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Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge


The decline of the work ethic is often misattributed to the workforce itself, when in reality, the core issue lies within leadership. Leaders have struggled to instill vision, meaning, and trust in their followers, failing to empower them effectively. This failure is not limited to organizations but extends to government agencies, institutions, and small enterprises. The key to unlocking human potential lies in effective leadership, as outlined by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in their seminal work.


Commonalities Among Leaders


Leadership universally grapples with the challenge of overcoming resistance to change. While some leaders resort to exerting power and control, effective leaders achieve voluntary commitment to shared values. They often broker the needs of both internal and external constituencies, requiring sensitivity to diverse stakeholder needs and a clear organizational vision. Additionally, leaders establish and uphold the ethical norms governing organizational behavior, often by exemplifying the very ethics they seek to institutionalize.


The Four Strategies


Bennis and Nanus outline four pivotal strategies for leadership:


1. Attention Through Vision

2. Meaning Through Communication

3. Trust Through Positioning

4. The Deployment of Self Through Positive Self-Regard


Leadership involves harnessing skills that a majority possess but only a minority utilize. These strategies can be learned, developed, and refined, ensuring that leadership potential is accessible to all.


Strategy I: Attention Through Vision


Creating a New Vision


A leader's primary task is to construct a compelling vision for the organization's future. This vision acts as a bridge from the present to the desired future state and is crucial in focusing attention and driving results. Leaders are often seen as intensely committed individuals whose visions magnetically attract and engage others.


Vision and Organizations


To choose a direction, a leader must develop a mental image of a desirable future state. This vision, whether vague or precise, must articulate a realistic and attractive future that improves upon the current state. John F. Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon by 1970 or Sanford Weill's aim to make American Express the world's leading investment banking company are prime examples of vision-driven leadership.


An organization thrives when it has a clear sense of purpose and direction, aligning the individual's role within the organization and the larger society. A shared vision allows individuals to find meaning and maximize their rewards from their participation, ultimately enhancing organizational performance.


Challenges in Today's Business Climate


In the contemporary business environment, rapid technological advancements and globalization have introduced new challenges for leaders. The traditional approaches to vision creation must now accommodate the dynamic and often unpredictable changes in the market. Leaders must not only create a vision but also ensure it is flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen changes. This requires a continuous feedback loop where the vision is periodically reassessed and modified as necessary.


Strategy II: Meaning Through Communication


Capturing Imaginations


Effective leadership requires the ability to communicate a compelling vision that inspires enthusiasm and commitment. Walt Disney's quote, "If you can dream it, you can do it," underscores the importance of belief in one's dreams, but realizing those dreams necessitates effective communication.


Developing Commitment for the New Vision


Mobilizing an organization to accept and support a new vision involves more than just verbal compliance. It requires clear and frequent articulation of the vision through various methods, such as policy statements, recruitment strategies, training programs, and symbolic changes. Leaders like Roger Smith of GM exemplify this approach, using retreats and discussions to share and solidify the company's vision among top executives.


Communication in the Digital Age


The advent of digital communication tools has transformed how leaders disseminate their vision. Social media, intranets, and other digital platforms provide leaders with immediate and far-reaching methods to communicate their vision. However, this also means that leaders must be adept at navigating these platforms, understanding the nuances of digital communication, and ensuring their message is consistent across all channels.


Strategy III: Trust Through Positioning


Coping with Change


Human organizations, unlike natural organisms, can change rapidly. Effective leaders help their organizations navigate this rapid change by making strategic choices and positioning the organization relative to its environment. Trust in leadership is built when leaders articulate clear, attractive, and attainable visions that align with the organization's purpose.


Trust in a Globalized World


In today's globalized business environment, building trust extends beyond local or national boundaries. Leaders must be culturally sensitive and aware of the diverse backgrounds of their stakeholders. Trust is built through consistent actions and communication that respects cultural differences and promotes inclusivity. Leaders must also be transparent about their intentions and actions, fostering an environment where trust can flourish.


Strategies for Positioning


Bennis and Nanus identify four strategies that leaders can use to position their organizations effectively:


1. Reactive Strategy: Organizations wait for change and react accordingly. While this is the least expensive approach, it is often shortsighted and only suitable for slowly changing environments.

2. Changing the Internal Environment: Leaders anticipate change and reposition the organization by reallocating resources, altering structures, and fostering a corporate culture that aligns with future needs.

