Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Sep 27, 2019

By Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek

Since 1875, only eleven thoroughbreds have won the Triple Crown, making it the “most elusive championship in all of sports.” Each of its three races—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes—is grueling, so winning them all within five weeks is exceptional. For leaders today, there is a comparable championship of sorts that is just as demanding.

We have been leadership practitioners for decades, from billion-dollar, publicly traded corporations and brutal turnarounds to high-growth startups and social ventures. Today, we are appalled by the brand of leadership we see in the headlines: from Barclays and Goldman Sachs to Penn State and many others. Leaders today are under great pressure, and too many are letting their organizations and other stakeholders down.

For our new book, Triple Crown Leadership, we interviewed leaders in 61 organizations—including large multinational firms, startups, nonprofits, educational institutions, and government organizations—in 11 countries. We sought to understand how they can accomplish three audacious objectives, what we call the “triple crown of leadership”:

1. Excellent: achieve exceptional results that have significant, positive impacts on stakeholders
2. Ethical: do the right thing
3. Enduring: stand the test of time by operating sustainably

Note that the goal is not one or two, but all three: triple crown leadership.

Here’s how it works:
Based on our experience and interviews, we have identified five practices of triple crown leadership—the kind that builds excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations:

1. Head and Heart. When recruiting and managing, most leaders focus almost entirely on “head” issues such as knowledge, skills, and experience. By contrast, triple crown leaders hire, develop, and promote people with intangible “heart” qualities (integrity, courage, drive, passion) as well as head skills. Triple crown leaders fill their organizations with people who have character and emotional intelligence, and who fit with the culture.

Online retailer grew from startup to $1 billion in revenue in 10 years in part by hiring very carefully for culture fit, including customer-service orientation, humility, and even weirdness. The company bases half of employee performance reviews on whether people are living up to the Zappos values and contributing to the culture. Zappos customer service reps are famous for finding creative ways to delight customers, even referring them to competitors when items are not in stock. Similarly, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, told us that her top priority when interviewing executives is determining whether they have “fit and fitness”—fit with the company’s values and culture, and fitness for what Xerox needs them to do.

2. Colors. Triple crown leaders work with their colleagues to set an inspiring purpose, values, and vision for their organization. We call it the organization’s “colors,” after the racing colors worn by horse and jockey to distinguish them from competitors. Leaders must imbue these colors into the DNA of the organization by communicating them often and placing them at the center of everything the enterprise does. The purpose, values, and vision become standards by which people judge options and make decisions. The purpose grounds, the values guide, and the vision inspires. As champions and defenders of the colors, triple crown leaders build a culture of character in the organization.

3.Steel and Velvet. Triple crown leaders flex between the hard and soft edges of leadership—sometimes in command, other times soliciting the leadership of others. Steel leadership involves authority, decisiveness, and accountability, while velvet leadership entails collaboration, relationship-building, and inspiration.

Ursula Burns told us how she and Anne Mulcahy managed with steel when Xerox was on the verge of bankruptcy. As the turnaround took hold, they could then flex to velvet. It takes dexterity to flex between steel and velvet without appearing inconsistent. The key is to communicate how your actions are consistent with the colors.

4. Stewards. Triple crown leaders foster stewardship throughout their organizations. In horseracing, stewards are the officials who regulate the race. Inside organizations, stewards develop and protect the colors and culture of character. They work on the enterprise, not just in it. Triple crown leaders expect people to step out of their traditional roles to develop, nurture, and protect the culture of character. Everybody should demonstrate stewardship, from the board and CEO to officers, managers, and employees without formal authority. The stewards fight for the “triple-E” quest (excellent, ethical, and enduring), helping others resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Stewards speak up, even as a whistleblower if necessary.

5.Alignment. Triple crown leaders align the organization to become excellent, ethical, and enduring. As they work with colleagues to align their organization, leaders must protect the innovative mavericks but separate the toxic culture-killers from the organization.

When Steven Rothstein became CEO of the Perkins School for the Blind he found a caring organization with great values but a dearth of discipline and management. Strategic plans and budgets weren’t shared, and performance reviews were nonexistent. His management team launched a collaborative alignment process that resulted in dramatic breakthroughs, taking “an organization that had barely left the 19th century” and transforming it “into the signature organization in the world in services to the blind,” according to Marty Linsky at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. These efforts “completely changed the internal culture, moved the organization into services and places it had never even imagined, and increased the budget and fundraising exponentially.”

The five practices of triple crown leadership are easy to grasp but difficult to implement. Yet together they can be transformative. In our book, we show how these leadership practices:

• Helped Mayo Clinic become a global leader in health care with a sterling brand that has endured for more than a century;
• Helped Infosys grow from a small startup in India to a global tech giant while maintaining an ethical reputation, even in a country wrestling with widespread corruption
• Helped CH2M Hill clean up a dangerous toxic plutonium site near Denver in record time, far below the budgeted costs, at environmental levels far better than originally specified by the government
• Helped the town of Greensburg, Kansas not only bounce back after a Category 5 tornado devastated the community but also boldly rebuild to become “the greenest city in America”

It has been more than 30 years since we last had an equine Triple Crown champion. A plucky and brave horse named I’ll Have Another made a noble attempt this year but fell short. Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive and A Whole New Mind, told us, “We can’t wait that long for the triple crown of leadership—the stakes are too high and the need too urgent.”

New leadership imperatives are emerging today. People want organizations to live up to their values and aspirations. They seek sustainable practices and positive social impact. They want challenge, connection, fun, pride, and accomplishment at work.

It is time to place the triple crown quest for excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations at the top of our leadership priority list.

About the Author(s)

Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are coauthors of the new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Bob has been CEO or a senior officer at numerous public companies and a university leadership instructor. Gregg has coauthored three books and teaches at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship and Royal Institute of Technology. For more information, visit