The Leadership Equation

Our lives today seem to be run by mathematical equations and algorithms. Google finds our search requests with sophisticated algorithms.  Amazon uses algorithms to suggest items for you to purchase based on your previous shopping history.  Airlines recalculate and publish revised airfares multiple times a day in order to maximize load and profit based on a supply and demand algorithm using multiple inputs such as impending weather, holiday schedules, time of day and even world events.

It seems that almost everything in life can be reduced to a formula or algorithm. When you think of an algorithm in the most general way (not just in regards to computing), algorithms are everywhere. A recipe for making food is an algorithm. Simply a sequence of steps in order to deliver a final product; in this case a perfectly baked cake.

An algorithm is a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed, usually by a computer. Algorithms perform calculations, data processing, and/or automated reasoning tasks.

And recently the news is filled with stories of self-driving automobiles and the intelligent algorithms that integrate all the various data inputs to successfully navigate from point A to B on busy roads with no human intervention.

The Leadership Equation

Can we use a simple equation to help better define leadership?

The concept of leadership, that is the actions taken by an individual that make her/him stand out from others in their ability to get things done and do the right things, has been written about, debated, discussed, argued and theorized, taught and retaught for thousands of years.  Today there are literally hundreds of books on the market about leadership.  Leadership books for teachers, developing early childhood leadership skills, business leadership principles, board leadership, military leadership skills, NGO leadership, etc.  Most are a collection of attributes that, according to the author, makes one a leader.  One of the most popular is a book by John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  There’s even a book titled, Leadership for Dummies!

In my search for simplicity and to help business executives face the growing challenges of leadership in today’s complex global marketplace and changing political landscape, I have tried to look for a simple yet effective equation any person facing leadership choices can use to be more effective.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.  ~Albert Einstein

So far, the following equation has proven to be extremely useful in helping leaders understand their role and how to execute their responsibilities.  It’s very simple, yet at the same time profound.


Authority is how our role or job is defined in terms of decision limits, span of control, delegated authority, scope of budgets, purchasing limits, etc.   These are usually formally detailed in a job description.  In a perfect world, that would be enough for a person to carry out their duties effectively.

Unfortunately, our authority is not absolute and there are others in the company or team with responsibilities and authority as well.  And I have never seen a job description or responsibility matrix that can cover all contingencies and aspects of modern business life.  So there are gaps.  The following diagram is one I often use in leadership workshops to show how authority levels are not enough to get the job done in all situations.


 What About the Gaps?

As it is easy to see, no matter how complete the authority roles are developed, there are always gaps, which lead to statements such as, “that’s not my job”, “I did what I was supposed to do, it’s not my fault we didn’t get the result”, “she’s overstepping her bounds and interfering with my department”, “I did my job, you do yours”, etc.  

Leadership is about closing the gaps and getting things done, effectively, on-time, in budget, and improving the organization and it’s people along the way.  And it can only be accomplished when accountability is greater than authority. Leaders take responsibility for the bigger picture, beyond their stated level of authority. They keep the mission and purpose foremost in their mind, not their own budgets or functional goals. With a mindset of accountability, the gaps can be easily eliminated because everyone is working with the same overall enterprise objectives in mind.


We use this diagram in our leadership workshops to stimulate a discussion, particularly within a senior team, on what it will take to eliminate excuses and blaming (victim attitudes) and build a culture of accountability and high performance.  You would be amazed at the animated discussions that ultimately lead to a new understanding of leadership.

When someone is a real leader, you hear things like; “I know I didn’t create it, but it’s my problem now!”, “I’ll help whomever and do whatever it takes to help us win!”  How often do you hear that inside your company?

The highest form of leadership is personal accountability!


Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

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
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s