Triple Crown Leadership Book Summary


Triple Crown Leadership

“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place?” — Winston Churchill

One of the best new leadership books I’m reading now is Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, by Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek.   It was submitted to me for review, but I agreed to write about it only if I found it useful for readers of Sources of Insight.  And I did.   It’s a powerful book on the new breed of leadership and how to create a sustainable organization with skill.

Achieve Leadership Greatness

Bob and Gregg show us how organizations around the world can achieve leadership greatness.   They do so through discussions of their own leadership experiences in the corporate, nonprofit, and academic worlds, and use analogies and examples from the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

What I especially like about the book is that it’s a cornucopia of collective leadership experience.  The authors draw on interviews with leaders at sixty-one organizations in eleven countries, including Google, Zappos, eBay, Infosys, Cisco, Mayo Clinic, KIPP, Spotify, and Xerox, to reveal the standard they identify as triple crown leadership.

That’s a whole lot of experience and lessons learned wrapped up in one book.

Chapters at a Glance

Here are the chapters at a glance:

  • Chapter 1 — The Triple Crown Quest — Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring
  • Chapter 2 — Head and Heart
  • Chapter 3 — The Colors
  • Chapter 4 — Steel and Velvet
  • Chapter 5 – Stewards
  • Chapter 6 – Alignment
  • Chapter 7 – Breakdowns
  • Chapter 8 – Turnarounds
  • Chapter 9 – Startups
  • Chapter 10 — Social Impact
  • Chapter 11 – Snapshots
  • Conclusion: At the Post
  • Appendix: About the Research
  • Post Script: Sport of Kings, or Business of Knaves?

What’s in it For You

Here’s what’s in it for you:

  • How leaders can achieve exceptional performance, with integrity, and sustain it over time
  • How entrepreneurs can position their ventures for high performance, integrity, and impact
  • What must leaders do differently during transformational turnarounds and crises
  • How to align your organization for peak performance
  • How to use purpose to ground, values to guide, and vision to inspire
  • How to create a sustainable organization
  • How to stay true to your vision, mission, and values
  • How to bake integrity into the heart of your business
  • How to create a culture of character
  • How organizations can achieve a positive social impact – on employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, communities, the environment, and the world – even as they achieve exceptional performance
  • How to develop people more fully in terms of head and heart
  • How can leaders assess progress in building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations
  • How to interview and assess for character and cultural fit

Key Features

Here are some of the key features of the book that I really liked about the book:

  • Examples of vision and values.  The book includes several examples of vision and value statements from various organizations.
  • Insights from various organizations:  The authors draw insights from a wide variety of organizations including Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Amazon, Coleman Corporation, Delta Electronics, Dreamworks, DuPont, Ethisphere, May Clinic, Princeton, University of Denver, Zappos, and more.
  • Insights from various leaders. The authors draw insights from a wide variety of leaders.  One example is from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, who wrote in a manifesto that “It’s all about the long term … something that we can tell our grandchildren about.”
  • Interesting statistics:  The book includes interesting stats on things such as cheating, fraud, morality, and how the world’s most ethical companies outperform the S&P 500.
  • Interviews with leaders.  Throughout the book, authors quote various leaders they interviewed, including Dan Ritchie, former Chancellor of the University of Denver; Thomas McCoy, Executive Vice President at AMD; Yancey Hai, Vice Chair and CEO of Delta Eletronics; and Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka;
  • Metaphors, and mental models. I liked the metaphors throughout the book.  For example, the “triple crown” itself is based on the idea of the Triple Crown in horseracing.  The Triple Crown is the most elusive of all championships.  It’s an epic trio of races and it’s the pinnacle of the sport.  The authors also use “steel and velvet.”    Steel is the hard edge of leadership and reflects decisive authority and power, as well as confidence, discipline and toughness.  Velvet  is the soft edge of leadership, reflecting collaboration, relationships, and stewardship.  I also like how “colors” is used in the book.  Colors is based on a practice in horseracing, going back to 1762 in England.  In the book, the idea of colors is to reveal the heart and soul of an organization by upholding its “colors”: purpose, values, and vision.
  • Well-researched and broad perspective.   The book as a whole is a great synthesis and distillation across several organizations and leaders.  The authors share their research sources and notes throughout the book.

