A View on Admired Leaders

Just as we can learn from what successful CEOs have to say, we can also study and learn from the attributes of successful leaders everywhere, not just in the business world.

In 1999, the Gallup organization decided to create a twentieth-century most-admired-leaders list based on polling it had been doing since 1948, in which Americans were asked which man or woman they admired the most. The resulting list was fascinating in its diversity. It included social-justice crusaders such as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., who changed the shape of history; political leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill; people who never held elected office, such as Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt; religious leaders such as Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II; the scientist Albert Einstein; and many others.

It makes you wonder, What’s the common ground among these diverse leaders? What makes them so successful at inspiring others? Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, probably two of the most impressive leadership writers we have today, have some research-based answers to those questions. In their book The Leadership Challenge, they list the characteristics of admired leaders based on a series of worldwide surveys. While the list is long and each of the characteristics received some votes, what’s really striking is this: in thirty years’ worth of surveys, only four characteristics have continually received more than 50 percent of the votes:

  • Honest. In almost any survey that Kouzes and Posner conducted, being honest was selected more than any other leadership characteristic. So it’s pretty clear from their research that people are more likely to follow someone—whether in the battlefield or in the boardroom, in the front office or on the front lines—if they believe that person is worthy of their trust.
  • Forward-looking. People expect their leaders to have a sense of direction and a concern for the future of a project and their whole organization—in other words, the ability to envision the future. Leaders themselves usually cite this as one of their own best traits.
  • Inspiring. We all expect a leader to be a bit of a cheerleader. (Who really wants to follow a Dreary Dan?) Leaders need to communicate their vision in a way that encourages and inspires followers so that, whatever the circumstances— even, for example, if expected deliverables are overdue or looming project deadlines seem unreachable—the leaders can breathe new life into the effort and get people to keep following them.
  • Competent. Most of us see this characteristic as critical to leadership. I’m not talking about technical competence here. This refers to the leader’s track record of accomplishment: in the past, did the leader deliver what was promised? This type of competence will inspire the confidence of followers.

These are the most valued leadership characteristics, say Kouzes and Posner.  How do you and your leadership team compare to this veritable list and how can you improve in the four categories we all seem to find so compelling to strong leadership?

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