The Leadership Challenge: How To Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations

No two leaders are alike, but great ones have many of the same behaviours in common.

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No two leaders are alike, but great ones have many of the same behaviours in common.


The Leadership Challenge: How To Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations

No two leaders are alike, but great ones have many of the same behaviours in common.

Share this article

Success in leadership, success in work, and success in life are a function of how well people work and play together. Because leadership is a reciprocal process between leaders and their constituents, any discussion of leadership has to appreciate the dynamics of this relationship.

Strategies, tactics, skills, and practices are empty without an understanding of the fundamental human aspirations that connect leaders and their constituents.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® - Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart - are the leadership practices that emerge from thousands of personal-best leadership cases.

However, they paint only a partial portrait of what’s going on because leaders don’t make extraordinary things happen all by themselves. The full picture requires an understanding and appreciation of what constituents expect from their leaders.

You earn leadership from the people you aspire to lead. People choose, on a daily basis, whether they are going to follow and commit completely their talents, time, and energy. In the end, leaders don’t decide who leads, followers do.

Leadership is something you experience in an interaction with another human being. That experience varies from leader to leader, from constituent to constituent, and from day to day.

No two leaders are exactly alike, no two constituent groups are exactly alike, and no two days in the life of leaders and constituents are exactly alike.


Good communication skills are key to successful leadership

Great leadership potential is discovered, and unlocked, when you seek to understand the desires and expectations of your constituents, and when you act on them in ways that are congruent with their norms and image of what an exemplary leader is and does.

What leaders say they do is one thing; what constituents say they want and how well leaders meet these expectations is another. Knowing what people want from their leaders is the only way to complete the picture of how leaders can build and sustain the kind of relationships that will make extraordinary things happen.

What People Look for and Admire in Their Leaders

To understand leadership as a relationship, we have investigated the expectations that constituents have of leaders. Over the years, we have asked people to tell us the personal traits, characteristics, and attributes they look for and admire in a person whom they would be willing to follow.

The responses both affirm and enrich the picture that emerged from studies of personal leadership bests.

Our research on what constituents expect of leaders originally began by surveying thousands of business and government executives. In response to the open-ended question about what they looked for in a person they would be willing to follow, hundreds of different values, traits, and characteristics were reported.

Subsequent content analysis by independent judges, followed by further empirical analyses, reduced these items to a checklist of twenty attributes, which we call the Characteristics of Admired Leaders (CAL).

Using CAL, we ask people to select the seven qualities that they “most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow.” The key word in the preceding sentence is “willingly.”

It’s one thing to follow someone because you think you have to “or else,” and it’s another when you follow a leader because you want to. What do people expect from an individual they would follow, not because they have to, but because they want to? What does it take to be the kind of leader that others want to follow, doing so enthusiastically and voluntarily?

Over 100,000 people around the globe have responded to the CAL checklist. The survey results have been remarkable in their consistency over the years. There are some essential “character tests” individuals must pass before others are willing to grant them the designation leader.

While every characteristic receives votes, meaning that each is important to some people, what is most evident and striking is that for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes (with the exception of Inspiring in 1987, which was valued by 58 percent at that time).

Despite all the dramatic changes in the world, what people most look for in a leader has been amazingly stable.

Table 2.1 Characteristics of Admired Leaders

For the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking

In addition, these same four characteristics rank consistently at the top across different countries. We also found that the ranking doesn’t significantly vary across cultures, ethnicities, organizational functions and hierarchies, genders, levels of education, and age groups.

The examination of admired leader attributes is very consistent with hundreds of interviews we’ve conducted, asking people to tell us about the most credible leader they have ever experienced.

Compare how the characteristics of honest, competent, forward-looking, and inspiring are embedded into what Melinda Jackson, corporate recruiter for a multinational technology company, told us about her most admired leader: “I remember her deep knowledge of the work, clear vision for the future, incredible support and care for those around her, and her stark authenticity.

She believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing and led with a fervor that encouraged even my most pessimistic co-workers to follow.” Such stories and the characteristics of admired leaders mirror the actions people describe in their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the behaviors of people admired as leaders are complementary perspectives on the same subject. When they’re performing at their peak, leaders are doing more than just getting results.

They’re also responding to the behavioral expectations of their constituents, underscoring the point that the relationship is one of service to a purpose and service to people.

For example, being regarded as honest is essential if a leader is to Model the Way. The leadership practice of Inspire a Shared Vision requires being forward-looking and inspiring. When leaders Challenge the Process, they also enhance the perception that they’re dynamic.

Trustworthiness, often a synonym for honesty, plays a major role in how leaders Enable Others to Act, as does the leader’s own competency.

Likewise, leaders who recognize and celebrate significant contributions and accomplishments—who Encourage the Heart—increase their constituents’ understanding of and commitment to the vision and values.

When leaders demonstrate capacity in all of The Five Practices, they show others they have the competence to make extraordinary things happen.

This is an edited extract from The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, sixth edition by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (Wiley, 2017).

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The Leadership Challenge: How To Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations

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