Example Insights and Actions

Here is a sampling of some of the insights and actions from Bob and Gregg:

  • A culture of character is the legacy of triple crown leadership.”
  • “A healthy constructive culture by no means guarantees success, but it provides the foundation for building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization.”
  • “Better to fail with honor than succeed with disgrace.”
  • “Burns no longer interviews to determine task skills, relying on others to screen such head matters.  Instead, she probes for character, humility, empathy, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, authenticity, and fearlessness.  In other words, she looks for heart.”
  • “Triple crown leaders watch for sings of integrity flaws in new recruits and colleagues, including excessive ambition, controlling behavior, hyper-competitiveness, bullying, narcissism, arrogance, or greed.”

The Triple Crown – Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring

According to Bob and Gregg, the three parts of the triple crown are:

  1. Excellent: Excellent is the first leg of the triple crown.  Triple crown leadership seeks excellent results with compelling and exceptional outcomes.
  2. Ethical: Ethical is the second leg of the triple crown.  Triple crown leadership means acting with integrity, doing the right thing, and paying attention to how results are achieved.
  3. Enduring: Enduring is the third leg of the triple crown.  It’s about playing the long game. Triple crown leadership sustains excellent results over time.  That means sustaining people, maintaining financial health, and using appropriate levels of resources.

The Five Practices of Triple Crown Leadership

According to Bob and Gregg, the five practices of triple crown leadership are:

  1. Head and Heart:  Most organizations focus on knowledge, skills, and experience – “head” issues.  Triple crown leaders, by contrast, recruit for all that plus character, emotional intelligence, and “fit” with the culture of the organization – people with both “head” and “heart.”
  2. The Colors:  Triple crown leaders employ their organization’s shared purpose, values, and vision as sacrosanct “colors” to represent their quest, infusing them into the DNA of the organization.
  3. Steel and Velvet: Triple crown leadership requires the judgment to flex between the hard and soft edges of leadership, depending on the situation and the people, without being inconsistent.
  4. Stewards: Inside triple crown organizations, stewards develop and protect the organization’s colors and culture of character.  They work on the enterprise, not just in it.
  5. Alignment:  Triple crown leaders align organizations to achieve peak performance.

Choosing the Triple Crown Quest

One of my favorite nuggets from the book is about how it’s especially tough in the early days of a startup to set the stage for downstream leadership success.  Bob and Gregg write:

“In the swirl of a startup, with all its frenetic activity and pressure, entrepreneurs shape the culture either purposefully or by default.  In the throng of daily decisions, patterns emerge that drive the venture in the future.  How do the leaders make tradeoffs between the interests of employees, customers, owners, and others?  Do they work to align those interests creatively?  Do they build and invest in a culture of character?  Do they keep their commitments?  Do they develop their people?  Do they build a foundation for long term success even as they meet their short-term obligations?  Do they choose the triple crown quest?”

A New Brand of Leadership

Another one of my favorite nuggets in Triple Crown Leadership is the description of a new brand of leadership.  Bob and Gregg write:

“The case is building for a new brand of leadership.  There is a growing cadre of thought leaders pointing the way forward.  In Higher Ambition, Michael Beer and his colleagues write about a new breed of leaders who ‘deliver extraordinary economic and social value.’ Jim Collins based his seminal works on ‘building enduring companies from the ground up.’  In Sustainable Excellence, Aaron Kramer and Zachary Karabell link sustainability with corporate excellence, arguing for lasting solutions to social and environmental challenges with lasting value for investors.  In SuperCorp, Rosabeth Moss Kanter depicts ‘how vanguard companies create innovation, profits, growth, and social good.’”

How to Resist Mission Drift

I know how critical it is to stay true to your mission.  I also know how easy it is to drift from that mission when you start to serve too many masters or when you start to make trade-offs as things evolve.   That’s why I especially liked this insight into how to avoid drifting from your mission.  Bob and Gregg write:

“Social ventures are mission-driven but as we showed earlier, they encounter powerful waves that can lead to mission drift.  The financial pressures can take the organization far out to sea, as leaders try to placate critical funders with a different agenda.  AS a result, leaders must be fanatical about their organizational colors (purpose, values, and vision) and willing to forego resources that put the colors at risk.  Here, a long term perspective is essential.  If key funders or other partners are pressuring the venture away from its core, imagine how those pressures will intensify over time as the relationship deepens.  Better to address these tensions early in the process.  When an organization has coalesced collaboratively around a common purpose, shared values, and an inspiring vision, it becomes much better to resist mission drift.”

Add Triple Crown Leadership to your leadership collection to learn how to lead more effectively, and use it to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations.

Get the Book

Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations is available in July 2012 on Amazon:

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