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The Five Commitments of Leadership

What are great leaders truly committed to? This is a central issue for organizations looking to thrive or just survive in the years to come. It’s also a key issue for companies that are actively building a leadership pipeline, or for leaders who are expected to accomplish many different things each day.

Some leadership models feature dozens of specific techniques a leader is expected to master; however the essential question is: what core commitments underlie all those techniques and actions? The five commitments outlined in this article can be considered the “source code” for the behaviors and actions of effective leaders. They are the foundation of powerful leadership.

A distinction between what is said about commitments and what is actually done is important here. The concept of a commitment means it shows up in action, not just words. This can be the difference between the “talk” and the “walk.”

These commitments are also vital in our rapidly changing times. Tectonic developments in the world of work, including technology, globalization, the emergence of Generation Y and new work values have transformed the relationship between leaders and those whom they hope to lead.

So how is leadership defined in today’s world? Consider this definition: “a catalyst for new ways of thinking, being and acting.” Leaders may have positional authority or none at all, but exercise leadership through their actions. Old mental models around leadership are fading, and new ideas about what it takes to lead in the world today are taking hold. The commitments reflect this reality.

In this new reality, leaders exist at all levels, including where you sit. Instead of leadership thought of as reserved for the few at the top, today anyone can lead from anywhere. Look at what you actually do each day and ask what kinds of commitments your actions reveal.

Any job applicant today can expect questions about passion. What is he or she truly passionate about and therefore committed to? The same is true for leadership. What are the real commitments? They are:

  • To the self – how much you work on developing yourself as a human being, to be the best leader you can be. In fact, it is self awareness that is the first major step toward becoming truly committed.
  • To people – how much you really focus on connecting with those around you in order to work effectively with them.
  • To the organization – how much you are devoted to the intentions and performance of the place where you work so that you show up with maximum energy and conviction.
  • To the truth – how much you tell and invite the truth, even when it is hard, in order to keep yourself, others and the organization on a right course.
  • To leadership – how much you answer a call to lead and choose to engage in proven, effective leadership behaviors.

These commitments operate in an atmosphere of invite and enroll, not command and control. There may be some who wonder what this type of business environment has to do with commitment. Here is the point: by embodying these commitments, the leader opens the door to a greater flow of information, ideas and creativity that can more powerfully motivate others.

Here is how each of the five commitments works:

Self: “Know thyself,” said Socrates to the ancient Greeks and his advice is every bit as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Leaders need to learn about themselves first and with this knowledge, commitment follows. One example: instead of simply dictating a plan or strategy, the leader explains his thought process and requests feedback. Learning about the self can happen this way. Blind spots, oversights and faulty assumptions can all be surfaced. This tells the organization that the leader, though believing in the approach under consideration, does not think he always has all of the answers, and is interested in other opinions.

It also tells associates that a leader with positional authority will not always invoke it to render decisions or preclude potential contributions from others. The leader has checked ego at the door and is humble enough to learn from others – a commitment certain to be appreciated by the organization.

People: The late Rodney Dangerfield’s comic riffs on getting no respect reveal an essential truth that should be understood by committed leaders – people want to be appreciated. When associates see leaders only focusing on a task, output or goal, they can feel as though they are no more respected than machines in a factory. People want to know their contribution is valued; no one ever thanks a machine.

The committed leader responds by doing more than just saying thank you. One way is to build followers’ capacity by helping them develop skills to further their importance to the organization along with their careers. Another means is for leaders to always recognize their people’s willingness to help and acknowledge their role in making a difference. Recognition is a huge motivator.

One such action illustrative of commitment is unfortunately shunned by too many leaders – empathy. This is the capacity to see things as others see them, and is a key skill needed to influence others. “Oh no,” is a common response from some leaders, who view empathy or any people-centric approach as a sign of weakness. Leaders unsympathetic to a people-centric commitment would do well to study Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, in particular his thoughts on leading by dominating: “Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal… (T)here may be nothing more essential than recognizing our deepest feeling about what we do and what changes might make us more truly satisfied with our work.”