3. Changing the External Environment: Organizations act on their environment to make changes favorable to their needs, through advertising, lobbying, collaboration, and innovation.

4. Establishing a New Linkage: Organizations create new relationships between their internal and external environments through bargaining and negotiation, ensuring mutual accommodation.


Adapting Positioning Strategies


In today's business climate, these strategies must be adapted to account for rapid technological advancements, economic fluctuations, and changing consumer behaviors. Leaders must be proactive, leveraging data analytics and predictive modeling to forecast changes and position their organizations effectively. This requires a blend of strategic foresight and agility, ensuring that organizations can pivot quickly in response to emerging trends.


Strategy IV: The Development of Self Through Positive Self-Regard


Key Skills for Leaders


Leaders must develop five key skills to foster positive self-regard and lead effectively:


1. Acceptance of Others: Leaders must accept people as they are, understanding their perspectives without judgment. This empathy is crucial for building strong, trusting relationships.

2. Present-Focused Problem Solving: Leaders should approach problems based on current circumstances, learning from the past but focusing on present solutions.

3. Courteous Attention: Treating close associates with the same respect as strangers fosters a supportive and appreciative work environment.

4. Trust in Others: Despite the risks, leaders must trust their team members, which encourages a culture of mutual respect and collaboration.

5. Independence from Constant Approval: Effective leaders do not seek constant validation; instead, they focus on the quality of work and the results of their collaborative efforts.


Resilience in Leadership


An essential quality observed in effective leaders is their response to failure. Leaders like Karl Wallenda, the tightrope aerialist, exemplify the focus and resilience required to succeed despite setbacks. These leaders view mistakes as learning opportunities, embracing failures as part of the journey toward success. This mindset fosters innovation and continuous improvement, critical in today's fast-paced business environment.


Developing Resilience


In the contemporary business landscape, resilience is more important than ever. Leaders must navigate uncertainties such as economic downturns, geopolitical instability, and technological disruptions. Building resilience involves cultivating a growth mindset, where challenges are seen as opportunities for development. Leaders must also foster a resilient organizational culture, encouraging their teams to embrace change and view failures as stepping stones to success.


Leaders Are Perpetual Learners


Learning is the essential fuel for leaders, providing the high-octane energy needed to sustain momentum by continually sparking new understanding, ideas, and challenges. When leaders are seen as effective learners, others are inspired to emulate them, much like a child imitates a parent or a student follows a teacher. Leaders stimulate and focus innovative learning, yet some organizations remain learning-handicapped—rigid and inflexible, only changing in response to major crises. The good news is that leaders have the power to redesign organizations to become more receptive to learning.


Redesigning Organizations for Learning


Leaders can transform organizations into open, participative, and anticipative entities. In these environments, individuals learn as part of their daily activities, especially through interactions with each other and the outside world. Groups learn collectively as members collaborate to achieve common goals. Leaders aim to unite people into a "responsible community," a group of interdependent individuals who take responsibility for the organization's success and long-term survival. By fostering this sense of community, leaders enhance the competence of individuals and groups to manage complexity in their environment.


The Myths of Leadership


Myth 1: Leadership is a Rare Skill


Contrary to popular belief, leadership is not an exceptionally rare skill. While great leaders may be few, leadership potential exists in everyone. People can be leaders in one context and have ordinary roles in another. Leadership opportunities are plentiful and within reach for most people.


Myth 2: Leaders are Born, Not Made


The idea that leaders are born with inherent traits is a myth. Leadership capacities and competencies can be learned. While becoming a leader is not easy and lacks a simple formula or science, it is a deeply human process characterized by trial and error, victories and defeats, timing, intuition, and insight.


Myth 3: Leaders are Charismatic


While some leaders are charismatic, most are not. Charisma often results from effective leadership rather than being a prerequisite for it. Effective leaders earn respect and admiration from their followers, strengthening the bond of attraction and trust.


Myth 4: Leadership Exists Only at the Top


Leadership is not confined to the upper echelons of an organization. The larger the organization, the more leadership roles it contains. Leadership opportunities can be found at various levels, emphasizing the distributed nature of leadership.


Myth 5: Leaders Control, Direct, and Manipulate


This myth is perhaps the most damaging. True leadership is not about exercising power but about empowering the organization towards a compelling goal. Leaders inspire and enable people to use their own initiative and experiences, rather than constraining or denying them. Effective leaders lead by pulling rather than pushing, inspiring rather than ordering, and enabling rather than controlling.


