The Leadership Equation

Part of West Point’s academic curriculum requires every cadet to study the natural sciences, advanced mathematics classes, and an engineering discipline of choice. While I often struggled in these challenging courses as a cadet, it was likely here that I developed my fondness for logic and healthy respect for a sound equation. A well proven equation really is a thing of beauty. In a concise set of symbols, one can communicate volumes of information and help to explain the world around us. For example, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation (E=mc2) is considered pure genius because it unlocked one of the greatest mysteries of the universe in just five simple characters. I share this with you because equations can similarly help us to explain the inner workings of organizational life and help develop us as leaders.

In fact, there is one equation in particular that continuously guides me as a leadership development professional. It stems from the work of organizational development scholar & practitioner Kurt Lewin and is as relevant today as when he first theorized it back in 1943. While not an actual mathematical equation representing quantifiable relationships, it is a heuristic formula that accurately explains one of the biggest challenges of leadership and it’s as simple as this:

Lewin’s formula states that behavior (B) is a function of the person (P) and his or her environment (E). Thus, if you are seeking to change an individual’s behavior, you must influence one of two variables (or preferably both for maximum effect). Leadership, at its heart, is often about moving individuals and organizations through change and Lewin’s formula gives us a practical way of organizing our efforts. Looking at your own team as an example, perhaps there are behavioral tendencies that are negatively impacting performance and you would like to see change for the better. Let’s first work with the idea of shifting behavior by focusing on the individual person.

It’s important to note that you can never really change another person, they have to change themselves. Attempting to force behavioral change on another individual is likely to incite resistance and is ultimately unsustainable. Yet, often this is the norm as managers leverage their proverbial carrots and sticks to shape organizational outcomes. The real leadership challenge at hand is how does one inspire an individual to want to learn to behave differently and better align with the team’s goals? Well, much of that inspirational ability stems from your own behavior and example as a leader. Are you a person of character, competence, and credibility? Are you demonstrating an authentic empathy with those you are leading? Do you own your vulnerabilities and have you established a track record of personal accountability? These are just some of the leadership behaviors that are a prerequisite for inspiring another person to change their behavior. It comes down to this — do followers admire and respect you enough as a leader to make the difficult process of changing themselves an imperative.

Now let’s look at how the environment impacts behavior and performance outcomes. Are your team’s behavioral challenges isolated to a few individuals or is there evidence of a systemic issue? If the latter is true, exercising leadership now becomes more about addressing environmental factors like values, mission, vision, structure, relationships, technologies, and reward mechanisms that are not producing the desired behavior. Perhaps your organization’s structure is fostering competition over collaboration and promoting selfishness. Or maybe there is a values disconnect between what executives are communicating as the priority and what front line workers are expected to deliver on. Whatever the environmental challenge, the savvy leader understands that changing the organization’s environment is a much larger undertaking and should be approached with caution. There is risk in championing change to the organizational environment as every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. There will undoubtedly be stakeholders that have a vested interest in keeping things exactly how they are. One will need to build a strong case for change and create alliances with organizational authority that can help generate movement.

In summary, the B=ƒ(P,E) formula gives us a simple yet powerful way to determine things we can do to improve individual, team and organizational performance. Leadership is about facilitating change and behavior is how we can tangibly interpret progress towards desired change. When seeking to move the needle in a positive direction, a leader can look to influence the individual directly and/or seek to shift environmental factors that are impacting outcomes. Regardless of the point of influence you choose, it’s essential that you are personally practicing the leadership behaviors you are seeking from others. No individual or system will adopt your vision for change if they do not see you first being the example.


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