Leadership as brand brings new meaning to the role and responsibility of leaders. Although leadership matters now more than ever, and although more money is spent seeking the “true” attributes of successful leadership, the quality of leadership seems to be in decline. In many studies, leadership tops the list of what is required for firms to succeed in the future, yet somehow the investment in leadership development does not seem to have the desired impact. We believe that the concept of leadership brand offers another approach to closing the gap between the investment and the impact of leadership.
Brands have been identified for years as a way to distinguish and market a product, but more recently, brands have been used to build customer commitment to the firm as a whole—not just to particular products. For instance, customers seldom go to Nordstrom for a particular brand of apparel; they go for the overall experience. Other companies such as Nike and Harley-Davidson have also created firm brand: Nike has created a brand around an understanding of athletes and has branded this understanding across multiple product categories. Harley has branded its image of independence, individuality, and freedom across all styles of motorcycles, clothing, and restaurants.
Similarly, leadership brand lies at the heart of a firm’s identity. It occurs when leaders at every level are clear about which results are most important, develop a consistent approach to delivering those results, and build attributes that support the achievement of those results. Highly admired firms such as GE, Coca-Cola, Southwest Airlines, and Intel are each imbued with their own brand of leaders. Their brands succeed when the right attributes are linked to desired results, as represented in a simple formula: branded leadership = attributes x results.
Desired results are strategically balanced and measurable. Desired results also have to serve multiple constituents. We suggest that leaders’ results be balanced across four groups of stakeholders: employees, the organization, customers, and investors. Leaders face a difficult challenge in trying to balance and attain results in all four stakeholder areas. Results based leaders may, at times, make the deliberate choice of emphasizing one over another, but they can’t afford to ignore any of them for long.
In addition to balance, leadership results must be measured. From a list of possible indicators, a leader may create a dashboard that reflects unique business requirements (see Table A). Once desired outcomes are selected, this dashboard may then be monitored to assess leadership results.
What do leaders need to be, know, and do? Successful attribute-based models of leadership are characterized by three factors.
1. Focus on future leadership behavior. Effective models require an understanding of future strategy that can be articulated in behavioral terms.
2. Win the support of line managers. Leaders, line managers, and employees usually commit more to models that bear the stamp of authentic experience, not just valid research. Involving line managers increases their commitment.
3. Put attributes into practice. Effective attribute models must be woven into all management decisions, including hiring, training, development, promotion, career management, compensation, and communication. When done well, attribute models help leaders. They assure that leaders have the character, knowledge, and practices that are important to a firm and that they can and will take the appropriate actions. But unless they link all this to results, they fall short of a leadership brand.
Attributes may be tied to results by completing the phrase “so that” for each attribute. For example, instead of saying “Leaders in my organization must build collaborative relationships”, a results-oriented leader says “leaders in my organization must build collaborative relationships so that talented employees feel more committed to their work team as measured by their retention and by an employee commitment index.”
Results may be tied to attributes by completing the phrase “because of.” For example, “leaders in my organization must increase revenue from targeted customers because of our ability to understand customer buying criteria.”
Unless leaders understand both what is expected of them (their results) and how they are expected to achieve them (their leadership attributes), they cannot distinguish their own or their organization’s brand of leadership.
Once a leadership brand has been crafted with both attributes and results, leadership development activities can further the leadership brand. When investments in training, job assignments, 360 feedback, coaching, mentoring, and technology-based learning focus on both attributes and results, leadership development creates more impact.
Organizations that succeed do so with successful leadership. Branded leadership creates a distinct culture that permeates the enterprise. Employees know what is expected of them, both in terms of how they work and what they must accomplish. Customers receive a more consistent value proposition—whether it is better service, higher quality or performance, lower prices, or greater levels of innovation. Investors have confidence in the quality of leadership within the firm and offer a market value premium in response.
By building branded leaders, our business, social, and public institutions may begin to close the gap between the substantial investment already made in leadership and the growing need for ever-more effective leaders in the future.