Leadership Lexicon

Leadership self development
Leadership self development

Leaders sometimes wonder why no one is following them. In most cases, the reason is because the leader does not possess all three essentials of effective leadership: Character, Commitment, and Competence. Leaders must be honest and ethical at their core, or people don’t follow. Leaders must also be committed to developing themselves and others. If people are not convinced of the leader’s commitment to their growth, they will not help the leader grow—and they will not follow. Finally, the leader needs to be seen as competent. But what does that mean?

In 2005, Bill O’Brien and I wrote the book Leadership Lexicon. The book emerged from work we were doing with the Merck Leadership Center. We were engaged to upgrade their leadership resource directory by identifying and describing observable behaviors that could be learned by Merck employees and be demonstrated through improved performance. Through that work we identified over 100 competencies that leaders may require to be effective in their jobs. Since it is virtually impossible to acquire and apply over 100 competencies, we organized all of them into the following 3×4 grid:

1. Know and Grow Yourself 2. Know and Grow Your Team 3. Know and Grow Your Organization 4. Know and Grow Your Customers
1. Identify
2. Build
3. Drive


As it turns out, all leadership competencies can be mapped into this model. While several boxes within the grid could contain multiple competencies, we have been able to identify the most critical competency for each box. Here is our vote for the 12 most important competencies of leadership:

Identify: Strategic Thinking, Acquiring the Right Talent, Identifying Business Trends and Possibilities, Visioning and Positioning

Build: Personal Development, Building High Performing Teams, Building Organizational Capabilities, Building Customer Partnerships

Drive: Problem Solving, Delegating, Aligning the Culture, Navigating Complexity

Instead of diving into the myriad skills and behaviors that support all these leadership competencies (you can do that by ordering the book), it’s more important to understand leadership in its proper context. Here are some principles that may help with your own development as a leader.

  1. Leadership is not about charisma. The real challenge for senior management is to create an environment where desired behaviors and results emerge naturally. Creating a collaborative culture is the enduring legacy of successful leaders.
  2. Leadership requires skills. Take a guess. Which professionals spend the most, per capita, on golf lessons? Did you guess CEO’s? How about marketing or sales VPs? The answer is professional golfers. The single biggest differentiator in golf is golf skills. The same is true for leaders—not golf skills, but leadership skills. Skill development is different from knowledge acquisition. Knowledge gives us an understanding of the behavior. Skills give us the capability to perform new behaviors. I could read a thousand books and golf and still not be able to play well. If I take the time to learn and practice the skills, I may have a chance.
  3. Skills, once learned, require constant development and feedback. Continuous improvement requires feedback. Another reason why experts in all fields continue to receive coaching and mentoring is because the feedback they receive on their performance increases their impact. Receiving accurate feedback will determine the rate and efficiency of your leadership development. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was famous for asking “How am I doing?” This constant refrain helped to brand him as the “people’s mayor.”
  4. Leadership is not a place in an organization. Most of us think of leadership as a noun. For example, we often talk about “the leadership” in our company. However, leadership is also a verb. Leadership is not a hierarchical place on an organizational chart. Rather, leadership is the response that every employee makes to the challenge or opportunity at hand at any given moment.
  5. Leaders stand out, for better or for worse. Dr. William (Bill) Anthony, a leader in the transformation of policy and clinical practice in the mental health field, once described leadership as follows: “When the battle begins and the shots ring out, everyone is targeting the leader.” Leaders often create the conditions for change. As a result, others are asked to do things differently. Leaders create new success criteria and change the rules of the game. By definition, then, leaders are often viewed as threats to the status quo and are often confronted by opposing forces. Anyone who tells you that he or she enjoyed the entire leadership experience has probably never experiences it in the first place.

Effective leaders are able to identify opportunities and threats, develop the programs and teams required to meet those challenges, and drive for results. Those are the meta-competencies of leadership: Identify, Build, and Drive. Leaders also need to know and grow themselves, their teams, their organizations, and their customers Having that “lexicon” at your fingertips, helps to navigate the vast and confusing literature on leadership development. Keep it simple. And lead.