Leadership is not about having a charismatic personality; it’s about doing the work. That’s what experts Rob Wilkinson and Kimberlyn Leary demonstrate in a framework they have developed for leading with intentionality: the 4P framework for strategic leadership. “The tendency to believe in a heroic leader who can save the day is widely shared,” they write in a working paper updated this spring. “However, such a mythical figure does not exist.”

Wilkinson and Leary propose that anyone can develop leadership skills by focusing on four P’s:

  • Perception
  • Process
  • People
  • Projection

Each P has an internal and external aspect. Wilkinson and Leary write, “With perception, you expose and examine your own assumptions. With process, yours matters as much as the team’s—how you manage your regular routines, habits, and individual reflection. With people, your emotions, and your understanding of them matter as much as those of others. With projection, you are thinking of your own story as much as the group’s—the story you tell yourself about who you are in the world, about what you see around you.”

Both Leary and Wilkinson have decades of experience as organizational leaders. Wilkinson, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, teaches this 4P framework in an HKS Executive Education program on strategic leadership and a degree program course and has spoken about each of the four elements in a series of podcast conversations for the School’s Building State Capability program. Last month, Leary and Wilkinson taught leadership skills to mayors at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative’s Negotiation for City Leaders program. And they have brought their lessons to train staffers at the White House, where Leary has worked as an advisor, as well.

We spoke to Wilkinson and Leary about the 4P framework and how everyone can lead more intentionally.


Q: What are the common misconceptions about leadership and who can lead?

Leary: When people are elected or selected for leadership roles, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes overlook the importance of a learning stance. After all, the people who have entrusted them with authority role may have conveyed to the new leaders that they expect the leader to have all the answers. When leaders recognize that a critical part of leadership is learning is how to diagnose a challenge—how to understand what that challenge means to different communities and different stakeholders—they can consider the options for change and who would have to support that change for it to move forward. Even in hierarchical organizations such as the military, you may have a title, and people may follow most of your commands, but you earn the right to lead by how you treat the people who follow you.

Wilkinson: I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes there is an outdated notion that the leader comes in and saves the day, and they are decisive and clear. Our great colleague and mentor Ron Heifetz talks about how public learning is essential for leaders. You engage people and bring them along with you—that’s real leadership. It’s not coming in with all the answers. Some students have attributes like being an introvert or not liking the public-facing part of leadership but loving team building or one-on-one coaching. Whichever tool they have in their toolbox, they can draw on and be effective. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and forms.

Rob Wilkinson circle headshot.

“You engage people and bring them along with you—that’s real leadership. It’s not coming in with all the answers.”

Rob Wilkinson

Q: How does the 4P framework teach leadership skills? And why these four elements?

Wilkinson: I’m just coming up on about 15 years of teaching, and before that I had spent 15 years in the field as a manager and leader, so I’ve had this interesting balance of theory and practice. I have been on the frontline in international conflict issues, running big teams, dealing with crisis management, and dealing with policy discussions. I always wanted a framework that was easy to use, intuitive, and user-friendly, but underpinned by research and literature. So, this 4P framework is something that I have been working on for years in the back of my mind. Over years of reading, practice, and teaching, I found these four areas most important. I started my career training as an engineer, so I am very interested in rigor and correct technical answers to problems. It took me a while to recognize that, however clear we are on the technical details, inevitably different people will extract wildly different conclusions looking at the same thing.

The first P is about the multiplicity of perceptions that will inevitably arise, even from looking at a single point of data. Expecting that everyone will immediately agree is the first mistake we often make. Then we move right into process management and team dynamics, but we often overlook the influence we have by grappling with process early. The third P, people, is about the human and emotional impact. This focus is relatively recent in the professional development literature. Even today, people say “check your emotions at the door,” as if emotions are not present all the time for all of us. The final P is projection—the messages we send implicitly and explicitly. Sometimes we focus more on crafting the right message, and what people are often really looking at are the implicit messages. If you are inconsistent with those, you undermine your explicit messages without realizing.

Leary: I was trained as a clinical psychologist, so I think often about the architecture of relationships and the relational process. The 4P framework provides a scaffolding for people to think through the challenges that they are encountering and that they anticipate. It also helps them make sense of what has transpired. You have a chance to reflect and may realize that a perspective that you hadn’t given enough attention to is critical. Or you may realize that you thought you were including all the right stakeholders, but in fact you had not. Or you recognize that people might accept a management decree or an organizational change, but if they don't feel that their pain or their losses are acknowledged, then they may not support it robustly. This framework can serve as part of the diagnostic toolkit that leaders can bring to challenges.


