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The components of successful leadership

Leadership isn’t something reserved for individuals in the C-suite – any person at any professional level can be an effective leader. All it requires is an understanding of the attributions required to, and awareness of how to execute the behavior that supports those attributes. Based on research including 300 subject matter experts from 150 organizations, we contend that successful leadership has three key steps, with three drivers in each:

  1. Crafting a Vision: Includes exploration, boldness, and testing assumptions.
  2. Building Alignment: Includes clarity, dialogue, and inspiration.
  3. Championing Execution: Includes momentum, structure, and feedback.

Crafting a Vision

SL-3At any level of leadership, a vision is an imagined future state for an organization or team. It expands assumptions about what can be done, provides a purpose for organizations, teams, and individuals, drives the development of specific, vision-supporting goals, and unifies people. While it’s common to think of a vision as coming from the top down, ideally crafting a vision is a shared process that combines contributions at all levels – they are generally the result of ongoing efforts over a period of time by a larger group rather than something that just springs from a CEO’s head. And while the CEO may be responsible for the overall vision, each leader within the organization needs to define a vision for their group that supports the main vision.

There are three main drivers of vision: Exploration, boldness, and testing assumptions.


Exploration drives vision when the leader remains open to the full set of possibilities and prioritizes the big picture. Although a great vision often sounds simple and elegant, a good deal of effort and insight has usually gone into developing it. There is a discipline to exploring new ideas that involves thinking at a big-picture level. It also involves resisting the temptation to choose the “right” idea too quickly.

  • Leaders need to be intentional about exploring new directions.
  • It may help to suspend judgement and consider a variety of ideas.
  • Exploration involves giving oneself the time to weigh options.

Boldness drives vision when the leader is adventurous and unafraid to speak out. Creating a bold vision doesn’t necessarily mean doing something on a big scale, but it does mean that the leader has a willingness to go out on a limb to champion bold new directions. Great leaders stretch the boundaries of what seems possible and challenge people to rise to the occasion.

  • Leaders don’t make a big impact without being a little adventurous.
  • People look to leaders for a compelling vision that excites them.
  • Every great accomplishment begins with a bold idea.

Testing Assumptions
Testing assumptions drives vision when the leader seeks counsel and explores the implications of their actions. Creating a vision requires exploring ideas and being bold, but it’s also crucial that the vision be grounded. Leaders can test their assumptions through several means, including seeking others’ advice and doing more formal research. This is not about looking for support, but instead is about soliciting objective input and surfacing potential problems.

  • Leaders need to look beyond their own thinking to test assumptions.
  • It’s important to recognize obstacles when developing a vision.
  • Consider a variety of methods in checking your hypotheses.

Building Alignment
Building alignment is about gaining buy-in from the organization and your team – everyone who will have a role in making it a reality. It sets the stage by proposing a plan for effective implementation, provides a forum for questions and concerns, brings people together behind the vision, and generates excitement for the vision. Alignment ensures that people are on the same page, both from a task and an emotional perspective. It requires ongoing one-way and two-way communication. In fact, the failure of a vision, no matter when it happens, can often have more to do with a lack of alignment than with the strength of the vision or the efficiency of execution. Too often, leaders treat alignment as something to check off a to-do list. In reality, alignment is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires the leader to continually monitor and realign as conditions and needs change.

There are three main drivers of alignment: Clarity, dialogue, and inspiration.

Clarity drives alignment because it’s important to deliver a rational, structured message when communicating with others. Some leaders have trouble translating their great ideas into words. Others struggle to stay on topic or fail to relay the most important points. When people don’t understand your vision, how can you expect them to get on board?

  • Clear communications explains the reasoning behind their ideas.
  • When people understand a message, they can more easily buy in.
  • Consider thinking the message through all the way to the end.

Dialogue drives alignment because one of the simplest ways to get others aligned around the vision is to engage them in a rich discussion about the “who,” “what,” “why,” “where,” “when,” and “how” questions, and remain receptive to the ideas that emerge from those discussions. When leaders involve others in two-way conversations like this, it not only increases buy-in, but also gives leaders invaluable information.

  • True alignment requires openness to others’ ideas and concerns.
  • People want the chance to ask questions and share their insights.
  • Dialogue helps leaders identify potential problems or disconnects.


SL-1Inspiration drives alignment when a leader is both expressive and encouraging. Leaders get people truly excited to start a new project or initiative when they inspire them by painting an exciting picture of the future, share their own passion, and show confidence in the team’s ability to succeed. Leaders who are able to inspire others in this way are much more successful in gaining and maintaining buy-in.

  • Real buy-in isn’t just getting people to go through the motions.
  • When you express your passion, others become more committed.
  • People need to see how their efforts will contribute to success.

Championing Execution
Execution is turning the imagined future vision of the organization into a reality. It propels the development of concrete strategies, makes the vision actionable, gives people a sense of achievement, and fulfills the promise of the vision. The leader must make sure that all conditions are in place so that everyone can do the work necessary to fulfill the vision. Often people think of execution as something that happens in the tenches, while the leader sits in an office thinking up the big ideas. The truth is that successful execution of a vision can’t happen without the deep commitment and support of the leader.

There are three main drivers of execution: Momentum, structure, and feedback.

Momentum drives execution through initiating action and being driven towards results. Leaders often set the pace for the group, so when they tend to be too low-key, people may not feel the sense of momentum that’s needed to realize the vision. By being driven and proactive – and also by acknowledging others who take initiative – leaders send the message that getting things done at a brisk pace is important.

  • Leaders often set an example when it comes to momentum.
  • People tend to perform to the level of momentum that’s expected.
  • Without a sense of momentum, projects can stall out and fail.

SL-2Structure drives execution by providing a plan and analyzing the systems and processes in-depth. To execute on a vision effectively,SL 2 leaders need to ensure that people have enough structure to follow. Without appropriate processes, policies, and expectations in place, teams operate inefficiently and are less likely to create high-quality outcomes. To create structure, leaders need to make well-thought-out plans and analyze complex problems.

  • To work productively, people need to know what is expected.
  • Effective leaders respond to the structure needs of their teams.
  • Structure helps to produce predictable, reliable outcomes.

Feedback drives execution by addressing problems and offering praise. In order to ensure that the vision is executed, leaders must provide both critical and positive feedback. When inefficiencies and complications are evident, leaders need to be willing to speak up. And, when people are performing well, it’s equally important to provide the appropriate praise and recognition to keep everyone engaged.

  • Feedback from leaders helps people know how they’re performing.
  • Leaders need to be willing to address problems head-on.
  • Recognizing contributions encourages ownership and engagement.


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