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A Leadership Development Approach

Integrating Essence and Form

In the 40 years that Wilson Learning has studied leadership and has helped its clients develop their approaches to leadership, we have come to believe that how leaders view their purpose will set the course for their organization’s success. In this positioning white paper, we present our leadership point-of-view: that effective leadership is a balance of Essence and Form. We define how Essence and Form are expressed in leaders today, and show how different levels of leadership require different Forms, yet are all built on a common leadership Essence.

For Wilson Learning, the purpose of a leader is to engage others in committing their full energy to the creation of value and success. This simple statement contains some important elements that are at the core of our leadership point-of-view:

  • To engage others: A key distinction between a leader and an individual contributor is the accomplishment of goals by engaging others. To achieve targeted business results, leaders need not only direct, but also inspire and harness others’ talents toward an exciting vision.
  • To commit their full energy: It is not enough for leaders to get compliance. A true leader generates a passion that fuels the highest level of commitment—so that employees are ready and willing to give all of their creativity, capacity, and knowledge to the organization, day in and day out. In return, employees receive what they need to grow, thrive, and gain professional fulfillment.
  • To create value and success: Effective leaders know that to survive and grow, all stakeholders—customer, employees, and owners/stockholders—must obtain value from the organization. By having fulfilled employees, providing better products to customers, and assuring that owners/stockholders receive a fair return, effective leaders get everyone focused on growing value—growing both themselves and the organization.

From our 40 years of experience in leadership development, we know that leaders who have fulfilled this purpose—engaging others in committing their full energy to the creation of value and success—have successfully integrated the Essence and Form of effective leadership. Essence (the qualities that give leaders their identity) and Form (what a leader does and says) are the two sides of the leadership coin—the “being” and the “doing” of any leadership role.

Unfortunately, there are many leaders who fail to integrate Essence and Form. Most anyone can recall collaborating with a leader who was all Form and little Essence—a leader who got efficient action, but not impassioned commitment. These are the leaders who give the impression of expecting a lot from others, but not much from themselves—whose intent you did not know or trust and who, in short, got compliance but not commitment from their employees.

Most anyone can also recall working with a leader who was big on Essence but short on Form. These are leaders who generate a deep trust and commitment in others, but who lack the ability to focus that commitment in a single direction. In other words, they engender trust in their values, but not their competence.

Wilson Learning’s approach to assessing and developing leaders was created with the intent of tapping both the Essence and Form of leadership. Essence is captured in what we call Leadership Character—those elements of leadership that are enduring and core to how people view the purpose of leadership. Form, in contrast, represents those elements of leadership that adapt and change, depending on a leader’s level and functional role. While distinct, both aspects are essential to effective leadership.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of all employees are able to commit their total skills and energies to corporate goals, only if they believe those goals to be meaningful.

— Jack J. Corcker, Former CEO, SuperValu Inc.