Q: You write about each element having an internal and external component—in what ways do leaders have to look inside as well as out to succeed?

Wilkinson: There is a line from Shakespeare: “God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” The story we tell ourselves is not necessarily the same story we disclose when we talk to others. The internal conversation we have with ourselves is a huge influence in the way that we grapple with leadership challenges. It is natural that we don’t tell everybody everything we’re thinking all the time. At the same time, if we are inhabiting one world internally and putting on an image that is wildly different externally, that is very hard to sustain.

Thinking both externally and internally can help you check your assumptions and biases as a leader and remember to hold humility and curiosity. When you lead other people, you have got to bring them along. But exerting leadership includes your own perspectives, thoughts, and dilemmas as well. Many models focus primarily on the external component—that leaves a big missing piece of the puzzle.

Leary: What I love about the focus on the internal and the external is that it reminds us that people draw on leadership lessons from the past, from their own family, their own lived experience, from the books they have read. They draw on a whole universe of experience. Traditional leadership models ask people to identify their North Star, recognize a set of values, and draw on a set of experiences. But if you are just drawing on those experiences, and only on your experiences, you are essentially repeating the past. When you have an external perspective, that’s the learning perspective, I would say—learning which values are in play beyond your personal ones, what types of lived experiences other people have had. The ability to learn from yourself and your own experience is tempered and complemented by learning from the world around you.

Kimberlyn Leary circle headshot.

“The 4P framework provides a scaffolding for people to think through the challenges that they are encountering and that they anticipate. It also helps them make sense of what has transpired.”

Kimberlyn Leary

Q: What does “intentionality” have to do with leadership?

Wilkinson: The essence of it, from my point of view, is that personal development or personal growth is a result of deliberate choices and steps that we take to put ourselves in positions to learn. One mistake that leaders make is to fall into a pattern of becoming reactive—reacting to their inbox, unexpected news, just being in constant reaction mode, as opposed to being proactive and strategic. Self-reflection and purpose are what I think of when I think of intentionality.

Leary: In the world of psychology, we think about intentionality as the experience of being curious about other people and the ability to understand the mental states and interests of others. You can be intentional if you can have some sense of what is important to others and what they are thinking. If we walk into a room and we’re delivering bad news, we need to have some sense about the likely response, be it grief, anger, or some combination of both. That enables preparation. An important part of intentionality from a psychological point of view is cultivating the skills that improve the odds of being able to understand and anticipate the mental states of others, their intentions, what they want, and how they are likely to respond—without presuming to do any kind of mindreading.


Q: What advice would you give people who don’t feel like they fit the traditional leadership stereotype?

Leary: For people to claim a space for their own voice and their own perspectives, they must believe that they count. We also say to those who do not fit the traditional bill of leadership, “Look around and see when you are inclined to listen to someone.” Leadership learning isn’t asking people to take on a traditional leadership style but can include asking them to experiment with the ways in which they can get other people’s attention, and how they might succeed in getting the attention of some people with some methods, and different people with other methods. The message might be the same but may require a different delivery system. Leadership learning is about experimenting and developing a toolkit you can use.

Wilkinson: I have always noticed that the stereotype about what a leader should be or looks like is so often incorrect, but nevertheless stereotypes persist, even in the leadership development literature. The people that were being profiled in the literature often held formal government positions or were senior corporate leaders. The diversity of protagonists studied was not high for quite a long time.

One thing that I have been working very hard with Kim on is producing case studies that represent great examples of 4P leadership from people who aren’t necessarily from that traditional demographic. We are highlighting in different insights, approaches, frameworks, and mindsets that these individuals bring to leadership challenges that we don't always see. So, for example, we have been working on case studies with community organizers who aren't necessarily in the news every day but are making change quietly behind the scenes. We also look at people who are in traditional roles, such as senior military leaders, but who take entirely unexpected approaches and have even better results by challenging the orthodoxy of leadership stereotypes. The future of leadership development is expanding the ways we think about leadership and leaders.

Resources related to the 4P framework:

Case studies on leadership and negotiation:

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.