What Do People Look for in a Leader?

More than 30 years ago, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, made an eye-opening investigation on this hypothetical question: What do people look for and want from their leaders?

The quest for answers stems from their idea “leadership is a relationship.” They want to cement the link and make concrete proof. The research for Kouzes and Posner began when the two surveyed thousands of business and government executives. Since the open-ended question elicits different responses, hundreds of different values, traits, and characteristics were gathered.

The aid from several independent judges was required for content analysis. After that, further empirical analyses narrowed down the list into twenty characteristics. With a refined list complete, Kouzes and Posner have developed the Characteristics of Admired Leaders checklist.

Over one hundred thousand people around the world took part in this test. Incredibly, Kouzes and Posner still update the results. In this one-page survey, respondents are asked to select seven qualities they “most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow.”
Remember the key word here is willingly.

In the book the Kouzes and Posner describe, “What do they expect from a leader they would follow, not because they have to, but because they want to?”

The results have been striking because of its regularity. The authors saw four characteristics:


Throughout 1987 to 2012, these attributes remain consistent. These didn’t just pop out from the authors’ minds. These four qualities are from respondents encompassing the six continents: Africa, North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.

How are these results connected to the Five Practices of Leadership: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Enable Others to Act, Challenge the Process, Encourage the Heart?

Only an honest leader can Model the Way and being forward-looking means one can Inspire a Shared Vision. When a leader enables others to act, that means they know what walking the talk and they are trustworthy. And finally, someone who’s inspiring knows how to Encourage the Heart.

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Leadership is Everyone’s Business

For the longest time, many believed that only a few great people can lead others to greatness. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge®, that’s just plain wrong.

Through decades of research on leadership, Kouzes and Posner uncovered one singular lesson: leadership is everyone’s business. In the book, they’ve defined leadership as an art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. The stories they’ve gathered show how leaders collaborate to achieve the extraordinary. Hence, leadership is a relationship.

When leaders encourage their subordinates to make a difference, Kouzes and Posner calls it The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart.

A leader who can effectively Model the Way has to be clear about personal guiding principles. One should be able to clarify these values and affirm these to the group. With core values in place, that leader can then Inspire a Shared Vision. A vision of the future can only be attractive if it’s exciting and ennobling. Thus, a group can quickly latch their aspirations on it and work towards a goal.

For Kouzes and Posner, leaders should also Challenge the Process. Since challenge is the crucible for greatness, no great leader should keep things the same. They shouldn’t sit and wait for an opportunity to happen.

To Enable Others to Act means accepting that solitary effort can only do so much. Success is achieved through teamwork. Collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships must be fostered. And the final piece of the Five Practices is Encourage the Heart. Contributions and individual excellence from the team should be valued and appreciated.

Kouzes and Posner’s research encompassed significant periods in time. Impressively, the Five Practices framework has stood the test of time. The context of leadership has changed, but the fundamental behaviors and actions of leaders remain the same.

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