The Foundations of Effective Leadership

By Norm Smallwood, Dave Ulrich | May 20, 2019

At The RBL Group, we've been talking about leadership for over 20 years. There is common agreement that leadership capability is critical for any organization in a competitive environment. To build successful leadership capability, we believe there are two important components: leadership fundamentals and leadership differentiators.

At The RBL Group, we’ve been talking about leadership for over 20 years. There is common agreement that leadership capability is critical for any organization in a competitive environment. To build successful leadership capability, we believe there are two important components: leadership fundamentals and leadership differentiators.

Here, we distill our core beliefs about these two components of leadership and discuss how to implement them in your organization.

Master the Fundamentals

Much of what constitutes good leadership is the same from leader to leader, no matter what organization they’re part of. Being an effective leader starts with mastering certain fundamental skills and attributes, which we’ve captured in the RBL Leadership Code.

The Leadership Code is an attempt to synthesize existing frameworks, tools, processes, and studies of leadership to identify the essential rules that govern what all great leaders do. The Code represents about 60 to 70% of what makes an effective leader. It represents the basics, the fundamentals, or the essentials of leadership. The differentiators may vary by firm strategy and vision and by individual job requirements. Mastering the Code becomes the foundation on which effective leadership is established.

  1. Shape the Future
    Leaders must be strategists who have a point of view about the future and position their organization to create and respond to that future.
  2. Make Things Happen
    Leaders must be executors who can translate strategy into action, make change happen, assign accountability, know which decisions to take and which to delegate, and make sure that teams work well together.
  3. Engage Today’s Talent
    Leaders must be talent managers who know how to identify, build, and engage today’s talent to get results for their organization.
  4. Build the Next Generation
    Leaders must be human capital developers focused on building the next generation of talent and ensuring that the organization has the skills and competencies required to be able to successfully execute the strategy.
  5. Invest in Yourself
    Leaders must be personally proficient and show a willingness to learn, inspire loyalty and trust, and act with courage and confidence.

Identify the Differentiators

If the fundamental rules of the Leadership Code account for about 60-70% of effective leadership, the differentiators account for the last 30-40%. These differentiators are what sets your organization’s leadership apart from others.

Identifying these differentiators is simple. Start with what your customers expect from your firm brand. Whether it’s great service, efficiency and low prices, or innovation, leaders must reflect and demonstrate these qualities in their actions. Ultimately, what leaders do connects what customers are promised by the firm to what they experience in their interactions with the organization. Leaders are the bridge to make that promise real. Leaders who really inspire confidence aren’t generic. They are recognized for their ability to deliver results that align with the company brand, and they’ve translated external customer expectations into internal leadership actions.

Building Leadership Brand

Organizations with leaders who have mastered both the foundational and differentiating competencies have begun the journey to excellent leadership. However, to build a robust leadership brand that is recognized by customers and investors and informs employee behavior across the organization, requires a system that builds organizational—not just individual--capability. The six elements of the RBL Leadership Brand Architecture are the key to building sustainable competitive advantage through differentiated leadership capability:

  1. Build business case for leadership
    It’s important to demonstrate why leadership matters and articulate the value that leadership brand creates. Creating a clear case for leadership brand makes the rest of the process easier—knowing the “why” makes it easier to accept the “what.” How does leadership brand create value for employees, customers, and investors? An explicit business case for leadership brand is the only way to ensure ongoing and sustainable investment in leadership.
  2. Agree on what leaders must do
    Decide what makes an effective leader at your organization. A statement of leadership brand provides a unifying framework for leadership development across the company. It connects what the firm wants to be known for with specific leadership skills and behaviors, making it unique to your organization. Here’s a place to start:
    Leaders at [company] are known for                           , and             , so that [company] can deliver                            , and             .
  3. Assess leaders & leadership
    Once the leadership brand is defined, it’s important to continually assess the leadership pipeline. This happens by turning competency definitions into behaviors that can be observed and measured through a 360 assessment, and by tracking employee, customer, investor, and organization results. It is also important to evaluate people systems to be sure there is a consistent message about what matters in how leaders are selected, evaluated, developed, and promoted.
  4. Invest in leaders & leadership
    With an understanding of the gaps, it’s time to invest in leadership development activities. These may include training courses, action learning workshops, career development experiences, and coaching. The RBL Group’s Leadership Academy is an example of a robust development program that supports individual as well as organization system changes. Improvements to succession planning, selection, and other key leadership processes are also key investments to build sustainable leadership capability for your organization.
  5. Measure leaders & leadership
    Throughout the process, it’s important to measure the impact of leadership investments. This includes tracking both the leadership investment (such as coaching) and the outcome of the investment (behavior change, financial results, intangible value.) It’s also important to tie your measurement strategy back to your business case for leadership. Is it delivering the results you expected and need?
  6. Ensure reputation
    Like product brands, your organization’s leadership brand should be both effective and visible. A brand should have a line of sight from the top to the bottom of the organization; it should capture the behavior and results for leaders throughout the organization. It’s important to continually communicate to stakeholders the intent and results of leadership efforts so there is support and understanding for these investments and to capitalize on the intangible value building leaders that generate confidence in the future can deliver.

As you read through these steps, think about how your own organization is doing in building branded leadership. Below is a tool to help you get a benchmark.

This chart can help you determine where your organization is at in building a leadership brand. Rate your organization a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high).

Explanation of score:

  • 45 or more: Great job! You have branded leadership within your organization.
  • 35-44: You’re on the right track. Identify those areas where you are lower and focus on them.
  • 25-34: There’s room for improvement. Pick one area that you think can have the highest impact, and get started.
  • Under 25: Time to get going. Do something, anything, and invest in leadership.


Together, the basics of the Leadership Code and the differentiators create a leadership brand when they are consistently implemented throughout the organization. Leadership Brand creates leadership capability that generates long-term success. By adopting an outside-in perspective and focusing on leadership rather than individual leaders, organizations can create a leadership capability that will sustain them for years to come.

Ready to get started improving leadership in your organization? Our Leadership Academy can help your leaders master the basics of the Leadership Code while integrating training specifically relating to the unique differentiating competencies of your Leadership Brand. Click here to learn more.

Norm Smallwood is a partner and co-founder of The RBL Group. His research and consulting focuses on helping organizations increase business value by building organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value. He has written extensively about leadership and organization effectiveness in eight books and over a hundred articles. 

About the author

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author
The RBL Group

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