The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By

By McCarthy, Alma | Irish Journal of Management, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By

McCarthy, Alma, Irish Journal of Management

The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By by Dave Ulrich,, Norm Smallwood and Kate Sweetman Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008


The search for an understanding of effective leadership has been ongoing for centuries and there are thousands of books and publications which aim to shed light on various dimensions of leadership theory, approaches and outcomes. Practitioners and academics are preoccupied with the concept of leadership and what constitutes effective leadership. In the case of leadership, perhaps the French novelist Remy De Gourmant (in Bass and Bass, 2008: 3) is accurate in stating that 'a definition of leadership is a sack of flour compressed into a thimble'. We know good (and poor) leadership when we see it, yet it is not easily distilled into a One-size-fits-all' approach.

The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By is written by a prominent author and commentator in the human resources field, Dave Ulrich, and two colleagues of his. The authors reviewed the extant leadership literature and conducted interviews with 'thought leaders' to inform the book. The authors claim that the same five essentials of effective leadership were repeated in interviews with highly regarded thought leaders, including Richard Boyatzis, Jay Conger, Marshall Goldsmith, Gary Hamel, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman. The book is organised around five key principles, or codes, which enable effective leadership.

The authors do not necessarily reveal any new solutions or theories on becoming a 'great leader7. Rather, this book synthesises the thicket of leadership competency models into a unified view of leadership. In writing the book, the authors' goal is to 'identify an underlying framework of knowledge, skills and values common to all effective leaders' (p. 5). This model, the Leadership Code, is based on the premise that being an effective leader starts with one's self. The leader must model what they want others to master. This dimension of 'personal proficiency7 is at the core of effective leadership. Without personal proficiency it is not possible to keep the other dimensions in balance. The Leadership Code maps across two dimensions: time and attention. In short, the model presents both a longterm and short-term perspective on the organisation and the individual. According to the authors, they:

. . .have examined the broad field, talked in depth with the smartest leadership people [they] know, and passed all that information through the screen of [their] hundred years of experience in the field. Through the process, [they] have discovered and validated what [they] now know to be the five essential rules all leaders must follow (p. 25).

The book is organised around the five rules of effective leadership and a chapter is dedicated to each of the five rules, which are as follows:


Meeting current business challenges in a global environment requires strategic leadership. The strategist keeps the long-term perspective of the organisation foremost in their minds. The leader must know the direction they are going and ensure everyone else does too. They must not just envision the future but must also be able to create it. While preferring to live in the abstract and the future world of strategy, they ensure that they remain up to date with the ever-changing external landscape of the macro environment, such as technology, demographics and political realities. The key constituents of the strategist domain are strategic vision, creating a customer-centric view of strategy, engaging the organisation in developing strategy, and creating a strategic footing in the organisation. The authors claim that this long-term organisational level perspective is one of the key rules of effective leadership.


The leader who demonstrates the ability to make things happen, also termed 'the executor7 by the authors, translates strategy into action, assigning accountability and ensuring teams work well together.

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