The Four Fundamentals of Leadership

By Laura Hansen, PCC

Just like a star athlete or a world class musician, leaders who want to develop must master the fundamentals of their craft, says The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an international organization focused on research and education in leadership development.

A new book by CCL researchers spells out what they have found to be the fundamentals of leadership.

In Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching, Peter Scisco, Elaine Biech, and George Hallenbeck make the case for the “Fundamental Four” as the foundation of all successful leadership.

The Fundamental Four:

  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Learning Agility
  • Self-Awareness

There are of course many other leadership skills, from change implementation and conflict resolution to resilience and strategic planning. In fact, their book looks in depth at more than 50 leadership skills — a reminder that no matter how good we think we are as leaders, there are always areas where we can improve! But the author’s research suggests we should focus daily on these four:

  1. Communication is the art of speaking, writing, and listening clearly and consistently.  As the authors note, communicating well is the greatest opportunity and challenge for any leader. To mention one dimension of effective communication, strong communicators know their audiences. When they walk in a room, they know who is there and how much they know about the issue at hand. With that knowledge, it’s possible to tailor the message and delivery.

Getting exposure to other points of view before we walk in that room is also crucial because of the fresh thinking and insights we are likely to acquire. It’s why every leader needs to be a Chief Listening Officer. It’s also why we need to pay attention to how often we use the words “I” or “my” in our interactions. If you stop and take stock, you might be surprised at how ingrained the habit is at work and at home. “We” and “us” are far more likely to inspire trust, collaboration, and results.

  1. Influence is the ability to persuade others and gain their cooperation and commitment. Understanding and motivating others to take action can be our greatest asset, especially as organizations become more complex and decentralized. The first thing skilled influencers do is consider others’ situations. Identifying potential ways to help is a key step for finding common ground, as is building a coalition of supporters to extend the credibility and appeal of your proposal.

Just as communicators know the ins and outs of their audience, excellent influencers vary their tactics based on who they are approaching. There are three primary kinds of appeals — those based on logic, on emotion, and on a sense of cooperation — and different people respond to different ones.  How those appeals are delivered also matters. Some people prefer email, others face-to-face meetings. Some like data, others stories. Be situational, use the approach they like; not the one that’s most comfortable for you.

  1. Learning Agility is the knack for seeking out diverse experiences and applying the lessons learned to new challenges. It’s grounded in the principle that experience is the best teacher — and we need to be deliberate and curious about seeking new experiences and knowledge. That means periodically reinventing our routines, even if they’re working. If we’re doing things the way we’ve always done them, we’re probably missing out on opportunities to do them better. Remember the adage: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

But collecting new experiences is just half the equation; we also need to make sense of this new information that will most likely open up new possibilities. That can be hard to do with the constant temptation to check the box and move on to the next thing.

We can keep ourselves in a learning mode by blocking time on our calendars to reflect on experiences. It’s also helpful to get frank feedback from others on how we performed in a new situation. From this, we ultimately gain a stronger sense of how we like to learn (through talking or thinking or journaling, for example), making us even more agile in the future.

  1. Self-Awareness comes from using reflection and feedback to gain insight into our strengths and address our development needs. We are the worst judges of our own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s vitally important to have people we trust offer insights on what we’re doing well and what we can do better. Feedback truly is a gift.

At the same time, we can also coach ourselves. Pay attention to how others respond to your actions. Assess how you respond in times of stress. Do you maintain balance? Do you lash out? Taking a good hard look at ourselves, particularly as we move into new roles that require new behaviors, can help us avoid derailment.

Employing a Professional Certified Coach can be another way to build your self-awareness and enlist support for developing your leadership competency.

Mastering The Fundamental Four takes work and practice, but when we’re in the spotlight and everyone’s expecting results, having great fundamentals can make all the difference.


To work with Laura on your own Fundamental Four, contact her for a consultation.