The Leadership Five: own these attributes or follow behind!

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8VOICE leadership formula

When choosing or electing a leader, try to remember that famous Russian expression, “trust, but verify.”

Five crucial attributes will determine if you will succeed or fail as a leader. This applies whether you’re running America, Google, or a startup in your garage. They are vision, organization, inspiration, character, and ethos.

You’ve heard these concepts before. But they are about to take on a new meaning as you start to think of them holistically.

If a leader is bringing it, you hear a five-part harmony. But when the leader fails, the five attributes are in a tug of war, definitely not a good sign. That’s how we get stuck with tragedies or travesties like Enron, BP oil spill, or Iran nukes.

Rinse and repeat.

Dealing with failure is a leader’s worst nightmare. A powerful survival instinct takes over and the hunt is on for something to blame. It can be a faceless institution like Capitalism, BP, or the United Nations. Or an individual who fears your wrath. Elizabeth Warren thrashes the bumbling, gray-haired CEO of Wells Fargo for poor business practices. This also allows her to sidestep an inconvenient fact — her Committee was overseeing banks during this period. Soon the stench of blame is gone and it’s back to business as usual. As Yogi Berra would say, ‘deja vu’ all over again.

Is it necessary for us to sit around waiting for the next inevitable catastrophe? When will we learn that failure may be the result of how we choose our leaders?

There is a better way.

Become a connoisseur of leadership.

The five attributes run like a strand of DNA from Lincoln through Larry Page. I would like to propose that we factor for them with rigor when we select a leader. They form the acronym, VOICE.

  1. Vision
  2. Organization
  3. Inspiration
  4. Character
  5. Ethos

Leadership requires strength. Great leadership also requires balance and coordination.

What makes the VOICE formula a useful operating tool for choosing a leader is that it emphasizes harmony over hegemony. These five will have a profound effect on your ability to lead and, more importantly, they must work as a team. There is unity in leadership. No single attribute is more critical than another, we need all five to work together, none can be lacking or weak, and there is no hierarchy. That creates a balanced leader which allows wisdom to flourish. Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela are nearly perfect representations of this dynamic. At a business level, someone like @Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and @GE’s Jeff Immelt possess these qualities.

If we choose leaders who lack the VOICE attributes or one is overly dominant, we trigger the primary cause of failure.

Think of the many occasions in your life when you’ve observed a leader close up. Now look back to those times when everything went to hell. Was there an inspiring chief but one that was compromised by lack of character? Did you admire a boss with a compelling vision, then found he or she lacked the organizational ability to carry it out? Were you ever misled by powerful rhetoric that didn’t face reality? If we fail to assess all five attributes we risk choosing a leader who starts out like Mother Theresa but makes up for their deficiencies by acting like Al Capone.

Here is an expanded version of the five VOICE attributes:

1.Vision unites people by liberating and solving problems.

A leader’s vision does not have to be lofty, it just has to be bold. Ralph Lauren’s vision was aristocratic merchandise. Sam Walton’s was massive inventory and price. Lee Kuan Yew, the famed leader of Singapore, had a vision of socialism based on capitalist rules.

2. Organization allocates the right resources to get desired results.

Failures from the financial crisis to Bernie Madoff happen when inferior ability meets a grand scheme. (Madoff began as a legitimate investment advisor who found he was better at raising funds than investing them, and he simply shifted priorities according to his strengths and weaknesses).

3. Inspiration instills enthusiasm down to the end of the line.

Many leaders spend their time courting elites, but great leaders know better. Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy had an instinctive feel for ordinary people, and it’s why we still revere them.

4. Character grasps the difference between best and optimal.

The famous Tylenol recall is a classic example of a leader making the right choice in the face of pressure to stonewall. Johnson and Johnson’s CEO, James Burke, knew the safety of his customers was more important than the risk of losses and a rash of lawsuits.

5. Ethos fuses today’s sudden impulse with tomorrow’s long memory.

Ethos is the spirit of an organization’s past, present, and future. It is what attracts outstanding people to Google or General Electric or makes someone want to invest money with Warren Buffett. When ethos gets shipwrecked, we are adrift. Ask Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro how great it feels to sort out the ethos left by Chavez.

There isn’t a more complicated human endeavor than the art of leadership.

It took thousands of years, thousands of wars and millions of fatalities to arrive at the understanding of leadership we have today. It is a multi-faceted issue, and the VOICE formula is not meant to deny circumstance a key role in defining a leader. One could argue our first president, George Washington, would be nothing more than a gentleman farmer if he had not been chosen to lead the Revolutionary Army. Yet his personal attributes were the key ingredients in his ability to transform himself into a warrior and leader. This is the point of VOICE. We don’t choose our circumstances, but we do choose our leaders. If we choose them based on the five principles of VOICE — vision, organization, inspiration, character, and ethos, the outcome will always the kind of leadership you can trust and verify.

Future installments of this series will study great leaders and great failures in detail and analyze them based on their VOICE qualities: global leaders like Nelson Mandela and Adolph Hitler; iconic women from Boudica to Margaret Thatcher; self-taught geniuses like Julia Child to Grandma Moses; glass ceiling busters like Sheryl Sandburg and Indra Noori; business icons like Warren Buffett and Jeff Immelt; and leadership imposters who failed like Bernie Madoff.

Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham is a global leadership advocate, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

He is a chronicler of iconic leaders, startup entrepreneurs, & student provocateurs. His articles can be found on posted to LinkedIn. He interviews mega moguls like Warren Buffett to Jeff Immelt on IconicVoices.TV, a YouTube channel.

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk),, and; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.

Written by

Producer of Extraordinary Lives 2019 @TellyAwards for documentaries @; Author of Be Somebody @; ex-publisher @Forbes

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