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The case for better leadership

Bob Vanourek //September 11, 2013//

The case for better leadership

Bob Vanourek //September 11, 2013//

Today’s business world is tougher than ever with your competitors sometimes cutting corners, burning people out, cheating and engaging in financial shenanigans and other unsustainable practices. You may wonder how to compete in such a world.

The good news is some leading organizations – from startups to global juggernauts, nonprofits, school districts and more – are creating a better brand of leadership. They are on a quest to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, what we call the “triple crown” of leadership.

For organizations that undertake it, this quest to has many benefits:
• Their performance levels reach new peaks
• They avoid major financial and strategic risks
• They become talent magnets for better people, retaining their best associates
• They unleash leaders throughout the enterprise
• They build a culture of character and high performance

We learned their practices by interviewing leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, analyzing their financial performance, their ethical track records and their efforts to be more sustainable externally and internally.  The results were fascinating. The organizations interviewed ranged from Google, Zappos and eBay to Vanguard, Infosys and the Mayo Clinic. Some were turnarounds working to recover from financial, ethical or other meltdowns.

Colorado-based leaders and their organizations include Nancy Tuor, former vice-chair at CH2M Hill; Dan Sweeney, director, Institute for Enterprise Ethics; John Scarborough and Jeff Pearl, co-founders, IP5280; Harvey Wagner, former CEO, Quovadx; General Jack Chain, former commander-in-chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command; Joe Mello, former COO, DaVita; Ed Mueller, former CEO, Qwest; and Dan Ritchie, former University of Denver chancellor.

We supplemented the interviews and other research with our own experience in business, turnarounds and startups. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we make the case that leaders should make building an excellent, ethical and enduring organization their overarching priority, recognizing that all three “Es” are interrelated and mutually reinforcing over time:

• “Excellent” means achieving exceptional results that have significant, positive impacts on stakeholders.  (“Average people produced extraordinary results.” -Nancy Tuor, former CEO at Rocky Flats, CH2M Hill)
• “Ethical” means acting with integrity, paying attention to how the results are achieved. (“I will go the board and tell them we had no sales this month rather than have one sale that is not right.” -Harvey Wagner, former CEO, Quovadx)
• “Enduring” means standing the test of time and operating sustainably. (“The short-term focus has blown up.” -Bill George, former CEO, Medtronic, now a Harvard Business School professor)

There is a growing body of evidence that more ethical companies and more sustainable companies outperform their peers and the traditional averages. See for example Ethisphere’s annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.

In this article (the beginning of a regular series), we list five advanced practices for building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations via “triple crown leadership.” Future articles will dive deeper into the details of each practice (and more). Here are the five practical applications for you, using our metaphor of the most “elusive championship in all of sports,” horseracing’s Triple Crown.

1. Head and Heart. Recruit for, develop, and reward personal character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit as well as skills and expertise. (“I want to make sure they fit with our values and culture.” -Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox)

2. The Colors. Collaboratively set an inspiring purpose, values, and vision and then bring them to life to build a high-performance culture of character in the organization. (“My most important job is to articulate clearly and consistently what the values of the institution are.” -Shirley Tilghman, former president, Princeton University)

3. Steel and Velvet. Get beyond your natural leadership style, flexing between the hard and soft edges, depending on the people and situation, but always anchored in the shared values. (“Sometimes you have to be a wartime general; sometimes a peacetime general.” -Lorrie Norrington, former president, eBay Marketplaces)

4. Stewards. Empower people to act and lead by the shared values, encouraging them to step outside their traditional roles and be stewards of the high-performance culture of character. (“Leadership is all about trusteeship.” -Dr. M.N. Channabasappa, Siddaganga Institute of Technology, India)
5. Alignment. Collaboratively align the organization to reach a state of peak performance. (“My role is to try to get everyone in the organization aligned.” -Tony Hsieh, CEO,

Triple crown leadership requires a group performance from many leaders who develop and protect this high-performance culture of character. They minimize breakdowns, reject the easy way out, and continually work to find a better way to lead.

Can you build an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization? We believe you can.