The 4 Cs of Leadership
Johnson develops self-aware business leaders through a continuous, reinforcing cycle of instruction, experience, and review.
Leadership. We all aspire to it, but we don’t always get it right. And
that’s true whether we’re acting as individuals or as organizations. So
why not reframe the way we think about leadership? What happens if
we shift from thinking about leaders as being good or bad, strong or
weak, to considering leadership as a continual work in progress? And
what would that mean for Johnson as a school?
My faculty colleagues and I have developed a new way to guide leadership development that is unique to Johnson, based on the latest research, and designed to be practical, systematic, and easy to remember. We call this new framework “the 4 Cs,” because it’s organized around the principles of competence, character, compassion, and courage.
CompetenceCompetence is the foundation of leadership. It’s also the only one of the “4 Cs” that is somewhat contextual. While there are certainly some general leadership competencies that are valuable anywhere, others are industry- or function-specific. Many of the technical skills and abilities I needed as a Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot are distinct from those required of a banker or a consultant. But the common thread is that we all have to be good at our jobs in order to inspire confidence.
I recognize that this isn’t much of a revelation; we all know competence is important. The problem is that too many people never develop beyond competence. They think, “If I’m a high-performer, then people will follow me.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Competence is table-stakes — it gets you in the game. You can’t expect to lead without it, but to maximize your effectiveness as a leader, you need so much more. This is where the other three “Cs” come into play as distinguishing qualities of effective leaders.
CharacterLeaders with character have high integrity — they are willing to stand on principle. Their values are clear to the people they lead and their words and actions are consistent. People love to say, “Lead from example,” or “Walk the talk.” In the Marine Corps, however, setting an example isn’t enough. Holding yourself to the highest standards only becomes true leadership when you are willing to hold those around you accountable as well. This is usually much harder than simply doing what is expected of you and hoping others will follow.
CompassionI think of compassion as being synonymous with personal warmth. It also implies selflessness. Compassionate leaders show concern for each individual they lead. You can tell from your interactions with them that they care.
Many people get uncomfortable when they see a word like “compassion” in a leadership framework — it seems too personal or soft.
But if you ask those same people to describe the leader who has had the greatest impact on their lives, I’d bet they’ll describe someone who cared. As it turns out, this is backed by research. Studies show that both warmth and competence are essential to maximizing leaders’ effectiveness. What’s fascinating is the same research found that, of the two, warmth is more important; warmth trumps competence i.
We can do many things as leaders to emphasize our concern for those we lead. In the Marine Corps, we always ate in reverse order of rank, with senior officers eating last. You can share hardships with those you lead, show concern for their well-being outside of the work environment, show concern for their families, or act as an informal mentor. The cumulative effect of this type of behavior is the development of a bond of implicit trust within an organization.
CourageAre you willing to speak up? Are you willing to stand alone? Will you do what’s right, instead of what’s easy? These are critical questions. Many people like to think that they’ll somehow rise to the occasion and show great courage if faced with a crisis. But this is unrealistic; courage is actually developed through conscious effort, over time. Col. Eric Kail, course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, explains this in one of my favorite quotes:
Courage must be developed through conscious practice and personal commitment. One way to practice courage is to force ourselves to speak up whenever we see unethical or improper behavior. It isn’t easy, but showing courage becomes less difficult the more often you do it.
When I think of my personal journey as a leader, I try to use these “4 Cs” as a lens: Am I competent? Do I show good character? Am I compassionate for those that I lead? Do I show courage? This is the same lens that I hope we can develop in our students.
Turning Principles into Practice: Knowledge, Experience, and ReviewI think the best way to teach leadership is through a continuous, reinforcing cycle of instruction, experience, and review. We start by delivering knowledge, teaching the principles of leadership. Then we create opportunities for students to lead. This gives students the chance to put principles into practice, and, because these are relatively safe environments, they have room to experiment.
The “review” portion of our cycle comes next. Review is about feedback and reflection. We’re increasing the ways we give students feedback, and making sure they receive it from diverse voices. But we also have to coach students throughout this process — we need to help them learn to process feedback, even when it’s difficult to hear.
Once students determine that the feedback is actionable, we expect them to internalize it and commit to acting upon it. After giving them some time to reflect, we’ll repeat the process: more knowledge, another opportunity to practice, more feedback, more reflection. The end goal is to create principled, self-aware leaders who take this learning cycle and the “4 Cs” with them. We are trying to teach our students to “learn how to learn,” so that they maximize the value of their experiences over time. After all, this is an aspirational framework — leadership development is an iterative, ongoing journey.
Our goal is to encourage students to always look for opportunities to lead, to seek feedback, to find good mentors, and to continue to learn going forward.