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12 Absolutes of Leadership

The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, there are no half measures when it comes to leading others said by according to Gary Burnison. A leader must be fully engaged, fully committed, cognizant of the past, intensely focused on the present, and constantly scanning the horizon for what the future will bring. Burnison describes this as being all in, all the time. Focusing on the twelve most critical elements of leadership can help to establish a vision and develop a strategy for achieving it, inspiring others to embrace the vision, measuring the effectiveness of leadership, building powerful teams that are aligned in purpose and strategy, and foreseeing new opportunities.

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Leading is less about analytics and decisions, and more about aligning, motivating, and empowering others to make those decisions. It is about learning from the past to define the future and inspiring others to move purposefully forward. To lead is to acknowledge the reality of the present while always focusing on the future.

Leaders must have confidence in their own ability but remain anchored in humility said by participant in Leadership session for 140 leaders in Prism Philosophy Session. They are mirrors for their entire organization. Leadership is making certain that after every conversation with an employee, the person feels better, more capable, and more willing to stretch than before the conversation began. Leaders are responsible for developing and projecting confidence in others and in the organization, with assuredness of vision, the journey, the team, and what can be accomplished together. Their job is to be a source of energy, to elevate and improve the organization, and then turn it over to another leader in better shape than it was previously.

The danger for leaders is that they can become insulated, even isolated. To avoid this, Burnison recommends keeping a laser focus on those who matter most (employees and customers) and staying connected to those close advisors who are able to give honest feedback. By creating a safe environment where there is no retribution for people who deliver bad news, it is possible to reduce the tendency of followers to be less than forthright when speaking to leaders.

Leadership requires having the grace to rise above pettiness and show dignity while turning problems and challenges into opportunities.


Leadership begins with purpose (the why of the organization) and vision (a picture of what the organization will look like when the purpose is realized). Together, they form the basis of leadership. Purpose fosters alignment across organizations in which thousands, or even tens of thousands, of employees are making countless decisions and taking innumerable actions every day. If these employees have a strong sense of purpose, they are more likely to act in concert with the mission and objectives of the organization. Without purpose, individuals and teams can easily go off track. Leaders must immediately establish and live the organization’s purpose and vision. In time, with consistency and commitment, the purpose will become a collaborative effort that is grounded in the culture and enhanced with insight from others.

Purpose stretches people beyond the imaginable to more than they had ever thought possible. It is the difference between doing well some of the time and doing one’s best all of the time. Purpose anchors the organization; it speaks not only to what must be done, but how it will be done. It provides grounding and the ultimate direction for all.

Although leadership styles may differ, purpose is always the motivation, inspiration, and driving force behind the vision. In order to be truly motivated and highly effective, the team needs to see the alignment between the leaders’ vision and values and the strategy outlined to get there. When purpose is lacking, the telltale signs are obvious: fatigue, mediocrity, fractured teams, and goals that are stated but with a lack of accountability. Even if people do well, they rarely give their best without purpose. Purpose creates change, inspires possibility, and improves the attitude of the organization.


To be strategic is to look over the horizon and set a course based on assumptions. Strategy is rooted in the leader’s idea about what matters most, and it must fit the organization. To be a strategic leader is to let go of personal preferences and keep the ego in check. The goal is to get the answer right, not to be right.

Strategy is dynamic, and it is far less about planning in the calm than it is about decision making and course correcting in the midst of the storm. Creating a strategy requires a high-level plan for applying energy and resources over the long term. Beyond the tactical choices focused on achieving specific goals, strategy encompasses shared perception. Although the leader sets the strategy, it is not a solo effort. The more the leader listens, the stronger the strategy becomes, with greater buy-in and a sense of shared destiny. In order to embrace the plan, people need to understand not only the big picture of the strategy but also how they contribute to carrying it out.

A leader cannot move the organization at a pace that is faster than people can handle or the organization can absorb. Strategy is not confined to an annual exercise; it needs to be part of day-to-day thinking and decision making. The finesse of strategic leadership is in the pace and velocity, matched with company culture and readiness.

Strategy sees the possibilities, but does not ignore the realities. It drives effectiveness, accountability, and performance. Strategy is tangible and tactical, always seeking to promote growth and enhance competitive advantage. It charts the course forward from what is believed today to what is dreamed for tomorrow.


A successful team must be a mosaic of talents and abilities that work together, complement one another, and carry the organization forward. Assembling that mosaic by attracting, aligning, developing, and stimulating the team is the essence of leadership. Ultimately, the success of a company can be measured by how it develops its team, with a deep bench of talent that can grow and rise through the ranks. Creating opportunities, encouraging those who aspire to learn and do more, and utilizing the talents of more experienced people as mentors can make a real difference.