Committed leaders have no problem letting go of the notion that the only function of people is to get in line and do their jobs. A display of empathy is a welcome outreach to those looking for signs that a leader respects their work.

Organization: The basis of this commitment is the company or organization’s mission statement – its reason for existing – and the leader’s willingness to sacrifice personal interests or agendas to support it. A committed leader finds meaning, value and purpose in the organization and then shares that commitment with everyone else. One way is to align the corporate mission statement with a personal one that covers why the leader is here, the vision of accomplishment for the organization and how this commitment gives power, meaning and fulfillment. Anything less than a total commitment here is likely to be picked up by sensitive associate antennae, which could easily lessen the leader’s effectiveness.

Truth: Jim Collins in his book Good to Great says “Confront the brutal facts, but never lose faith.” This is perhaps the most difficult of all the commitments because it requires up-front honesty. Any attempt to sanitize reality regardless of the situation through spin or less than forthright assessments could permanently damage the leader’s credibility and erode any possibility of trust. Anything less than the truth from leadership is unsustainable.

Herb Kelleher, head of then fledgling Southwest Airlines, recognized its importance when he met with his employees to discuss the airline’s tenuous status – at the time it only had four planes and its future was far from assured. He told the truth and his people responded. Working as a team, the employees decided to study pit crews at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see if the workers’ quick-time maintenance could apply to improving airplane turnaround time. It did. Since then, Southwest has been a leader in customer satisfaction surveys and its financial picture is much brighter than many of its much older and more established competitors.

Kelleher’s approach provides two lessons about the role of truth in commitment: (1) When facts are confronted and reality is shared, people are more likely to offer suggestions to help fix the problem; (2) If you don’t tell people the truth, you can’t lead them.

Leadership: Collins examined commitment in the top tier of leadership that he referred to as “Level 5” and determined that such leaders are “incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” At the same time, Collins found Level 5 leaders displayed surprising humility, meaning they did not let their egos get in the way.

Their approach is illustrative of a cycle of leadership that is intuitive to committed leaders. The cycle operates as follows:

  • Clear seeing or perception
  • Imagining possibilities
  • Aligning those possibilities with the needs of those whom they lead and the organization
  • Working to achieve those goals
  • Adapting by remaining flexible as situations change
  • Achieving the goals
  • Celebrating the achievement.

These are transformational leaders who create early successes to build momentum and acknowledge each of them. They are willing to admit there is no perfect leader. And because of their candor, they are recognized for being realists and are recognized as committed.

Command and Control vs. Commitment

Of course, there are times when top-down command and control is necessary, such as during an emergency or crisis, but these are usually short-term situations. What happens when the crisis passes and production, output and other metrics eventually meet or exceed goals? The leader may feel that his or her style worked and needs no examination or reflection.

The lost opportunity in such cases is not thinking about what other ways of leading would generate greater results and commitment in others; for example, asking questions versus telling, or spending more time listening and less time talking. These other possibilities result in
more long-term, sustainable success. They are not possible in every situation, but when they are implemented they have a powerful impact on both people and results.

Commitments as Benefits

There may be those who disparage this approach because they view the five commitments as intangibles and therefore extraneous or irrelevant to the company’s mission and bottom line. That view misses the point. As Goleman put it, “Imagine the benefits for work of being skilled in the basic emotional competencies – being attuned to the feelings of those we deal with…having the ability to get into flow states while doing our work.”

In fact, the five commitments are benefits. Consider them the tools to motivate anyone who is more than willing to display the same commitment in exchange for being valued and appreciated by leadership. Calls for motivation are most likely to achieve results when they emanate from a leader whose actions make commitment a two-way street

Mark Leheney is senior consultant for Management Concepts, Vienna, Virginia, a professional services company with training, consulting and publishing expertise. Management Concepts partners with individuals and organizations to improve performance through consulting, training programs and certificate courses. For more information, please call (703) 790-9595 or visit

Good to Great, Jim Collins. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York. 2001
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman. Bantam Books. New York. 1995