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The Six Foundational Abilities of a Great Leader

The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.


If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

— John Quincy Adams

Leaders have to know who they are and where they want to go before they begin a journey. They need to recognize that they have to provide purpose, direction, and motivation for the persons they lead. In order to do this, leaders at all levels need to develop six foundational abilities in order to make themselves into great leaders. They need to have a vision of what the future can look like; possess social intelligence; practice Level 5 leadership; be decisive; be consistent; and practice reflection.

A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.

— John Maxwell

1. Have a Vision

In Greek myth, an important lesson of vision is presented in the dichotomy between Epimetheus and Prometheus. Epimetheus represented afterthought, where he is describes as rash and unthinking therefore constantly making poor decisions that resulted in terrible repercussions. In contrast, Prometheus was known for foresight. He thought things out, used reason, and made decisions that were beneficial into the future. Leaders need to be like Prometheus and not like his brother Epimetheus when it comes to engineering a vision for the future.

It is the leader’s job to clearly define where an organization is going. As the leader visualizes and articulates the possible future, he needs to understand three components of the vision.

First, the leader needs to recognize that seeing the future requires effort. One needs to create a sustained effort that creates momentum to start, maintain, and finalize a vision. The vision should be engaging. This will be important as the leader and his team considers resources, strengths, weaknesses, values, experiences, opponents, and other factors into the vision.

Second, as the vision takes shape, what is the direction it requires? Leaders want to see the vision clearly since vague visions will only serve as misdirection and will result in futile efforts. No one likes to follow a blurry picture of the future. Instead, others are attracted by visions that can paint an instantly recognizable picture of tomorrow.

Last, an effective vision clearly determines one’s priorities in concrete terms. How many times has one found oneself spinning in circles because the priorities were not clear? Time, resources, and energy are limited, in light of this, a vision, though it can be somewhat dreamy, has to be achievable. Making the vision achievable will draw people within the organization closer to it since it will be seen as encompassing actions in the right direction.

2. Possess Social Intelligence

An organizations can suffer from internal biases that can prevent it from greater achievements. One important way to overcome bias is for leaders to recognize the requirement and benefits of social intelligence. Goleman saliently explains that without social intelligence, a person can have first class training, an incisive mind, and an endless supply of good ideas, but still not make a great leader.[1]

Gerald Sewell properly states that leadership is more than Xs and Os, or emotionless structured leader development programs, or leadership study and analysis, or coer­cive motivation.[2] Leadership is about connecting, inspiring, providing purpose, direction, and motivation. The lack of social intelligence makes such imperatives shallow and meaningless from a leader and make leading an organization that much more difficult.

3. Practice Level 5 Leadership

Jim Collins tells us that high performing organizations have "Level 5" leaders. Collins defines Level 5 Leadership as “an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will.”[3] Although leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy can produce high degrees of success, they are not capable of enough to elevate their organizations to sustained excellence. And while Level 5 leadership is not the only requirement for transforming a good organization into an outstanding one, other factors include getting the right people on board and creating a culture of discipline. Going from good to great transformations just don't happen without Level 5 leaders at the helm.[4] Level 5 leaders possess the required iron will and ferocious resolve as demonstrated through their deft leadership at strategic levels. Level 5 leadership is enhanced significantly by understanding the symbiotic relationship between leading and ethical decision making.

CH (COL) Jeff Zust (National Defense University) explains that “ethical reasoning [is] necessary for effective decision making through the use of principles, utility, situation, and virtue.”[5] Leadership at the strategic level should not be about deciding what is right and wrong, it’s about being able to distinguish between options, finding out how to work in the “shades of gray” so one chooses the wisest strategic option.

Leaders can create a strong culture of trust and empowerment by first developing a high level of social intelligence to prevent self-defeating behaviors and by operating at a Level 5 Leadership to take the organization from good to great. Abraham Lincoln was a highly socially intelligent Level 5 leader who was resolute in his aims, but was modest and never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring and great nation.[6] It’s somewhat ironic that the personal ambition that often drives people to rise as a leader stands against the humility required to rise to Level 5.

Misplaced caution, more ruinous than the most daring venture.

— Alfred Thayer Mahan

4. Be Decisive

Decisiveness is invaluable to good leaders. Decisiveness does not necessarily equate to immediate judgments; it’s about making the right calls in time to make a difference.

Leaders have to rely on their experience and judgment to take the proper action. After all, we are prisoners of our experiences; both positive and negative. The key is not to become paralyzed by doubt. Our positive experiences fuel future endeavors and the negative ones prepare us for the future by the lessons learned they provide.

An early and timely decision can make all the difference. There are times one must initiate major action even while the picture remains a dark prism, unclear and incomplete. Moreover, one needs to take charge. Delaying a decision for perfect information can be costly. General MacArthur once explained: “The history of failure in war can be summed up in two words: too late. Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy; too late in realizing the mortal danger; too late in preparedness; too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance; too late in standing with one’s friends.”

Remember, decisiveness is not rashness nor gambling. It’s about the skill and confidence to make well-timed and resolute decisions in the fog of uncertainty, where a leader’s knowledge and instinct must intersect.

Leaders honor their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.

— Colin Powell

5. Be Consistent

Consistent leaders can help their organization by being predictable and not apt to surprise. The point is that a leader can generate unnecessary fear, distrust, and anxiety by speaking and behaving in unpredictable and strange ways. Good leaders avoid transmitting conflicting signals as they understand that consistency has its place.

Consistency is non-negotiable when it comes to fundamental issues like respect, character, accountability, values and ethics. Aside from this, since leaders will interact with different kinds of people on dissimilar issues in varied circumstances, tailoring one’s approach will be vital. Smart leaders learn quickly that different techniques that will prove most effective.

Leadership is about being ready to call the option. The same key just will not unlock every door. What works for one may not work for another. In the end, be consistent on essential principles, but learn to change it up when needed.

6. Exercise Reflection

The world today is hyperactive and super-connected. Our phones are on all of the time and we can stayed glued to them 24/7 if we choose. Though advanced technology provides incredible advantages, it threatens to crowd out vital personal and professional time to think and reflect on past actions, what we learned, and how we need to face tomorrow.

Moments set aside for reflection allow us to assess our performance over a period of time and think about ways to improve our way of thinking and as a consequence the decisions and actions we take. Reflection is like a garden we tend so we can reap its rewards in the future; it has an incredible return on investment.

Finding time to think is essential to helping with creativity and strengthening our resolve in times of crisis. It starts with the protection of quiet time. Set time aside and protect it. Leaders are expected to think more deeply about the environment and how it needs to be navigated in turbulent times. Our ability to think clearly is too important to forego the exercise of this ability.


[1] Goleman & Boyatzis, “Social Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review (Sep 2008).

[2] Gerald Sewell, “Emotional Intelligence,” Military Review (Nov-Dec 2009).

[3] Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (Jul-Aug 2005).

[4] Ibid.

[5] CH (COL) Jeff Zust, The Four Systems of Ethical Reasoning, Paper presented for the National Defense University Ethics Department, July 21, 2015.

[6] Ibid.

© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jr