Good leaders see how talents and abilities fit together to create a team that is powerfully diverse in its perspectives, ideas, and experiences. Open dialogue between leaders and teams fosters a culture of openness and inclusion, especially in the area of diversity of thoughts and ideas. The lesson for leaders is to challenge traditional views and perspectives and encourage unconventional thinking.

The leader must be committed to helping others do their best by setting high expectations for team members and helping them to see what they can achieve. Ultimately, the leader is accountable for the results of the team. If the team does not perform up to expectations, the leader must find out why and make the necessary changes.


Effective leadership requires data and hard, indisputable facts, but that is only the beginning. What matters is how those facts are put to use. Just as vision needs execution to become reality, so too does it require relevant and meaningful measurements to ensure that what is being done will actually get the organization to where it wants to go.

Direct feedback from the team, employees, and customers will help identify where the organization is successful and where it is missing the mark. Then it is up to the leader to interpret, redesign, and act, always knowing where the company and its products are now, where they can expand, and what can be improved. In the end, it is results that matter most.

Facilitator Dr.Anubha Walia – Leadership demands self-awareness and an insatiable appetite to learn. Leaders who are self-aware know how to balance self-confidence and humility. They are realistic not only about their own strengths and weaknesses, but also about the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Leaders seek feedback on what can be improved, make the change, and measure the outcome. The process is continuous; the leader is always seeking ways of doing things better in order to achieve the desired results. Such improvement does not come from casual engagement, but from a deep commitment to monitoring and measuring.

The leader who is measuring will most assuredly discover what does not work–the ideas that looked promising but turned out to be failures. However, trying and failing is never a mistake. The only real mistake is not being willing to make mistakes. They can be the purest form of improvement, provided the leader is willing to learn from them.


The bridge from planning to action is built by empowering others. Empowerment is not something that can be given out. People must empower themselves, and it is the leader’s job to inspire them to do so. From the earliest humans to today’s leaders, people have used their innate ability to tell stories to connect with others. A story that touches people’s hearts packs an emotional punch that enables them to grasp what is possible for themselves and the organization. That is the essence of empowerment. The leader is the master of the organization’s narrative. Storytelling is far more than the recitation of facts and data points; it is pure inspiration and aspiration.

Empowerment takes root when a leader is willing to delegate opportunities, not tasks. Leadership is not about the use of power, but about the leader’s restraint in using power. True leaders do not worry about undermining their authority when others become empowered. They care most about enabling others and making the team successful. Inspiring the team members means rekindling in them the joy of learning a new task, of mastering a new skill, and catapulting them forward with self-sustaining energy and belief in what they can and will accomplish.

Empowerment means enabling and equipping others to make decisions and delegating authority so that hundreds of people can make thousands of decisions that are directionally in line with the leader’s vision. When leaders inspire people to empower themselves, to stretch and grow, and to be creative and innovative, failure is inevitable at times, but failure should be seen as part of the road to success.


Reward in the workplace is about more than paychecks, bonuses, and perks. For leaders, it is more important to sustain the intangibles that can turn casual followers into fervent believers by rewarding and celebrating every step of the way. This communicates progress, inspires others, and reinforces successful, repeatable behavior. People want to know that they belong, that they are an integral part of something that is bigger than themselves. When people feel appreciated, they will do more. By recognizing the strengths and talents of their team members, leaders are able to unleash the potential of others. Studies have shown that employees are more likely to change jobs for career and training opportunities than for money and benefits. Compensation packages, while important, have become secondary to employees’ desire to be challenged, to contribute, to be recognized, and to know how they will fit into the organization. While there are strong correlations between compensation, benefit plans, and employee commitment, the compensation plans with the strongest link to employee commitment are those that give employees a stake in the future success of the organization. Compensation plans in general help to drive commitment when employees believe the plan to be fair. The way an organization distributes money indicates what management really values, including sending a message to employees as to whether the company truly pays for performance. Pay must be aligned with the company’s strategy and consistent with its vision.


The successful leader must foster a culture of world-class observers and make anticipating a team sport. The better equipped the organization is to see today clearly, the better it will be at systematically predicting the future. For the leader, the essential questions to ask in order to develop the skill of anticipating are:

* What is happening now?

* What do these events mean?

* What is likely to be the impact on the future?

The success of an organization will be determined by the accuracy of the leader’s intuition and judgment concerning the future: customer needs, competitors’ possible countermoves, economic headwinds, employee development, and so forth. The skill of anticipating is grounded in reality, and one of the challenges for a leader is to reconcile the fact that people in the same organization may view reality differently, given their job titles, their backgrounds, and even cultural and language differences. This is particularly the case in global organizations. Diversity of perspective is to be embraced as an advantage. Once people are looking at reality, the leader’s job is to get them to take the next step: considering what it means today to anticipating what it might mean in the future. Anticipating will never be reduced to a science. The leader must use intuition as well as intellect. Anticipating involves reviewing alternatives and acting decisively when others only observe.


