Exploring Leadership: A Personal Journey Part 3

This blog is part of a series. Last year, I embarked on a personal development project with the aim of discovering what skills I would need to become the leader I had always looked for. I identified successful leaders from nonprofit, corporate and education backgrounds and asked them the same series of six questions, the results of which are shared in this 8-week series. Use the arrows at the bottom of the page to navigate between the related posts.

During this interview process, one of respondents suggested I take a look at The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. I hadn’t heard of the book prior to beginning these interviews but I soon discovered, this interview idea of mine was not all that unique. However, instead of interviewing leaders, Kouzes and Posner asked thousands of individuals from four continents what values or personal traits they look for in their supervisors. Their research model changed and morphed over a 10-year period, but they ended up with a list of top 20 leadership characteristics admired by their constituents.

Interestingly, the same four characteristics regularly ended up at the top of that list by large margins and 25 years later, three of those same characteristics revealed themselves again when I asked this group of leaders “What three characteristics should every leader have?”. A key difference, beyond the sample size, was that in the Kouzes and Posner’s work, the individuals were able to choose from the list of 20 characteristics. My question was open-ended and I intentionally did not give the respondents any sort of guidance. Some struggled to choose only 3, others changed their mind midway. Some gave 3 words, and others expounded and chose to define their chosen traits. But in the end, their responses reflected what Kouzes and Posner had found. The top 3 desirable characteristics in a leader are: honest, forward-looking and inspiring.

When you look up the word honest in the dictionary the definition includes words like truthful, genuine, real, humble, respectable, and integrity. Integrity was the overarching word used most frequently among the respondents I interviewed but when they chose to delve deeper, I noticed they were really trying to identify something more innate. The result of continued honesty ultimately produces feelings of trust and I believe that’s truly what both groups were looking to identify. People want to trust their leader.

The interview group believes that successful leaders should always be looking towards the future. Their roles should include strategic planning and guiding their team towards a longer-term plan encouraging innovative ideas along the way. They should never be static. As a leader, they should encourage an environment of continuous learning and lead that initiative by example. With innovation and growth, there ultimately will be mistakes and failures but true leaders learn from those occurrences and move forward. The Kouzes and Posner research supports that this is what people want from their leader. They will follow someone who has a defined vision for a better future and is taking steps to make it become a reality.

The 3rd characteristic identified by the group I interviewed was that leaders should value their people. This was the most frequently identified characteristic and their responses to the first interview question (Describe your leadership style – previous blog post) revealed the importance for them of this particular trait. Now this is where my findings differed from The Leadership Challenge a bit. Kouzes & Posner used the word inspiring. But after thinking about it, I’m not sure these ideas are all that different. As individuals, if we feel valued and appreciated, aren’t we more likely to be inspired to do more? Aren’t we more likely to work harder for someone we have a relationship with? The word inspiring has an inherent positivity to it but so did the idea of valuing others. The leaders I interviewed believe in the idea of empowering others to be their best. So maybe the difference between identified traits is more a difference of perspective than concept. The Kouzes and Posner respondents chose a word to describe an admirable trait in their leader whereas the leaders I interviewed chose the mode to make those feelings of inspiration happen.

The Kouzes and Posner research began before I was born. However, it appears the core ideas have pretty much stayed the same. So, this is my challenge to all leaders, both professional and community- based: evaluate how closely you emulate these characteristics. Ask for feedback from those you lead and truly listen to their responses. Sometimes how we see ourselves is not how others perceive us. But don’t stop there. Use that feedback to create a plan to improve and follow up again. If we want our constituents to work towards being their best, we as leaders must do the same.

NEXT: Exploring Leadership: A Personal Journey Part 4 – Interview Question: What common mistakes
have you seen among leadership teams?

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