Moving Beyond Myths to Effective Leadership


With these myths debunked, the focus shifts to improving one's effectiveness at leadership—how to "take charge" and lead within an organization. Effective leadership involves continuous learning, fostering a culture of innovation, and empowering others to achieve shared goals. By embracing these principles, leaders can navigate the complexities of their environments and drive their organizations toward success.


The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership


Understanding and Managing Emotions


Emotional intelligence (EI) is a critical component of effective leadership. Leaders with high EI can understand and manage their emotions and those of others, fostering a positive work environment. This capability is essential for building strong relationships, resolving conflicts, and motivating teams.


Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation


Leaders must be self-aware, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness enables leaders to understand how their emotions affect their behavior and decision-making. Coupled with self-regulation, which involves controlling or redirecting disruptive emotions and adapting to changing circumstances, leaders can maintain focus and effectiveness even under pressure.


Empathy and Social Skills


Empathy allows leaders to understand and consider the feelings of their team members, promoting a supportive and inclusive culture. Effective leaders use their social skills to build rapport, inspire collaboration, and drive collective success. These skills are crucial in today’s diverse and dynamic work environments.


Adaptive Leadership in a Rapidly Changing World


Embracing Change


In today’s fast-paced business climate, adaptability is a key leadership trait. Adaptive leaders are flexible and open to new ideas, continuously seeking innovative solutions to emerging challenges. They are proactive in anticipating changes and positioning their organizations to thrive in uncertain conditions.


Encouraging a Growth Mindset


Leaders should cultivate a growth mindset within their teams, encouraging continuous learning and development. This mindset helps individuals and organizations adapt to change and overcome obstacles. By promoting a culture that values learning and resilience, leaders prepare their teams for future challenges.


Navigating Technological Advancements


Technological advancements are reshaping industries and work environments. Leaders must stay informed about technological trends and their potential impact. They should foster a culture of technological literacy and encourage their teams to embrace new tools and platforms. This approach ensures that organizations remain competitive and innovative.


Building a Diverse and Inclusive Leadership Team


The Value of Diversity


Diverse leadership teams bring varied perspectives and experiences, leading to more innovative and effective decision-making. Inclusive leaders recognize the value of diversity and actively work to create environments where all voices are heard and respected.


Strategies for Inclusion


To build a diverse and inclusive leadership team, leaders must implement strategies that promote equity and inclusion. This includes:


  • Recruitment and Hiring: Actively seeking diverse candidates and eliminating biases in hiring processes.

  • Training and Development: Providing training on diversity and inclusion and offering development opportunities for underrepresented groups.

  • Inclusive Policies: Establishing policies that support diversity and create a welcoming environment for all employees.


Leading with Cultural Competence


Cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. Leaders with cultural competence can navigate and bridge cultural differences, enhancing collaboration and cohesion within diverse teams.


Ethical Leadership and Corporate Social Responsibility


Upholding Ethical Standards


Ethical leadership is fundamental to building trust and credibility. Leaders must uphold high ethical standards and lead by example, demonstrating integrity in their actions and decisions. This approach fosters a culture of transparency and accountability.


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)


Leaders today are increasingly aware of their organizations’ social and environmental impact. Corporate social responsibility involves taking actions that benefit society and the environment, beyond profit-making. Leaders must integrate CSR into their strategic goals, ensuring that their organizations contribute positively to the world.


Balancing Stakeholder Interests


Effective leaders balance the interests of various stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, and the community. This requires a nuanced understanding of stakeholder needs and a commitment to ethical and sustainable business practices.




Leadership is a dynamic and multifaceted skill that evolves with changing environments and societal expectations. Effective leaders are perpetual learners, constantly adapting and growing to meet new challenges. By embracing emotional intelligence, adaptability, diversity, ethical standards, and social responsibility, leaders can inspire and empower their teams to achieve shared goals. As organizations and the world continue to change, the principles outlined by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus remain relevant, offering a foundation upon which contemporary leaders can build and thrive.


Leadership can be cultivated through the strategic application of vision, communication, positioning, and self-regard. Bennis and Nanus' strategies provide a robust framework for leaders to inspire and empower their followers, driving organizational success. However, the modern business environment necessitates adaptations to these strategies, considering the rapid technological advancements and globalization. Effective leadership not only enhances individual and organizational performance but also contributes to the broader societal good. By mastering these strategies and adapting them to contemporary challenges, leaders can navigate the complexities of today's business climate and lead their organizations to sustained success.

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