Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By

BusinessWeek

January 13, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman answer questions about their new book and show how the principles apply in a recession.

Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood have collaborated on several leadership books, starting about 10 years ago with Results-Based Leadership and followed by How Leaders Build Value and Leadership Brand. This time they are joined by a co-author, Kate Sweetman, to collaborate on their newest book, Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By. This book could not have come at a better time for leaders who are knee-deep in a recession and looking for answers. Here are edited excerpts of a recent chat I had with Dave (DU), Norm (NS) and Kate (KS).

MG: There are thousands of books on leadership already in print. Why do we need another?

DU: The sheer number of leadership books, ideas, theories, opinions, and approaches compelled us to write this one. Why? Because we needed to create order out of chaos. Since we synthesized hundreds of studies, frameworks, tools, and interviews to discover the essential rules of great leadership, we think of Leadership Code as a “unified field theory” of leadership. This book is a synthesis of what we know about leadership.

What did you find?

DU: There are five rules that effective leaders in any organization must live by in order to be successful:

1. Leaders must invest in themselves to be personally proficient. Effective leaders manage their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves well. They learn constantly. They are capable of quick, bold actions as well as great patience. They constantly deepen their insight about themselves. This is especially true in tough economic times when people look to their leaders for hope and confidence.

2. Good leaders know how to be strategists and are able to answer the question “Where are we going?” They test their big ideas pragmatically, and they work with others to find the path from the present to the desired future.

3. Effective leaders are executors. They ask: “How will we ensure that we reach our goal?” They understand how to make change happen, assign accountability, delegate appropriately, and make sure that teams work well together.

4. These leaders are talent managers and engage people to get things done now and in a manner that generates intense personal, professional, and organizational loyalty. They help people bring their best to the job at hand.

5. Finally, they are human capital developers who build the next generation. They make sure that the organization has the longer-term skills, knowledge, behaviors and attitudes for future strategic success.

Do all leaders need to exhibit all of these competencies in equal measure?

NS: Here’s what we found: All effective leaders must be personally proficient. For example, they must have integrity, they must be trustworthy, and they must be willing to learn. In addition, most people tend to have a predisposition or strength in one of the other areas. For example, many front line leaders have skills as executors and talent managers in order to get things done. However, as a leader reaches more senior levels in the organization, they must become proficient in all of the areas. A high performing team has individuals who bring individual skills into team performance.

A lot of people would say that in tough times like these, the only thing that matters is today’s bottom line. How does your model address this?

KS: It is vital to be practical in a recession. You need cash flow to keep the doors open, and protecting the bottom line is paramount. The mistake that would-be leaders make, however, is suddenly viewing their world as a pure execution play: cut costs at all costs. The wise leader needs to operate in all domains, not just execution, because she also needs to set a huge priority on positioning her firm for the recovery.

That means being long-term about the choices you make under today’s pressures, caring very much about the people surrounding you today who need to perform while they are also worried about their mortgages, college tuitions, and heating bills, and making sure that you hang on to the people who will be most valuable to you in the future—and who are most able to walk. In tough times, core values come to the surface. Leaders who treat others with respect in difficult times will earn more respect.

Let me give you an example. A client of ours went into a tailspin when the credit crunch hit. He was pretty highly leveraged, so concern made sense, but his exaggerated fears drove him to make some overly dramatic cuts. In addition to de-positioning the company for the recovery, he has so unnerved his workforce that they either huddle around the water cooler nervously comparing notes, or hole up in their offices putting out feelers for Plan B in case the company doesn’t make it. What they should be doing is figuring out creative solutions to their current challenges, but his actions preempted that.

By the way, this is why leadership in a recession is such hard work. Just when you are feeling most pressured and vulnerable, you need to be strongest and most generous in mind and spirit.