Research Shows Hallmarks of Great Leadership Unchanged over Three Decades

Don Tennant

A study of thousands of leadership experiences over the course of three decades has yielded an enlightening conclusion: While the experiences leaders have and the challenges they face over time may change dramatically, what constitutes great leadership doesn’t change significantly at all.

The study is the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, who have just released the sixth version of their book, “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.” Here are five key practices that Kouzes and Posner say their research has shown to be time-tested hallmarks of the best leaders:

Model the way. Titles are granted, but it's your behavior that wins you respect. Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others. To effectively model that behavior, leaders must first be clear about guiding principles. They must clarify values. Leaders must find their own voice, and then they must clearly and distinctively give voice to their values. Eloquent speeches about common values, however, aren't nearly enough. Leaders' deeds are far more important than their words to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say. Words and deeds must be consistent. Exemplary leaders set the example through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their beliefs.

Inspire a shared vision. In the study, people talked about their personal-best leadership experiences as times when they imagined an exciting, highly attractive future for their organization. They had visions and dreams of what could be. They had absolute and total personal belief in those dreams, and they were confident in their abilities to make extraordinary things happen. Every organization, every social movement, begins with a dream. The dream or vision is the force that invents the future. To achieve a shared vision, people must believe that leaders understand their needs and have their interests at heart. Leaders breathe life into the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others, and enable them to see the exciting possibilities that the future holds. Leaders forge a unity of purpose by showing constituents how the dream is for the common good.


Challenge the process. Challenge is the crucible for greatness. Leaders venture out. None of the individuals in the study sat idly by waiting for fate to smile upon them. Leaders are pioneers. They are willing to step out into the unknown. They search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve. Exemplary leaders also know that innovation and change involve experimenting and taking risks. One way of dealing with the potential risks and failures of experimentation is to approach change through incremental steps and small wins. Life is the leader's laboratory, and exemplary leaders use it to conduct as many experiments as possible. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. That's the leader's mantra.

Enable others to act. Grand dreams don't become significant realities through the actions of a single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability. Leaders foster collaboration and build trust. The more people trust their leaders, and each other, the more they take risks, make changes, and keep moving ahead. This sense of teamwork goes far beyond a few direct reports or close confidants. They engage all those who must make the project work — and in some way, all who must live with the results. Leaders make it possible for others to do good work. They work to make people feel strong, capable, and committed. Exemplary leaders strengthen everyone's capacity to deliver on the promises they make. When leaders enable people to feel strong and capable — as if they can do more than they ever thought possible — they'll give it their all and exceed their own expectations.

Encourage the heart. The climb to the top is arduous and steep. People become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted. They're often tempted to give up. Genuine acts of caring uplift the spirits and draw people forward. Recognizing contributions can be one-to-one or with many people. It can come from dramatic gestures or simple actions. It's part of the leader's job to show appreciation for people's contributions and to create a culture of celebrating values and victories. Recognition and celebration aren't about fun and games, though there is a lot of fun and there are a lot of games when people encourage the hearts of their constituents. Encouragement is, curiously, serious business. It's how leaders visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance. When striving to raise quality, recover from disaster, start up a new service, or make dramatic change of any kind, leaders make sure people see the benefit of behavior that's aligned with cherished values.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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