Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders

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Neena Newberry, MBA, PHR, ACCApril 13, 2011

Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop led by Jim Kouzes, the co-author of The Leadership Challenge. For those of you who have not heard of this book, you should take a look. Based on over 30 years of research, he and Barry Posner identified five common practices of leaders who make extraordinary things happen.

Before we review the five practices, let’s first define leadership. Kouzes & Posner define a leader as someone whose direction you would willingly follow. In other words, you can’t be a leader without followers. To further define leadership the authors asked, “What do you look for and admire in a leader?” Here are the top four attributes and the percentage of respondents who mentioned them:

  • Honest (85%)
  • Forward looking (70%)
  • Inspiring (69%)
  • Competent (64%)

Over the 30 years that they have asked this question, the authors have consistently gotten the same top four responses in the same order. When you look at these four items collectively, they underscore the importance of credibility when it comes to leadership.

So, now let’s take a look at the Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders.

1. Model the Way

This practice is about establishing principles and standards for how people should be treated, and how goals should be pursued. As a leader, you must first clarify what YOU believe in and what you’re willing to take a stand for before you can articulate it to others. Then you need to align your actions with what you believe in (i.e., do what you say you will do).

2. Inspire a Shared Vision

Through their research, Kouzes & Posner note that what distinguishes leaders from colleagues is their ability to be forward looking. Leaders can envision the future and create a compelling image of what the organization can become – and they truly believe that they can make a difference.

Contrary to what you may think, a leader does not have to originate the vision of the future. In fact, leaders may develop their vision by carefully tuning into what they hear from others. No matter where the vision comes from, the leader must be able to help others see it, engage them in it, and help them understand how they fit into it.

3. Challenge the Process

As you might expect, leadership is not about maintaining the status quo. Leaders Challenge the Process by experimenting, taking risks, and accepting disappointments as valuable learning opportunities. On a weekly basis, you can keep this exemplary practice at the forefront by asking, “What have I done this week to improve so that I’m more effective than I was last week?”

4. Enable Others to Act

At the core of Enabling Others to Act is mutual respect and trust. Leaders understand that this can sustain extraordinary efforts, so they strive to create a trusting environment and take time to develop others.

In the workshop, Jim Kouzes challenged each of us to ask ourselves before every interaction with every person in our organizations, “What can I do in this interaction to make sure this person feels more capable as a result of what I say and do?”

I would challenge you to do the same.

5. Encourage the Heart

The last practice is Encourage the Heart. Research shows that the highest performing leaders are more open and caring, express more affection, demonstrate more passion, and are more positive, grateful and encouraging than lower performers. Knowing that achieving extraordinary results takes hard work, strong leaders understand the power of recognizing and celebrating how others are making a difference.

Now that you’ve read about each exemplary practice, identify which ones you already do well and choose one practice to emphasize further. Remember that these practices don’t have to be time consuming – it’s all about taking small steps that lead you to big results. So, I urge you to choose a small step to implement from this list below or identify one of your own:

  •  Think about when you performed at your best as a leader. What did you do in that situation that you can leverage today (you may have used several Exemplary Practices)?
  • Take 5 minutes to talk to your team about exciting possibilities you see for the future (Inspire a Shared Vision)
  • Ask, “What have I done this week to improve, so that I’m more effective than last week?” (Challenge the Process)
  • Ask, “What can I do during this interaction to make sure this person feels more capable as a result of what I say and do?” (Enable Others to Act)
  • Ask, “What can I do this week to encourage my team, so that they perform at a higher level?” (Encourage the Heart)
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