The Five Principles of Leadership: Defining Leadership

Text that says "The five principles of leadership potential purpose people playbook pay it forward"

Since childhood, I’ve been enamored by those who seemed to run towards danger, guide others to safety or success, and deflect any accolades that came their way. As a boy, that was my definition of leadership. Over the years, many articles, books and presentations have been published that seek to define and decode the essence of successful leadership. While their numbers surpass my ability to read or listen to them all, I will confess that I’ve devoted a significant portion of my life to doing so.

Fast forward a handful of decades and my views on leadership have evolved. The progression of my thinking has come as the result of continued study of those around me, complemented by my own successes and setbacks through a variety of leadership roles across multiple industries, companies and socio-economic market conditions.

At its core, I believe the most fitting definition of leadership is “the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives.” While simple in its articulation, every word is carefully chosen, revealing the intricacies of what it takes to be an effective leader.

Allow me to unpack why I personally find this to be the most revealing definition of leadership, and to share a framework I have applied to bring this definition to life in my daily practices.

Let’s begin by deconstructing the definition: “the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives”

  • Ability: is a talent, skill or proficiency that can be learned, developed or strengthened. I do not believe in the Trait Theory that suggests leaders are “born, not made.” To the contrary, I believe leadership is a journey, not a destination, and grows stronger with personal authenticity, practice, setbacks and adaption.
  • Inspire: is to animate and fill with the urge or ability to do. Leadership requires an ability to inspire the head, the heart and the hands. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson – a leader must be more than a great communicator, they must be a translator of dreams.
  • Others: declares the focus of a leader’s energy in service to others. Nurturing and growing others’ individual abilities, while harnessing and transforming the collection of individuals’ abilities into organizational capability.
  • Achieve: is to successfully bring about or reach a goal through effort, skill or courage. It is a combination of perspiration, practice and the capacity to confront grand challenges.
  • Shared Objectives: implies the measure of one’s success or failure is in service to a cause greater than self. This is the “skeleton key” of leadership, unlocking the collective potential of the team. At the same time, it is often the most challenging aspect of leadership because it requires convincing others to subordinate their self-interest for the greater good of the team. This is why so many leaders quote the wisdom of great coaches with such phrases as – “it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back” (Joe Paterno), or my personal favorite – “a player who makes the team great is more valuable than a great player” (John Wooden).

Putting it together, I have come to believe the essence of great leadership is embodied in the elements of this definition, with every word requiring focus and application.

In my quest to achieve this level of leadership, I have relied on a repeatable framework that has been tested and revised through my 35+ years of benchmarking, learning, practicing and adapting. I call it “The Five Principles of Leadership” – Potential, Purpose, People, Playbook, Pay-It-Forward.

I will devote the next five articles to diving deep into each of these P’s, sharing lessons learned, best practices and pragmatic tips for implementing them in our daily habits.

I hope you will join me in this journey of discovery, and will offer your own experiences and insights that will help me improve the framework and my leadership abilities along the way!