The Five Pillars of Leadership

The Five Pillars of Leadership

When the Sustained Leadership WBS was conceived it was designed to answer the question: If you were going to build the perfect leader, how would you do that? The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) tool was borrowed from project management disciplines to provide structure to our building project. A WBS reflects every part of a project and when you have completed the entire WBS, your project has yielded its unique output. In this case, it is you as a better leader.

The five major headings of the WBS are the five fundamental pillars of leadership.

The Five Pillars of Leadership are:

  1. CHARACTER– There are many sub-elements of character. It is not just truth and honesty. It includes integrity in all its myriad aspects and an extended list of elements that force you to come to honest terms with yourself – who you really are, warts and all. It then provides you a plan to deal with those warts
  2. COMPETENCE– Leaders do not have to be capable of doing every job, but they better know at least one very well and have sufficient appreciation of the other required disciplines to identify competence in others. Whatever discipline you bring to the organizational effort, you are expected to know how to do that task to the best of your ability and contribute to an output to which all the contributors would be proud to attach their name.
  3. COMPASSION– An organization might have the very best systems and process. Their policies and procedure may win awards. It is people, however, who actually produce results against which leadership is measured. Any leader who ignores the human needs of the team will not be a sustained leader.
  4. COMMUNICATION– Leaders are expected to have a vision and to be able to effectively express it. Leaders are in a constant state of communication. Even if they are not consciously communicating, they are being observed and their actions communicate more than their words ever will.
  5. COMMITMENT– A sustained leader is a person of vision. They have an accurate view of the world as it truly is, yet they can see past all of that to a greater reality. They see it and have put together the team and the systems that will get the team to see and work toward the vision. Hard work, setbacks, and natural or unnatural events will present obstacles, but the sustained leader works through them all for the realization of the vision.


Essential Leadership Journey Checkpoints

Beneath these pillars the remaining 224 elements of leadership as identified in the Sustained Leadership WBS provide the infrastructure and support to the leader that enables them to sustain their role as a leader. Many people are placed into leadership positions, but that alone does not make them a leader. Over time we have seen many people in such positions fail miserably as leaders and they ultimately lose that position. Too often they are consumed by the power or the benefits of the position and succumb to the hubris such things can generate. It takes a strong effort to withstand such temptations and not everyone succeeds.


To further support the leadership structure beneath the five pillars, seven elements of the WBS were identified that are referred to as Essential Leadership Journey Checkpoints (ELJC).

  1. Character – Yes this is both a major heading in the WBS structure and an ELJC. So much of what you are as a leader relates directly to your character. If you have no problem lying to achieve your ends, or skimming money, or keeping a separate set of books, or cheating on your taxes or your spouse, then you will be found out and you will be removed from any position of leadership. No one is perfect, and many things can be forgiven if forgiveness is sincerely sought. A clear lack of character cannot. If you seek power and adulation rather than the accomplishment of worthwhile beneficial goals, your lack of character will find you out.
  2. Vision – If you are in the front of the line, the leadership role, you must know where you are going. This is defined by a vision, your vision, that you can articulate. It includes where you are, where you desire to be, and what is necessary to get you there. This involves a fair dose of critical and strategic thinking. Why does your team exist? What are they trying to accomplish? What good will be realized if the vision is achieved? Are there others who would want to be on the team headed where you are taking them? And in case you were wondering, there is no such thing as leading from behind. The leader never says “Go there!” but only “Let’s go there together!”
  3. Decisive – The sustained leader has to be willing to make commitments; to evaluate options, consider dissenting or alternative views, assess costs and benefits, and to provide direction to the team. Whether the decision involves the use of resources, the tradeoffs that are always present in any project, the addition of new team members (or even their removal), the settlement of disputes, dealings with other parts of the organization, contending with recalcitrant suppliers, rewarding the team, or any of the other many, many decisions the leader must make, the sustained leader does not shy away from making these decisions. Hopefully the easier ones have been delegated, so by definition, the leader is called upon primarily to make the tough ones. After all – if it were easy, anyone could do it.
  4. Focus and discipline – A leader faces innumerable distractions. And when the going gets tough, even a minor distraction can waste resources, create dissension, and effectively derail the vision. Focus is not a natural tendency for many. Self-discipline is also not a common natural gift. It can take very hard work to develop both focus and discipline. The sustained leader sets their sights on the goals as defined by the vision, focuses on the necessary steps to achieve those goals, and provides the necessary leadership to the team to have them coalesce behind him or her and press forward toward the achievement of those goals. Such achievement does not happen by chance. Only dedicated attention and positive progress, driven by the sustained leader’s focus and discipline will get the team where it needs to be.
  5. Situational awareness – There are never two situations that are exactly the same. Some difference, perhaps just a nuance, will be different each time a situation is faced. The sustained leader trains themselves to be attentive to the exact facts they are facing and carry with them a full toolbox of implements that can be selected with purpose to properly address the situation. Mis-assess the situation, apply the wrong tools or solution, and the mission will fail. The vision will not be achieved. Often there is extremely limited time to make such an assessment. Time and again, the leader who has made themselves adept at accurately assessing the situation will achieve far more than the one who feels compelled to continually study situations and effectively be paralyzed with detailed analysis. Certainly analogies, statistical averages, most likely outcomes, and gut feel are things to be considered, but the sustained leader knows that THIS situation is unique and must be assessed on its own merits. Doing so quickly and adroitly is a hallmark of a sustained leader.
  6. Constant learner – So many things are in a state of constant change that anyone who desires to lead must accept that they cannot stand still amidst this change. They must, like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, constantly run just to stay current. One way this manifests is in the need for the sustained leader to be a constant learner. Whether the topic is changes in technology, being financially literate, understanding social media, or simply changes that manifest in the various professions such as law, medicine, and engineering, the sustained leader must be humble enough to accept that they cannot know everything. Some, in a demonstration of hubris, always seek to be the smartest person in the room. The sustained leader knows that if you are always the smartest person in the room – you are in the wrong room. Accept that in many areas there will be others smarter than you, and it is your job as the sustained leader to learn from them. Your failure to do so will cause others to outpace you and supplant your leadership. To sustain your role as a leader, remain open to new things, new experiences, new knowledge, and new advances. Have enough humility to know that there are gaps in what you know and what you can do. The sustained leader reads, learns, and masters new skills by positioning themselves in a state of constant learning.
  7. Developing other leaders – Some suggest that the sole role of a leader is to develop other leaders. Certainly a continuous string of developed leaders is critical for the continuation of any organization, but this is only one of the many things on which the sustained leader must focus. Understanding what it takes to be a leader and having a disciplined and focus program to develop the talent that is attracted is fundamental to being a sustained leader. This requires that you have the humility and the ability to do what is best for the team to develop others, give them unique opportunities, develop their strengths, strengthen their weaknesses, enhance their overall performance level, and create in them a new sustained leader. The proud, the incompetent, the inept, the uncompassionate, the poor communicators, and those lacking commitment cannot properly develop others. Seek to become a sustained leader.


Think of these ELJCs as the braces and struts behind the five pillars, the lack of which will cause your leadership edifice to collapse. Sure, you might get placed into a leadership position and hold the building up for a while. But over time, the stress cracks will begin and before long the walls come tumbling down and your leadership journey is derailed or put on an extended detour.

We will return to these five pillars and the Essential Leadership Journey Checkpoints often. The serious student of leadership, the person who wants to prepare themselves to assume a highly responsible position of leadership will address all 229 elements in the WBS, and over time, constantly improve their leadership abilities. One day you will wake up to see a great number of followers who openly acknowledge you as their leader.

With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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