are determined to make a difference; many are even maniacal about it.  Some say obsessed and single-bloody-minded!

And the job of leader requires that level of commitment and focus, because making a positive difference in the world (whether with products, services, innovations, policies) requires going up against a great deal of inertia and reluctance to change.  Anybody can wrestle small goals into submission, but big hairy goals require an inordinate amount of focus and commitment.

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”    ~George Bernard Shaw

2.   Strong Foundation of Faith and Belief

A real leader believes in you more than you believe in them.

Real leaders are long on belief.  First, they believe in what they are doing and secondly, they believe in the people they are doing it with.  Without a strong faith and belief in the “goodness” of the goal and the “goodness” of people, most leaders would fade away after one or two setbacks or failures.  Adversity is the litmus test for leadership.  Anyone can have a leadership title, but few can lead.  Faith and belief allows the leader to try again, to think of new solutions, to take further risks, to enroll and mobilize others in the face of certain hardship. And faith and belief comes from the inside, not from a paycheck or a big office.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. ~Saint Augustine

3.    Build Leaders, Not Followers

The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.  ~Ralph Nader

The majority of those who have a leadership title or see themselves as leaders, tend to be highly self-centric.  They pontificate, they appear on news shows, in front of congress, they have books ghost-written about them, they become personalities.  The “cult of leadership” has risen strongly in the past several decades, propelled by the media and those thirsty to find a easy-route to leadership.

Effective leaders tend to spend a great deal of their time producing more leaders.  They coach, they prod, they test, they support, they teach, they drop hints, they give stretch assignments, they reward and they punish.  They understand the mantle of leader is not lightly worn and so they constantly work to turn raw talent into leadership.

If you want to prosper for a year, grow rice. If you want to prosper for a decade, plant trees. If you want to prosper for a century, grow people.  ~Chinese Proverb

4.    Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Effective leaders deliver simple, clear messages, and they repeat them over and over.  View any press interview with Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford, and you will hear the same message over and over; the One Ford mantra.

Too often leaders come up with the “flavour of the month” slogan or idea or objective.  After a while employees at all levels begin to tune out, usually because “the last idea hasn’t even gotten traction yet and here we are on to another direction”.  Effective leaders take every opportunity, whether it be in a staff meeting, meet the press interview, or lunch room chat with employees, to repeat the one or two important key messages about the business. And they personalise it by telling personal stories that connect themselves with the message.

Repetition of the same thought or physical action develops into a habit which, repeated frequently enough, becomes an automatic reflex.   ~Norman Vincent Peale

5.    Always Thankful, But Never Satisfied

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. ~Mark Twain

The mantra of many effective leaders is “continuous improvement from a position of gratitude”.  Constantly pushing for more and more can often demoralise employees and staff if feel that “nothing is ever good enough; all he/she wants is more, more, more!” But without continuous improvement, the drive to be better, to lead the competition, it is easy for a company to fall behind in today’s highly competitive global marketplace.

Successful leaders perch their demands for continuous improvement on a foundation of gratitude and appreciation.  They are thankful for how far the organization has come, they are thankful and appreciative of the hard work shown every day, they are even thankful for obstacles and challenges!  Effective leaders realize that without obstacles, nothing every improves or changes, but they also know that without a true feeling of gratitude and appreciation, the best does not come forth from employees, or themselves.

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.

On top of these Five Foundations rest a multitude of attributes and characteristics that help build leadership capabilities.  But sustainable leadership, especially in the face of overwhelming difficulty, requires a strong foundation.

How deep are your roots?

I don’t want to just be a leader, I want to be the leader of a team of leaders!  ~Thomas D. Willhite

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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5 Responses to The Five Foundations of Effective Leadership

  1. mimijk says:

    Terrific John – somewhere in this piece should be the word ‘authentic’ – I think a leader has to be prepared to walk the walk & talk the talk. The appeal of good developers of people is seen in the sincerity and transparency with which they lead.


  2. Steve Borek says:

    The best leaders practice being a leader every day.


  3. Pingback: What is the Foundation of Great Leadership? - Don Frericks Leadership Coaching

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