Coupled with anticipation, the skill of navigation is the essence of strategic thinking. Navigating takes objectivity and clarity to see opportunities, honesty to admit mistakes, and courage to make real-time decisions. Navigation is a perpetual process of thoughtful and proactive decision making in the midst of a changing environment. A leader must be mindful of the difference between the urgent and the important, the tactical and the strategic. Although course corrections will occur, the focus must always stay on the opportunities that will increase the likelihood of success.

To be a leader is to anticipate what is coming down the road, always being prepared, responsive, and forward thinking. The ability to navigate is a complementary skill, involving making decisions in real time that allow for adjustment, reaction, and outmaneuvering the competition. It requires a balance between agility and adjustment, while maintaining forward momentum. The key is having metrics that flag outlying risks and draw attention to issues as they arise.

The crucial takeaway for leaders is to never lose sight of the larger strategy when making tactical decisions. Leaders should never be so removed from the decision-making process that the results of their tactical decisions become the de facto strategy. Navigating requires being a world-class observer, objectively and continually measuring and interpreting the results of today to make decisions for tomorrow.


For a leader, communication means connecting and inspiring, not just the transmission of information. Communication is critical for building alignment and executing strategy, yet it is often one of the most challenging leadership skills to develop. Communication is the leader’s information highway, flowing freely in both directions. Good communication skills are especially important in challenging times.

Whether spoken or written, the leader’s message must convey the company’s vision as well as its purpose and values. When disseminated broadly, communication sparks a course of action for many. In times of crisis, the leader should remember these three rules of communication:

  1. Counter fear with facts and hope.

  2. Communicate all the facts. When available information is incomplete, state what is known and let people know when additional information will be available.

  3. The leader speaks not as an individual but on behalf of the entire organization.

Communication is used to connect and engage with others. The leader should deliver messages frequently and consistently, with candor and honesty, and with more assurance than authority. Tone is as important as content. Passionate, confident words motivate. Although information is crucial, if the message lacks inspiration, the team’s follow-through may be lacking. The success of communication can be seen in the results it achieves.


True leaders do far more listening than talking. Listening as a leadership skill involves observing with one’s eyes and ears, picking up tone, nuance, body language, and eye contact (or lack thereof). Listening detects the texture and the context that happens between the words. When a leader in business, media, or any other field can truly listen, truth emerges. Listening connects the speaker and the listener emotionally. Beyond the content of the words, a connection is forged through listening and observing based on the emotions that are conveyed through tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.

Listening requires a singular focus, not just to hear another person but also to understand their insight, point of view, and emotion. It is the antithesis of multitasking. Communication is 80 percent listening and inquiring and 20 percent speaking. The former must guide the latter. Although it is highly important, listening may be one of the most undervalued elements of leadership because it is taken for granted and mistaken for the physical capability of hearing. Listening is a discipline that is developed over time. It takes patience, attention, and time and requires asking thoughtful questions and being comfortable with the silences that may follow, without rushing to fill the gaps.

A successful leader must create freedom of speech through an information-sharing culture. This happens not only through tone but also through the actions at the top that make listening and inquiring the norm.


Effective leadership requires having and demonstrating learning agility–the ability to learn from experience and apply that learning to new situations. Different from intelligence or simply being smart, learning agility is so important that it is considered a predictor of success. A leader with learning agility excels at absorbing information from experience and applying it to the present. This results in an agile organization that also learns, grows, and adapts.

Leaders today must be savvy when it comes to utilizing new and emerging technologies to connect, communicate, and collaborate. With the help of technology such as the Internet, intranets, social media, and Webinars, information flows without resistance. To face these challenges, leaders must continually learn. Clinging to the past and pretending that the status quo will never change is the road to extinction.

Leadership starts with capability, which over time is developed into competence. It also entails working smarter by getting smarter through continuous learning. A stagnant leader impedes the organization’s progress.

By nature, leaders should be curious, captivated, and engaged. They must be self-aware and comfortable with who they are as people. Leaders must also be critical thinkers, able to handle complexity and ambiguity.


In the end, what is important is not the products made, the technology developed, or the financial instruments that are bought and sold. It is all about the people. The personal side of leadership is the singular, foundational principle. It requires connecting and aligning the jagged edges of individuality into a smooth and seamless mosaic. Leaders commit to those who follow. With grace, dignity, and restraint, effective leaders always focus on other people. What matters most is not what the leader accomplishes, but what others achieve.

The 12 absolutes described here are the building blocks that must be present, regardless of one’s leadership style or approach. At first glance, these elements may seem simple, but it is very difficult to achieve them completely and consistently.

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