Five Attributes of Outstanding Leaders

Sept. 11, 2012
The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership include: Model the Way The ability to inspire a shared vision Challenge the process Enable others to act Encourage the heart

Bosses who complain about missed deadlines they themselves can’t meet may have a difficult time achieving the results they desire. That’s because the old adage of “leading by example” often holds true. It’s what authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner call “Model the Way” in the fifth edition of their book “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” Jossey-Bass, 2012.

“Model the way” is one of “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership,” say Kouzes and Posner, leadership professors and experts based in the San Francisco Bay area.  Through more than 30 years of research, the authors discovered that top-notch company leaders follow similar paths to excellence.

In addition to Model the Way, the Five Practices include:

  • The ability to inspire a shared vision
  • Challenge the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart

“Leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior,” Posner and Kouzes write. “The Five Practices are available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge – the challenge of taking people and organizations to places they have never been before, of doing something that has never been done before, and of moving beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary.”

Model the Way

Leaders must be willing to serve as models for their employees’ behavior by matching their words with their actions.

“Through their daily actions, they demonstrate their deep commitment to their beliefs and those of the organization,” Posner and Kouzes say.

Leading by example can help top-level managers and executives earn their employees’ trust. It also sends the message that leaders are not asking their employees to do something they wouldn’t do themselves.

Steve Skarke, a plant manager at specialty polymer manufacturer Kaneka Texas, relates in the “The Leadership Challenge” how walked the plant floor and stuffed a bucked full of trash he picked up from the facility. Within a couple of weeks, “trash disappeared from the plant” because workers began picking up trash on their own.

Inspire a Shared Vision

A leader’s vision should be clear to employees and why it should matter to them.

“Unity of purpose is forged when you show your constituents how the dream is a shared dream and how it fulfills the common good,” Posner and Kouzes say.

One way to identify shared values is through consensus-building exercises. One manager of a General Electric Co. (IW 500/5) multinational internal audit team asked team members to complete a questionnaire that asked about several personal topics such as hobbies and favorite foods as well as the type of work each member preferred and their typical roles on teams.

The exercise helped align the team around a common set of values.

Challenge the Process

Don’t be afraid to change from the status quo.

“Leaders venture out; they don’t sit idly by waiting for fate to smile on them,” Kouzes and Pozner say…. “Leaders are pioneers, willing to step out into the unknown.”

But with risk, of course, comes possible failure. Leaders can mitigate the impact of potential failures by “generating small wins and learning from experience.” A one-step-at-a-time approach can help build confidence and form “a consistent pattern of winning that attracts people who want to be allied with a successful venture,” the book’s authors write.

Enable Others to Act

Employee empowerment has become one of the key characteristics of innovative and ultimately profitable companies. When leaders give other people around them a voice in the decision-making process, they foster collaboration and, again, build trust.

“Constituents neither perform at their best nor stick around for very long if you make them feel weak, dependent or alienated,” Kouzes and Pozner say. “Giving your power away and fostering their personal power and ownership will make them stronger and more capable.”

Seeking input from others builds their capabilities and helps leaders gain a more comprehensive understanding of their operations.

Encourage the Heart

The best leaders recognize their employees for their accomplishments. For example, a career services and recruiting firm in the U.K. asked each consultant to write his or her successful new placements onto a whiteboard in the office.

Each time a consultant wrote on the board, the entire office would cheer, said Jade Lui, an employee at the firm Ambition Group. The office also held regular celebrations for everyone in the firm, including monthly birthday parties and holiday bashes.

“All exemplary leaders make the commitment to recognize contributions,” Kouzner and Pozner wrote in “The Leadership Challenge.” “They do it because people need encouragement to function at their best and to persist for months when the hours are long, the work is hard, and the task is challenging. . . . “No one is likely to persist for very long when he or she feels ignored or taken for granted. It’s your job to make sure that your constituents feel that their work matters and that they make a difference.”

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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