The Leader’s Code: Mission, Character, Service and Getting the Job Done

May 15, 2013 4:25 pm

Management lessons from the frontline

Review by Morgen Witzel

The Leader’s Code: Mission, Character, Service and Getting the Job Done
By Donovan Campbell (Random House, $27)

That the experience of military leadership offers some useful lessons for leaders in other fields has long been understood. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is still read by business leaders and sports coaches, and more recently Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence offers lessons from military failure.

The latest crossover book that draws from military experience is Donovan Campbell’s The Leader’s Code. As such efforts go, it is a pretty good one. Campbell, a former captain in the US Marine Corps who served in Iraq, writes fluently and persuasively, blendingabstract ideas and personal experience in a highly readable narrative. He begins by arguing that people no longer trust their leaders, whom they see as greedy and selfish. “The widespread destruction of trust has left a leadership vacuum that is slowly becoming filled with despair,” he says, pointing out that this is true of business and government alike. “We trust no single leader, or class of leaders, to fix what is broken.”Campbell believes that the military model of servant leadership – whereby leaders are the servants of the organisations they lead, not its masters – offers a useful guide. The two key ideas in his conception of leadership are “character” and “mission”.

Character, as Campbell defines it, means strength of character, but also encompasses virtue – a word that appears often in this book. Leaders must do right by others; they should strive to make the world a better place for everyone, not simply plunder it for what they get for themselves.

That brings us to mission, which can be defined as a broader sense of purpose. One of the best passages in the book recounts how as a young officer in combat, Campbell came face to face for the first time with the idea of his own mortality. The notion that he might die caused him to question his previous beliefs about life and, in turn, put him in touch with a sense of purpose and an understanding of what leadership is for.

Throughout the book, Campbell reiterates the same message. Leaders must sublimate themselves to the needs of others. They must remember that their mission is something much larger and more important than their individual needs, and be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the higher purpose.

To get things done, they need to build relationships of trust with others. The chapter headings of the main body of the book – Humility, Excellence, Kindness, Discipline, Courage and Wisdom – give a clear indication of what he feels the important components of leadership to be.

In the introduction, Campbell is critical of much current leadership literature, which he sees as too focused on the tasks of leadership and not enough on its moral purpose.

A theme that emerges from the book is that leadership, in Campbell’s conception, is not so much a task as a state of being. One does not do leadership; rather, one is a leader.

This quasi-existentialist approach works most of the time, but not always. Occasionally in this book one does yearn for some good old-fashioned tips on how to lead. Authenticity is necessary to leadership, but on its own it is not always sufficient.

Campbell offers a great deal to think about in this book. Being picky, one could argue that there is nothing terribly new here and that most of the ideas Campbell describes have already been discussed elsewhere.

Nonetheless, he brings a fresh approach to them, born out of his personal experience. He does not just talk about leadership; he has experienced it under very trying conditions. That novel take on an existing subject makes this book worth reading.

The writer is a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter Business School and author of ‘A History of Management Thought’

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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