What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World

By Antony Bell


This is one of the most balanced books on leadership I have ever read.  Not only does the book strike a very healthy balance between the two dimensions of character and competence, it also gives one of the more complete pictures of the three types of leadership needed at different levels of responsibility:


1.      Organizational leadership, which has to do with the effectiveness and relevance of the organization.  It includes:

a)      Creating and clarifying the direction

b)      Aligning the organization and its resources to that direction.

c)      Selling and promoting the message of that direction.

2.      Operational leadership (management), which has to do with the efficiency and responsiveness of the organization’s operations.  It includes:

a)      Planning and shaping processes

b)      Organizing and controlling

c)      Measuring and problem solving

3.      People leadership, which has to do with the productivity of the individuals working in the organization.  It includes:

a)      Selecting and matching the right people

b)      Explaining and clarifying expectations

c)      Motivating and developing the people in the organization.


The author lists three principles of people leadership:


1.      If people leadership is absent, organizational and operational leadership will be less effective.

2.      People leadership will be less effective if it is not intentionally applied at every level of leadership.

3.      People leadership will be most effective when the right mix exists between organizational and operational leadership.


The purpose of this book is to give a framework for making the choices necessary for great leadership.  To adapt the words of Albert Einstein, it seeks to make leadership as simple as possible, but no simpler.  In the post World War II era, the focus on leadership went from being the right kind of person with the right kind of character to a focus on developing the right kind of (management) skills with the right kind of techniques.  In the 1980’s, organizational leadership and people leadership emerged.  The focus on organizational leadership made much of the distinction between leaders and managers.  The leader sets the vision and the manager executes it.  People leadership focused on empowerment of employees, which led to the elimination of middle management.  Unfortunately, empowerment often generated more frustration that freedom.  Bell writes: “Instead of being entrusted with responsibility, they became encrusted with cynicism.”  For example, the elimination of middle managers meant that “people weren’t being developed because fewer middle managers were around to develop them”.  In the 1990’s, the disillusion with empowerment led to turn the focus to systems and systems thinking.


The history of leadership has been the history of an evolution from the simple to the complex.  The author believes that there is need for an integrated model of leadership that embodies both character and competence and includes these elements:


Character                                                       Competence


The Soul of                       The Heart & Mind                The Knowledge, Skill and

the Leader                           of the Leader                          Talent of the Leader


The Leader’s                      The Leader’s               The Leader’s           The Leader’s

Inner Drives                    Personal Qualities            Professional             Competence

     Competence           in Leadership


Bell combines character and competence in a simple diagram:















He writes: “Ultimately, leaders fail either because they don’t understand the mechanics of leadership in all its complexity (competence) or because they break trust with those they lead and the community they serve (character).”  He defines character as “pursuing noble ends with noble means”.  He continues: “Externally, character provides the point of trust that links leaders with followers.  Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides the leader’s strongest source of bearing and restraint.”


The author defines competence in leadership as “applying noble means to noble ends with knowledge, skill and talent”.   Somewhat surprisingly, the author plays down the importance of professional competence.  He writes: “Professional competence is overrated in leadership.  Important though it is, it isn’t indispensable to great leadership.  Leadership competence, however, is.”  In addition, an over-emphasis on professional competence could conceivably get in the way of leadership competence.


The soul of the leader is ultimately dependent on his worldview, which influences his values and attitudes, which in turn affect his behaviors.  Our worldview is the source of our authority as leaders and includes our view of human nature and our sense of purpose and destiny and our values.  Our values are shaped by our worldview and include such things as integrity, equity, justice, commitment, trustworthiness, fidelity, loyalty, humility, industriousness, respect, consideration, kindness, patience, forgiveness and generosity.  Bell writes: “As leaders, we need our own personal creed of conduct, and that personal creed of conduct needs to be solidly founded on absolutes we believe in.”


Bell summarizes the heart and mind, the personal qualities, of leadership in a leadership pyramid:






Care for Others


Ability to Think


Ability to Act

Thirst for Personal Growth




    Well-Defined Worldview

   Clear Moral Compass


This book is refreshingly balanced in its view of leadership, both in the sense of balancing character and competence and in giving a balanced view of the three kinds of leadership: organizational, operational and people leadership.  The author suggests that the essence of organizational leadership is clarifying and setting direction by clearly identifying the purpose, vision and values (PVV) of the organization.  It creates the kind of environment where the purpose, vision and values are so clear that defining goals is almost a no-brainer. 


