Leadership is paradoxical. We know it exists – certainly we have all experienced it in one way or another, but differing perceptions of leadership result in differing ideas about what leadership is.

With a longstanding background in the recruitment industry, I’ve known many successful leaders, both in the commercial and public sectors. I’ve always been interested in the processes organisations undertake to identify leadership capabilities prior to recruiting and selecting their leaders. Back in 2000, as part of my doctoral research, I started investigating this process. It resulted in some interesting findings:

  • Perceptions of leadership are varied and those individual interpretations of leadership are enduring;
  • Interpretations of leadership are influenced by context, experience, beliefs, values, knowledge and other aspects that impact on forming such perceptions, and;
  • Organisations tend to focus on defining what leadership is, rather than determining what it is that their leaders are required to do.

Drawing upon my empirical research, including documented evidence and structured observation of a broad cross-section of industry sectors, I have distilled the essence of leadership to seven axioms, an axiom being a statement or proposition that is regarded as being evidently true:

Axiom 1: It’s not about defining leadership, it’s about what you want leadership to do.
We often hear the old catch cry when things are not going to plan or individual expectations are not met ‘We need some leadership around here’. My retort is always ‘Tell me, what is it you want this thing called leadership to do?’ It makes for a clearer understanding of leadership expectations and assists in clarifying goals and objectives, expected outcomes and what needs to be achieved through leadership in the given situation or context.

Axiom 2: Context is Critical.
Context is critical to leadership. It is the landscape creating a vast array of environmental influences. Each organisation or role exists in its own unique context and requires different capabilities to deliver an effective leadership outcome. Major cultural change, expansive growth opportunities, global presence compared to a local presence and demographic differences or skill deficiencies are just some examples of different organisational contexts requiring the application of different leadership capabilities.

Axiom 3: The application of capabilities is fundamental to leadership effectiveness.
Leadership as an activity demands outcomes. Delivering those outcomes will be dependent upon the application of particular capabilities. Capabilities are best categorised and identified under six elements of leadership – character, personal capability, interpersonal skills, leading change, focus on results and intellect.  By way of example, capabilities residing in the element of character may include trust, integrity, doing what one says he/she will do, treating everyone the same and following through on promises and commitments.

Axiom 4: The interdependency between role intent, performance outcomes and context will determine required leadership capabilities.
If clarity exists on the intent of the role (purpose), performance outcomes (deliverables) and the context in which the role resides, then we are able to determine the leadership capabilities required to deliver the performance outcomes to achieve the intent of the role in the context in which it resides.

Axiom 5: Having a leadership philosophy endorses an individual’s leadership brand.
A leadership philosophy is an important determinant of an individual’s leadership brand (personal brand), which is how they want to be seen, as well as how they are going to act as a leader. If an individual wants to be seen as a leader for being strategic, championing change, and focused on results, then the articulation of the brand must be translated into action.

Axiom 6: To act like a leader one must think like a leader.
Effective leaders have the capacity to apply leadership thinking – the way a person thinks when applying themselves in a leadership situation. Leaders who do this well have the capacity to resolve wicked problems. A wicked problem is generally something that has not been encountered before and requires the application of such capabilities as sound judgment, problem solving, decision making, logic, strategy, negotiation and intuition

Axiom 7: Practising leadership ensures mastery.
As in all fields of endeavour, the key to effective leadership is practice. A measure of a leader’s effectiveness is the extent to which he or she achieves desired outcomes. Elite golfers play golf 20% of the time; they practice golf 80% of the time.

Of each of the axioms, context is particularly crucial to leadership because it denotes the landscape and terrain for a leader to manoeuvre. The context in which leadership is enacted further provides the stage and setting for the outcomes to be derived.

These Seven Axioms of Leadership continue to guide me when I am recruiting, selecting and coaching individuals for leadership roles. Knowing where an organisation is going means understanding what its leadership needs to do to achieve the outcomes required.

What’s your experience of leadership? Which one of these axioms resonates most strongly with you?