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Is There a Business Leadership Success Formula?

Is There a Business Leadership Success Formula?

Leadership is by no means an exact science but it does not stop people trying to discover how leadership “success” can best be described in exact terms. In other words, for decades there has been a quest by many people to develop a leadership success formula of some kind that we can then use to help better assess current leaders and perhaps shape or develop new ones. As the graphic at the head of this article suggests, the search for this formula asks the questions: are there specific things a leader should be, have or be doing to be successful? So if this graph is a hint, can we use this simple three-part set of guidelines to be our formula?

What a successful leader needs to have initially is to know where he or she is going. This is often called a vision of what the future is going to look like or at the very least a clear set of strategies or goals. This is not a one-off exercise in establishing clear direction, but one that should ideally be continually evolved and updated to make sure that it reflects current reality. 

Once a leader has a vision, strategy or goal, the doing begins. In other words, a leader cannot just think about direction and then delegate action to others but must act personally or start to operate as an action-centered role model. This will help followers at all levels to do what is necessary to achieve the vision, strategy or goal.

Unfortunately, these two dimensions in this simple 3 part formula are not enough. Having clear direction and doing what it takes to start to achieve the goal is usually a journey (and often a long one). We therefore need to concentrate on what we need to be, in order to be the best leader possible or how will be behave (most often demonstrated in what we say and the values that we live by).

In combination then this “Have X Do X Be” is all you need to be successful as a leader-simple right?

Sadly, most leaders fail in one, two or even, in some cases, all three of these ingredients and although these can all individually create problems, it is most problematic where there is no “have”, then no “do” and finally no “be” (which may cause the greatest damage but mainly in the longer-term). In other words, would-be successful leaders are best-served to focus on the “”have” part of the success formula first so as to have complete directional clarity to guide their early actions (the “do” part) before finally concentrating on the “be” part or the formula (which is mainly about who the leader projects him or herself to be). 

A rather simplistic but helpful example of the above might be as follows:

A leader has a vision of increasing sales volume by 20% in the next 12 months. In this case, the leader has a vision which can be expressed quite clearly in terms of what success looks like and the goal that is to be achieved in a given time frame. What the leader and his or her followers then need to do is therefore also clear (although it will need some tactics and action steps of course). The “be” will then relate to how the leader behaves (which will naturally need to be consistent with this vision).

A leader may therefore work with a team in a collaborative way to identify new volume targets and set milestones in a together. Alternatively, he or she may more autocratically set targets in certain ways and just hold people accountable for progressive achievements. Both of these approaches may work according to circumstances and the needs of the followers and in this sense render the leadership success formula to work well.

Unfortunately, as the above example illustrates, the leadership success formula is helpful as an outline but leaves a lot of latitude for a leader to select goals, action and behaviors as he or she sees fit. While we can quite readily judge whether the vision (the Have) and the actions to achieve it (the Do) are useful and compelling, it is the behavior (the Be) that we therefore need to tie down further. And that will be the subject of another article.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Art WilliamsDecember 27, 2013 at 2:44 am

    Being a leader is tough, it depends on how you manage the situation you’re in. The secret is how you handle things and how will you solve it as a leader.

  2. Newell EatonDecember 22, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Hi John,
    Interesting exploration. I see it a bit differently. I believe one needs to start with being. Being clear about one’s values, what one deeply cares about comes first.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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