The principles of success

The minds of great leaders reveal eight universal laws

About 30 years ago, I initiated a study called The Combat Leadership Study. This grew out of a quest to find the most challenging leadership situation, those leaders who successfully overcame it, and how they did it.

There are many challenging scenarios for leaders in different sectors: in the hospital room, unexpected situations on the street, emergencies at sea or air, and road traffic accidents. There are also police confrontations involving hostages, or someone with a gun.

But leaders in one particular field may be confronted by any or all of those challenges mentioned above: it’s hard to beat the almost daily leadership challenges facing those in the military when waging war.

Battlefield leadership presents the greatest challenge

The fog of war cuts off the flow of intelligence and means battlefield leadership is often based on scant data. As Drucker pointed out to me, “In no other type of leadership must the leader make decisions based on less reliable information.”

So, battle probably represents a worst-case scenario – the one I was seeking to identify in my study. No wonder traditional employment motivators, such as high pay, good benefits and job security, aren’t very effective in attracting applicants. There is no ‘business as usual’ on the battlefield. Not only that, but when leading under these terrible conditions, successful combat leaders have to get things done ethically, honestly, and where possible, humanely.

Nevertheless, from 95% of the responses I received from my survey of leaders in battle, I was able to identify eight universal principles, or laws, for successful leadership (see opposite). Each of the leaders who participated in my study said one or more of these eight principles had helped them achieve extraordinary results in their careers. Several wrote special notes or letters to express their support for my project.

General Ronald Fogleman, who was chief of staff of the US Air Force, wrote the foreword to my first book on these eight universal laws. Many successful leaders wrote testimonials and allowed me to publish them. These included those with military experience, such as General H Norman Schwarzkopf Jr, who had then recently led and been successful in the Gulf War; and retired general and later Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr; as well as astronaut Colonel Frank Borman and former US Marine Bob Lutz, who was then vice chairman of the Chrysler Corporation. There were also testimonials from leaders with no military experience, such as billionaire Bill Bartmann; and Barry Gordon, former and longest-serving president of the Screen Actors Guild. Bartmann, who made and lost several fortunes, was once listed as the 25th wealthiest man in America.

I had a lengthy discussion about each of the eight principles with Peter Drucker, which was published in my book Drucker on Leadership. We had gone to his favourite Italian restaurant in Claremont near where he taught and, over a spaghetti lunch, I went over my research in some detail. This is what he said…

Drucker on the eight laws

1 Integrity first     

Drucker said: “You are entirely right and absolutely correct in listing this as your first law. A leader can be well-liked and popular, and even competent, and that’s all well and good, but if he lacks integrity of character he is not fit to be a leader.”

Drucker had written in one of his books: “Character is not something you can fool people about. The people with whom a person works – especially subordinates – know in a few weeks whether he or she has integrity or not. They may forgive a person for a great deal: incompetence, ignorance, insecurity or bad manners, but they will not forgive a lack of integrity.”

2 Know your stuff

Drucker said: “This seems obvious, but some managers do try to cut corners rather than mastering the knowledge that they must have and that is essential to the quality of their performance.”

Drucker wrote: “. . . leadership rests on being able to do something others cannot do at all or find difficult to do . . .”


3 Declare your expectations

Drucker said: “I’m uncertain what you mean by this. If you mean that a leader should declare his objectives, his mission – by all means.”

4 Show uncommon commitment

Drucker said: “The failure of many is because they show no commitment, or commitment to the wrong goals. This gets back to your third law. Commitment comes from a worthy mission and then strong commitment.”

Drucker wrote (referring to what non-profits could teach business): “. . . non-profit directors tend to have a personal commitment to the organization’s cause. Few people sit on a church vestry or a school board unless they deeply care about the religion or education.” 

5 Expect positive results 

Drucker said:  “There is a cautionary tale. One must not be a ‘Pollyanna’.

Still the central thought is correct. One cannot be negative and succeed in anything.”

Drucker wrote: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”


6 Take care of your people

Drucker said: “Many managers are failing to do this, and it will catch up with them.”

Drucker wrote: “A leader has responsibility to his subordinates, to his associates.” 

7 Duty before self

This point requires some further clarification. What I meant by this is that the leader has a duty to accomplish the mission, and a duty to take care of those for whom he or she is responsible.

The leader’s own needs must come after fulfilling this duty.

Drucker said: “This should be the basis of all leadership. The leader cannot act in one’s own interests. It must be in the interests of the customer and the worker. This is the great weakness of American management today.”

Drucker wrote: “Douglas MacArthur . . . built a team second to none because he put the task first . . He was also unbelievably vain, with a tremendous contempt for humanity, because he was certain that no one came close to him in intelligence. Nevertheless, he forced himself in every single staff conference to start the presentation with the most junior officer. He did not allow anybody to interrupt.”

8 Get out in front

Drucker said: “Very true. Whether a junior leader or the chief executive, the leader must be where the work is the most challenging. During World War I, deaths among higher-ranking officers were rare. Too few generals were killed.”

Drucker wrote: “. . . the human being himself determines what he contributes.”

The essence of success

The other day, I was looking at what Bill Bartmann wrote in his endorsement of my first book on the eight laws of successful leadership. He had written: “You have discovered the essence of success. It will be mandatory reading for all of our managers because it will not only help them to become better leaders, but also enjoy a more successful life.”

Bartmann was right. Those military personnel I surveyed for my combat leadership study had used these eight principles to become successful leaders. As Bartmann said, these eight laws are the essence of leadership success. And, judging from our discussion on the topic, Drucker clearly agreed.

  Adapted from the book Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A Cohen, to be published by LID in 2018 and syndicated

  Illustrations by Adam Quest

Behind the study

To conduct my study, I sought subjects who had not only led in battle, but also had gone on to demonstrate successful civilian careers in non-military activities as well. The foundation of my research was a survey sent to more than 200 former combat leaders and conversations with hundreds more. All had become successful in the corporate world or in other non-military organizations after leaving the armed forces. Among the responses I received in the initial phase, 62 were from generals and admirals. I asked these former combat leaders what they had learned from leadership in battle. I asked about the tactics they used, about the importance of their style, and the most important actions a leader must take. I asked about adapting these lessons in their civilian careers.

In a latter phase of my research, I interviewed other successful senior business leaders and reviewed dozens of corporate situations and the actions taken by these corporations’ senior leaders. Some had also combat experience in the armed forces. Most did not. Some had developed their own lists of principles of leadership over the years. While their lists differed from each other, they invariably included some version of the eight responses I had developed from my surveys. I also looked at 7,000 years of recorded history to confirm or to disprove these concepts in different settings. There was an abundance of evidence which supported most of the principles which I had uncovered from my first research with combat leaders, but when I found little or no confirmation, I dropped it from my list.