Corporate Leadership Strategy: Leadership Culture is an Essential Part of Your Business Strategy

By Cathy McCullough

dateThu, Apr 30, 2020 @ 12:00 PM

CEOs and business leaders frequently ask me why their corporate strategies for the year falter or just don’t happen. “It’s like no Leadership Strategies.  6 Qualities of a good business is listening to me,” said one CEO. He and his leadership team had a great two-day Annual Planning session to do the Strategic Thinking needed for the upcoming year. While their corporate strategy was very good, what was lacking was a corporate culture designed for success in carrying out their expressed strategy.  The more and more I work with organizations, the more I’ve come to see that leadership is a strategy. Strategic planning is great, but if you don't have effective leaders it is going to be tough to achieve your goals. All in all, how you lead people matters.

I often think of Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership. Most of us know about what his research in Good to Great concluded, but few know how to go from a transactional model of leadership to a more transformational one. In today’s complex business environment, Level 5 Leadership is needed more than ever. Leaders need to create corporate cultures that are resilient and adaptive. They need to create organizations that are communities of excellence vs. business unit silos of mediocrity. They need to lead people to think and teach them to make great decisions on their own. They need to create environments that increase the speed of decision-making vs. creating layers of complexity for their team members. 

As Collins notes, best beats first. You can be the first to market with something, but in his research simply being first didn’t create an enduring company. Being first requires a lot of pushing and shoving and, in the end, doesn’t equate to long-term sustainability. Being best at something, though, requires a form of transformation that allows a company to do more than survive. It can lead to a company that thrives. This kind of transformation is only as good as the company’s leaders. To that end, a Leadership Strategy is needed that defines key expectations and development toward Level 5 Leadership. In my work, though, I consistently see the “transactional” model of leadership dying a really slow death. For these companies, time is running out. 

There is an intrinsic quality in great leaders that sets them apart from everyone else. If you take a look at some of the most successful companies in the world, you will be surprised to observe that the CEOs are unassuming but command great respect. While it might be hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for their success, there are a few leadership qualities that are common to all of these leaders. Emulating these leadership traits could well be the first step to building a stronger organization.

6 Qualities of Great Leaders

  • Company First - Great leaders know that the company always comes first. They understand the importance of sidelining their own personal gains in order to make the company succeed. Every step taken by them is always with the company’s wellbeing in mind. 

Key Leadership Questions: What really matters to you: Glory and fame, or growing a great organization? To what degree are you personally humble? (A great deal of reflective thinking is required to answer this truthfully.) 

  • Focus – Leaders have to be completely focused on their overall strategic intent in order to achieve their visionary goal or BHAG. They create focus by following a strategic rhythm of Thinking, Planning, and Doing. Without strategic focus, results will be scattered and alignment in thinking will be almost impossible to obtain. Focus allows great leaders to be able to resolve pending issues and charge ahead to tackle new problems.

Key Leadership Questions: How do you know your leadership team is aligned and focused? How “alive” are your goals and objectives for this year? How engaged are your people? To what degree is there a sense of team orientation and collective engagement?

  • Approachability – Leaders must be easily approachable. They cannot live in an ivory tower and expect the company to succeed on its own steam. Egotistical leaders with a coterie of self-serving people are no longer considered the norm for greatness. And “Ivory Tower Leaders” don’t create cultures of engagement and innovative thinking, both of which are requirements in today’s competitive business landscape.

Key Leadership Questions: How approachable are you and other leaders within your company? How can you validate the degree to which your key leaders are approachable (or not)?

  • Extracting the Best – Leaders should help employees reach their full potential. According to Collins, Level 5 Leaders are catalysts to higher levels of performance. Understanding what employees are capable of, and whether they are living up to it, should be one of the most important priorities of every leader. Level 5 Leaders have the confidence and personal security to grow and develop their successors

Key Leadership Questions: Do you have trouble letting go and delegating key projects to others? What about others on your leadership team? Who needs Executive Coaching? How many people are directly being developed by each member of the executive team?

  • Creating Winners – By not interfering unduly in the creative processes of their employees, good leaders let them forge a bond with their ideas. When employees feel a sense of ownership toward an idea or concept, they are more likely to succeed than when their ideas become another cog in the wheel. 

Key Leadership Questions: How many employees are receiving praise from you and others on your leadership team? To what degree is there a sense of team orientation within your company?

  • Transparency – Among leadership theories, transformational and transactional stand out distinctly. Transactional leaders typically recognize and exploit an existing need in the employee while transformational leaders go a step ahead by engaging employees to work for higher goals. Secrets are few (if at all). 

Key Questions: To what degree are your people informed? What do they say about the openness (or not) of your organization? 

To Create a Leadership Culture:

Engage Others: Learn to motivate others to rise to the occasion.
Serve Others: “To not be served” should be your motto.
Be Original: Be original in your thinking and develop your own style.
Be Accountable:  Team accountability always starts with personal accountability.

A Level 5 Leader combines these traits to proactively push the company beyond the boundaries of success. CEOs I work with who are serious about knowing the degree to which they are, or are not, a high-performing organization measure that fact. We institute an organizational culture survey to gather data (vs. opinion) on high performance. If you want a transformation, measuring current reality as well as your progress is the only way to get there.

The old adage might say that leaders are born and not made, but the converse indeed holds true today. Remember: It doesn’t matter who stakes a claim on a product or service first. What matters is that mediocre, transactional leadership won’t get you where you want to go. You need to have functional strategy at the business unit level and the corporate level.  Great leaders understand that you might make good money with mediocrity, and you’ll be “good enough.” If Greatness is the goal, then your leadership strategy matters. Without Level 5 Leadership, you limit you company’s ability to be a high-performance organization, thereby limiting your ability to be great. 

Because: How you lead people…matters.

Looking for more information about Leadership Development? Check out our additional resources:

Five Key Leadership Skills Every Leader Must Master

Seven Lies about Leadership You Need to Stop Believing

Strategic vs. Tactical Leaders: Which Are You? [Video]

Leadership Means Learning from Mistakes

Develop Accountable Leaders & Teams

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published Feb. 1, 2015, and has been updated. 

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images