The 5 Practices of Exemplary Leaders

Leadership development frameworks are a dime a dozen. However, one model has stood its ground as a timeless tool for emerging leaders today. The Leadership Challenge, authored by Kouzes and Posner in 2007, is used in many corporate training programs today. This popular leadership training model is grounded in decades of research and includes data from millions of leaders. The authors have identified five characteristics of exemplary leaders including:

  • Model the way
  • Inspire a shared vision
  • Challenge the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart

The theory suggests that if individuals learn to use these five practices on a regular basis, they would be more effective as leaders. The five practices are easy to understand and, with practice, can be mastered by almost anyone. The rest of this chapter will describe each of the five practices in detail.

Model the Way

Kouzes and Posner assert that exemplary leadership begins with character. After surveying people on six continents, a clear consensus of admired characteristics emerged. According to the survey respondents, good leaders are:

  1. Honest (89%)
  2. Forward-looking (71%)
  3. Inspiring (69)
  4. Competent (68%)

First and foremost, people want to follow leaders who are honest. The most effective leaders establish credibility through high ethical character. Honesty and integrity foster trust and provide the foundation upon which effective leadership is established. Leaders who speak the truth and do what they say they are going to do engender loyalty in their followers. With that foundation in place, a leader can become a role model and example to others.

From the first contact, team members are observing leaders to assess their character and to determine whether or not their behavior matches their words. When a leader is modeling the way, they not only verbalize their core values, they demonstrate them as well. The first step in becoming an effective leader is to identify, develop, and live consistently with one’s core values. The following questions can help clarify one’s personal and professional values:

    • What are my core values?
    • When am I at my best and my worst?
    • What are the most important things to me?
    • What do I want for my life?
    • What do I think about my team?
    • What do I believe about our task?
    • What do I believe about the larger organization?
    • What do I think is the best way to work with others?

Values are most effectively demonstrated by aligning actions with words. So, if a leader wants the team to be passionate about a certain task, she or he must be visibly passionate about it. If a leader wants to create an open environment that questions the status quo, he or she must be open to critique and refrain from defensiveness when challenged. Obviously, leaders are expected to be able to articulate their core values when asked but they must also live them out consistently in order to establish credibility.

Inspire a Shared Vision

In order to inspire a shared vision, one must have a compelling goal for the future. As mentioned above, the most respected leaders are visionary, forward-looking individuals; they know where they are going. Visionaries live in the present but are looking to a better future. The more detailed and comprehensive the vision, the better.

In addition to having a goal or vision for the future, effective leaders are able to enlist others to join him or her in the pursuit of that goal. In order to inspire others, one must be able to communicate a compelling picture that motivates people to action. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master communicator who not only had a dream for a better future, but was also able to communicate that vision and motivate others to adopt it as well. His famous “I have a Dream” speech not only engaged an entire generation but continues to inspire us today.

Inspiring others often means communicating the vision in a way that excites the passions of others. To do this, effective leaders tend to be excellent storytellers. They use anecdotes, illustrations, and colorful language to paint a vivid picture of what the team can accomplish if everyone gets on board. Furthermore, the best stories are able to align the shared goals of the team with the personal goals of its members. That way, when the team is successful, each member personally benefits as well.

Challenge the Process

Challenging the process begins with a critical assessment of what is not working within a team or organization. It requires tenacious honesty to evaluate current practices and make changes, where necessary. Change can be a threatening process for many. Identifying areas for improvement and making changes to short-term strategies or long-term goals is often met with resistance. Regardless, the best leaders regularly evaluate team structure and operating procedures to identify weaknesses and possible blind spots. They challenge their teams to settle for nothing less than the highest levels of excellence.

The most effective leaders are not satisfied with the status quo and constantly look for innovative ways to improve performance. When something has not worked as planned, they challenge team members to learn from the experience and make improvements. This model of continuous improvement helps teams find the most effective strategies to achieve their goals. As leaders model an attitude of accountability and challenge, norms will develop within the team, and members will adopt these characteristics as well. Instead of relying solely on the leader, effective teams are those in which all team members look for ways to improve individual and team performance.

Enable Others to Act

Enabling others to act includes the ability to foster collaboration and strengthen others. It first begins by establishing a collaborative environment that fosters trust and an open exchange of information. In order to be effective in this practice, leaders must embrace a humble and relational posture. They must be willing to admit mistakes, ask for feedback, and defer to the wisdom of the group.

In addition, they need to take a genuine interest in others and attempt to get to know each member of the team on some level. Building rapport can often be established by making simple statements such as “How was your weekend?” or “Is there anything I can do to help you on this task?” Team members can sense if a leader is genuinely interested in them and their success, so the attempts to connect interpersonally must be sincere. When there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, members will be more interested in making a meaningful contribution to the team.

Enabling others to act also includes the ability to coach members and help them develop competence and confidence. Leaders often play the role of player-coach on a team. They are a contributing member of the team but also have responsibilities to help others develop their skills and abilities. Since they often have more experience and expertise than others on the team, they are a great source of wisdom. Coaching includes giving real-time feedback, instruction, and informal training on various tasks or skills. In addition, coaches hold team members accountable for their particular role on the team which communicates the belief that the team member can successfully complete the task. When members show progress or demonstrate competence, exemplary leaders will then encourage the heart as described in the next section.

Encourage the Heart

Finally, Kouzes and Posner suggest that effective leaders recognize individual performance while at the same time creating an environment that celebrates collective effort. When a team member has made a significant contribution, they should be recognized for their efforts. To do this, leaders can adopt a philosophy of looking for reasons to applaud team members instead of trying to catch them doing something wrong.

As the old adage states, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” This practice, however, can be overused. While some members need encouragement in order to stay motivated, others do not. It is up to the leader to determine the needs of each team member. But even if a member is not particularly responsive to public recognition, the leader is creating a positive, encouraging atmosphere and reinforcing the norms and expectations for ideal member behavior.

High performing teams work hard to reach their goals and celebrate their victories with equal verve. Leaders who have pushed their teams to strive for success are quick to reward their teams for their effort. Various awards such as trophies, trips, cash bonuses, or other perks can be used to recognize excellence. When teams have faced adversity and overcome obstacles to achieve a goal, they develop a strong bond. Those experiences should be reflected upon and celebrated.

For example, the 1980 U.S. hockey team overcame great odds to win a gold medal at Lake Placid, N.Y. Imagine the thrill and team pride shared by the players as they stood together on a platform in front of thousands of people as the Star Spangled Banner was playing. The blood, sweat, and tears that it took to get to the champion circle were swallowed up by the thrill of victory in that one moment.

Conclusion

Leadership isn’t a formula. In fact, leadership is more of an art than a science. However, with time and practice, a leader can hone his/her skills to lead and inspire a whole team or organization.

For a strong leadership development tool, we recommend the Emerging Leaders Survey. Grounded in industry best practices and academic research, the Emerging Leaders Survey is a best in-class solution for identifying and developing tomorrow’s leaders.