What are your leadership “Big 5”?

In a conversation with an executive client who had just returned from a safari, we discussed the concept of the “Big 5.” It’s a term that originally referred to the five African animals that hunters deemed the most difficult game to hunt on foot (the elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion). These are also the most iconic animals to see on a safari. My client was still in awe that he’d been lucky enough to see all of them on his recent trip. He returned energized and excited about his vacation experience and ready for the new year.

As we played with the Big 5 concept, I turned the discussion slightly and asked him, “What are the Big 5 things you want in this next phase of your leadership? What do you want to do, see, experience and achieve?”

I gave him some time to ponder the question and wondered if he could answer it without concern about how others would react to his reply. Could he be honest? Had he invested in enough reflection over the span of his leadership role to have the answer at his fingertips? Then I added another question.

“What are the roadblocks to achieving your Big 5 and where do you need help?”

I watched as he wrestled with an answer. At first, he rattled off his operating goals for the year ahead.

“Yup, those have to be on my list,” he said.

Then he recited an inventory of challenges he thought the business would encounter. In truth, his original Big 5 sounded like an action plan for addressing those challenges and he spent thirty minutes describing how he was going to solve them. Finally, he became quiet and thoughtful, perusing what he had written on the yellow legal pad in front of him.

“I’m not sure that I’m identifying what’s most important. I need help thinking through this,” he admitted.

It’s not that the list of business issues my client identified weren’t important. What it lacked was the kind of structure that could provide a roadmap for the year ahead. Together we settled on establishing a Leadership Capability Big 5. These were the capability areas in which he would have to make progress to grow the business and to evolve personally. As you consider the year ahead, try to identify your own goals in each of these areas. Which of the Leadership Capability Big 5 are most critical to address for your professional and personal success? What obstacles are you facing now and how will you overcome them?

Capability 1: Accomplishment

Every leader is responsible for the financial success of the business. For this Big 5 capability, examine the actions you must take to deliver desired bottom-line results. Consider the leadership behaviors and goals that will contribute to the longevity of the business and allow the organization to achieve and maintain competitive excellence. If your goals have a quarter-to-quarter focus without a long horizon view, the longevity of the business will be in jeopardy.

Capability 2: Stewardship

Leaders have significant responsibility for the needs of both shareholders and employees. Consider where employee and shareholder needs intersect and where they collide. Do you understand those needs and have you balanced how they will be addressed? As you evaluate how the business must evolve, a major leadership mandate is building the next generation of talent that will shepherd the organization forward and assure it thrives well beyond your tenure. What steps are you taking to groom capable successors for all of today’s key positions? What steps are you taking to identify how the business will evolve strategically and how that evolution will reshape the key positions of tomorrow?

Capability 3: Purpose

Since the advent of a global pandemic, we have shifted to an era where employee demands from their job experience have changed. The desire for economic reward is just one of the factors impacting your ability to retain top talent. Today’s employees are also seeking fulfillment from their work, as well as money. As a leader, what are you doing to create a culture of meaning that looks beyond policy changes or perks that can be instituted as temporary appeasements of employee demands? What actions will you take to help employees thrive and bring the best of who they are to the business, so work is a source of fulfillment for them? How will you align your personal purpose with the way you show up as a leader so you can be your most authentic self and engage others?

Capability 4: Service

Your organization is part of a larger community. The decisions you make every day impact your employees, customers, contractors and shareholders, but they also impact the community at large. How will you support the community you serve in ways that benefit more than the organization? What responsibility will you take about the current health of that community? How will you support its growth?

Capability 5: Personal growth

Every strong leader invests in their ongoing personal growth. They also recognize the importance of integrating their personal life and professional life in a healthy way. What commitments will you make and what actions will you take to grow as an individual this year? In what ways do you demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning? Where have you exhibited personal growth since last year? Where are you still struggling with growth and what is the plan to improve in this area? As you navigate the personal growth leadership capability, be sure to confer with trusted individuals in your professional and personal circles. You need honest feedback in order to grow, which comes from people brave enough to tell you the truth.

If you’ve approached this new year with enthusiasm and determination, you might derive a great sense of satisfaction from generating your Big 5 list. But the real work begins a few months from now, when other priorities push your Big 5 to the back burner of your brain. To offset this risk, put a system in place that forces you to examine your progress against your intentions at least monthly, and requires that you own the outcome publicly. As every leader knows, “what gets measured, gets done.”

This article was first published in SmartBrief, January 2023.

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