A good purpose statement defines the organization’s reason for being; it captures the soul of the organization.  Vision, on the other hand energizes people.  It doesn’t predict the future, it shapes it.  Strong vision leads to bold initiatives expressed in bold goals, but these goals must be rooted in the overall purpose.  Bell writes: “Even if a big stretch goal is compelling, it is likely to be disruptive if it isn’t anchored in a clear purpose.”  He cites the example of NASA, which floundered after it accomplished the lofty goal to get a man to the moon and safely back given it by President Kennedy in 1961.


Organizations are also driven by values, which give the organization substance and meaning.  They determine how decisions are made, what kind of people succeed, how customers and employees are viewed and how power is distributed.  They are the principles that guide an organization.  There are three kinds of values:


1.      Operational values, including process excellence, product and service dominance and customer experience

2.      Work-environment values

3.      Moral values


The author suggests that it is very important to find the right operational value to define the organization.  One can realistically embrace only one.  That does not mean abandoning the others; it simply means that they support the core operational value that drives the organization.


Critical success factors (CSF) are the crucial link between the aspirations expressed in the purpose, vision and values and the execution lived out in everyday reality.  In other words, they are the connection between organizational leadership and operational leadership. 


1.      Organizational leadership organizes the alignment around the CSF’s.

2.      Operational leadership organizes the systems and processes around the CSF’s.

3.      People leadership organizes the skills and behaviors of the work force around the CSF’s.


Most organizations need 5-7 critical success factors which act as the guide and measure for the alignment of the organization and its resources with its purpose, vision and values.  They identify the conditions that are absolutely necessary for purpose, vision and values to become reality.


The keys to great execution (operational leadership) include:


1.      Maintaining a constant connection to the PVV.

2.      Maintaining a clear commitment to the CSF’s.

3.      Developing a solid understanding of systems and process thinking.

4.      Intentionally connecting execution to people development.


Bell summarizes people leadership in the word empowerment, which is a function of three components: 1) Clear scope and outcome 2) Sufficient authority and resources and 3) Adequate competence  


He cites the work of Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in Situational Leadership to illustrate the different stages of people development.  With an enthusiastic beginner, one needs to be an instructor.  With someone who is inexperienced but eager to grow and learn, one needs to be a coach.  With someone who has a certain level of experience but lacks confidence, a facilitator is needed, whereas an experienced, confident person needs a consultant.  These four stages of development are summarized in the chart below:




     Facilitating and Strengthening


            Getting experienced,

              but not confident




          Building and Developing


            Inexperienced, but eager

                  to grow and learn



        Releasing and Empowering


                 Experienced and





            Exposing and Focusing


           Inexperienced, and not clear

                on how inexperienced


Great leaders exercise their influence by appealing to the internal drives and aspirations of their people.  Motivation needs to be addressed at two levels: organizational and individual.  The author suggests adjusting one’s approach to people of differing temperaments by using tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the DISC instrument developed by John Geier in 1969.  Finally, effective development needs to be:


1.      Planned

2.      Purpose-driven

3.      Personal


He concludes: “Investing in others keeps you fresh, receptive and connected.”  He suggests seven benefits of people development for the one doing it:


1.      You put your career on a different footing.

2.      You’ll get your time back (in being able to delegate more).

3.      You will become an accomplished talent spotter.

4.      Your reputation will be built on more than competence.

5.      You will build a lasting network of relationships.

6.      You will leave a legacy.

7.      You will keep growing.


This is an excellent book for anyone involved in leadership, whether in business or ministry.  Although much of the vocabulary is drawn from the world of business, the principles transfer easily to the world of ministry.  Antony Bell has succeeded in making leadership as simple as possible but no more simple than that. Although it is primarily intended for those working in for-profit companies, it can be adapted to the non-profit sector.  This will require redefining terms like “customer”, but it is very applicable nonetheless.  In fact, the author has many years of experience in working in both the non-profit sector and in business.  This book is an excellent resource for anyone with leadership responsibility in any field. 



                                                                                    John Ed Robertson

                                                                                    September 21, 2006


Bell, Antony; Great Leadership: What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World; Davies-Black Publishing; Mountain View, CA; 2006; ISBN-13: 978-0-89106-215-8