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What Makes a Good Leader?

No one can argue that a great leader can boost an organization's growth and performance in much the same way a poor leader can run one into the ground. But what makes a leader effective or ineffective is a more nebulous concept to pin down.

September 28, 2005
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According to Jim Kouzes, lecturer and author of seven books on leadership, including the best-seller The Leadership Challenge, the qualities that make an effective leader have two distinct perspectives: what followers look for and what research from the past few decades has shown. "There are four things consistently that we have found that people most look for in a leader. Number one, people want a leader who's honest, trustworthy and has integrity. Second (they want someone) forward-looking, who has a vision of the future, foresight and thinks about the long term. Third, people want a leader who is competent, has expertise, knows what they're doing, and fourth is inspiring, dynamic, energetic, optimistic and positive about the future."

Research on how leaders execute those qualities or how leaders put those attributes into action, has produced five practices that successfully leaders indulge. "First, they model the way," Kouzes said. "They set an example with their own behavior, and they are clear about what their values and beliefs are, as well as the values and beliefs of the organization. Second, they inspire a shared vision. They are forward-looking and envision an uplifting or ennobling future and then enlist others in that. Third, they challenge the process. They search for opportunities to change and innovate, to grow and improve, and then they also experiment and take risks. Fourth, they enable others to act. They support individual development, and they also foster collaboration. Last, the fifth practice, which we've identified as 'Encourage the Heart,' leaders recognize and reward individual achievements, and they also celebrate team accomplishments."

Kouzes and Posner have been using an instrument called the Leadership Practices Inventory to measure leadership capabilities since 1980. It is a 30-item behavior-based questionnaire that measures the five practices on a scale of one to 10 from both individual leaders and their observers -- or followers -- standpoint in order to identify those worthy of the title leader. Kouzes also said an easy way to identify leaders is by noticing who has followers. Typically, however, the Leadership Practices Inventory helps to identify leaders based on whether or not people's behavior matches specific attributes and practices.

�Leadership to us is not about a position, so we do not identify it by someone just having a title,� Kouzes said. �You can have the title �chief executive officer� and not be considered a leader. You can be the president of a company or a country and not considered a leader. On the other hand you can be a front line supervisor and have a lot of people following you. People who willingly will go in a direction that you articulate and enlist people in because others believe that you are honest, forward looking, that you have energy and excitement, are competent, know what you�re doing and behave in ways that are consistent with the values that you preach.�

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One might say that a leader is one who can be trusted to walk his or her talk. �The number-one thing people look for is trustworthiness or honesty,� Kouzes said. �Credibility is the foundation of leadership. If you don�t believe in the messenger, you won�t believe the message. If you don�t have credibility it doesn�t matter how grand your vision of the future is. So the most important and the most precious of all the qualities of leadership over time is personal credibility. When you lose it, you lose your ability to get anything done.�

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Of particular interest to learning and development leaders, Kouzes performed a recent analysis of some 72,000 surveys and found that the lowest-scoring item is on seeking feedback from the observer standpoint. This same item is the second-lowest-scoring one from the leader�s standpoint. �In other words, even with all this 360-degree feedback that we have been gathering over the years, leaders don�t want it,� Kouzes said. �They don�t voluntarily go out and ask people, �How am I doing?� They do it because learning officers and HR executives say you really ought to have 360 feedback to improve your behavior. But in fact, on a day-to-day basis, we just don�t ask for it. We haven�t really created a culture in which making ourselves vulnerable and opening ourselves to really gather information about our behavior is supportive. People fear getting honest feedback. They may get told they�re not doing such a good job. People are always concerned when we hand out instruments. Who�s going to see this? Will this affect my performance ratings? It makes it tough for learning to take place when you�re not out there asking for feedback. How can you improve if you really don�t want that feedback? It�s a major issue that we�re going to have to address in the learning and development industry.�

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Kouzes also said that same cluster of surveys showed that despite all of the writing on the subject, all the training and development that has been undertaken in learning regarding the importance of organizational vision, being forward-looking, thinking and planning strategically, and enlisting other people in a vision of the future has had almost no impact. �We have done a lousy job, and I would include myself in that, of helping leaders learn how to be forward-looking, stay focused on the long term and not be so short term oriented. If I were a chief learning officer inside an organization, I�d want to put that at the top of my list for training and development,� Kouzes said.

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On a more positive note, the most recent surveys showed that impact has been made over the years in learning leaders� efforts to enable their workers to act, to treat people with dignity and respect, to listen and to foster collaboration. �In those areas at least, all of the discussions of empowerment of emotional intelligence and teamwork have had some impact because that ends up being the strongest of the five practices,� Kouzes said.

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