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Four Dimensions of Leadership

Today’s business literature is replete with models of leadership and an entire industry has grown up around coaching leaders. Leadership is arguably one of the most valuable of human activities, yet despite the vast literature on the topic, many people remain unable to identify the basic building blocks that define what leadership is. Intuitively we know that leaders possess the talent to bring people together; to get them to work together effectively; to align them around a common purpose, goals, and objectives; to get them to co-operate and rely on each other; and to trust each other. We also know from the experience of observing leaders in action that the generic attributes of leadership described in the literature, and the actual role that a leader plays do not occur in a vacuum, but are embedded within specific historical contexts, business situations, and the organizational structures, systems, and culture within which people lead (Elliot Jaques, and Stephen Clement, Executive Leadership, (Arlington, VA: Cason Hall, 1994, p. xiv ff. and 6 ff.).

Research and field analysis have shown that leadership has four interdependent dimensions.

  • Expertise, Experience, and Wisdom
  • Problem Solving Ability
  • Personality, Core Beliefs and Values
  • Awareness of Self and Others

The first dimension of leadership (Expertise, Experience, and Wisdom) includes education, expertise, experience in specific industries and markets, and a track record of effectively leading organizations with various numbers of employees and managerial levels (Elliot Jaques, Requisite Organization, Baltimore, MD: 2006). Over time, managerial wisdom emerges as seasoned and sound judgment about how organizations and industries work, what motivates people, what customers and suppliers truly need and desire, and how to work effectively at higher-levels of management.

The second dimension of leadership (Problem Solving Ability) is about having the appropriate level of “intellectual horsepower” to effectively perform the level of work and task complexity to which a person is assigned. Work and task complexity is defined as: a) the number of variables operating in a situation, b) the ambiguity of these variables, c) their rate of change over time, d) the extent to which they are interwoven so that they have to be unraveled in order to be seen, e) the person’s ability to identify and control the salient variables once known, and f) the time horizon of the work in terms of days, months, and years (Jaques, Requisite Organization, pp. 24 ff. and Jaques and Clement, Executive Leadership, p. xiv ff.).

The third dimension of leadership (Personality, Core Beliefs and Values) manifests itself as patterns of behavior and interaction, tacit assumptions, intrinsic motivators, and underlying patterns of how leaders see themselves, other people, and the world around them (see Mark Bodnarczuk, Breckenridge Type Indicator(TM)). There is no one “right” personality or set of core beliefs and values for a given leadership position, but instead the question is: a) to what extent do they help a person work effectively, or b) reveal decision-making biases, predictable errors in judgment, or patterns of inappropriate behaviors? A key indicator that a person possesses a mature grasp on this dimension of leadership is the degree to which they: a) avoid using what Collins calls either-or-thinking, and b) instead practice both-and-thinking (Jim Collins, Built to Last, New York: Harper Business, 1994, p. 43 ff.).

The fourth dimension of leadership (Awareness of Self and Others) is based on the timeless principles found in Jim Collins best-selling book, Good to Great (Jim Collins, Good to Great, New York: Harper Business, 2001). Collins began his research on Good to Great with a bias against leadership. He told his research team that the fact that “great companies had great leaders” went without saying and was an uninteresting finding. But his research showed that truly great companies had a fundamentally different kind of leader (what he called a Level-5 Leader) and these people were characterized by professional will and fierce resolve combined with personal humility. Level-5 Leaders put self-interest aside and instead focus on building a sustainable organization and setting others up to succeed, not fail. Level-5 Leaders know how to introspectively look into the mirror of personal responsibility when things go wrong, and they know how to ascribe credit to others when things go right (Collins, Good to Great, p. 33 ff.). The key question is, “How does one become the kind of leader that Collins describes in Good to Great?” Collins argues that Level-5 Leaders exhibit a pattern of personal development in which the ego-centered drive required to reach the top of corporate America is transformed into the paradoxical combination of professional will, fierce resolve, and humility, but he offers no systematic approach to becoming a Level-5 leader – it’s beyond the scope of his study. Our view is that the fourth dimension of leadership (Awareness of Self and Others) is the key to becoming a Level-5 Leader.

The four dimensions of leadership are an interdependent set of competencies, skills, and characteristics that enable leaders to bring people together; to get them to work together effectively; to align them around a common purpose, goals, and objectives; to get them to co-operate and rely on each other; and to trust each other. As mentioned previously, the generic attributes of leadership described in the literature, and the actual role that a leader plays day-to-day do not occur in a vacuum, but are embedded within specific historical contexts, business situations, and the organizational structures, systems, and culture within which people lead. Consequently, the four dimensions of leadership must always be contextualized and applied to the real life situations and challenges that leaders face.


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