The key to being a credible leader

The key to being a credible leader

The following is an extract from James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s book Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, and why people demand it.

What makes an admired leader?

We began our investigation into what people expected from their leaders more than three decades ago, in a study sponsored by the American Management Association. We asked the open-ended question, ‘‘What values (personal traits or characteristics) do you look for in your superiors?’’ (As you can see, we were stuck in the old hierarchical metaphors back then.)

More than 1,500 managers nationwide provided 225 values, characteristics, and traits that they believed to be crucial in the people leading them. A panel of researchers and managers subsequently analysed the 225 factors and reduced them to 15 categories. Of those, the most frequent categories, in order of mention, were:

1. Integrity (is truthful, is trustworthy, has character, has convictions)

2. Competence (is capable, is productive, is efficient)

3. Leadership (is inspiring, is decisive, provides direction)

A follow-up study involving more than 800 senior public sector administrators replicated these findings.

In subsequent studies, we broadened the categories, elaborated on the earlier findings, and improved the research methodology. We eventually produced a twenty-item survey checklist, which became part of the research protocol for this book. Over the years, more than 75,000 people around the globe have completed the ‘‘Characteristics of Admired Leaders’’ checklist.

People select from the 20 characteristics (or qualities) listed after this paragraph the seven that they most ‘‘look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow.’’ Pause for a moment and make a mental note of the seven that would be on your own list.

Characteristics of admired leaders

• Ambitious (aspiring, hardworking, striving)

• Broad-minded (open-minded, flexible, receptive, tolerant)

• Caring (appreciative, compassionate, concerned, loving, nurturing)

• Competent (capable, proficient, effective, gets the job done, professional)

• Co-operative (collaborative, team player, responsive)

• Courageous (bold, daring, gutsy)

• Dependable (reliable, conscientious, responsible)

• Determined (dedicated, resolute, persistent, purposeful)

• Fair-minded (just, unprejudiced, objective, forgiving, willing to pardon others)

• Forward-looking (visionary, foresighted, concerned about the future, sense of direction)

• Honest (truthful, has integrity, trustworthy, has character)

• Imaginative (creative, innovative, curious)

• Independent (self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-confident)

• Inspiring (uplifting, enthusiastic, energetic, humorous, cheerful, positive about the future)

• Intelligent (bright, smart, thoughtful, intellectual, reflective, logical)

• Loyal (faithful, dutiful, unswerving in allegiance, devoted)

• Mature (experienced, wise, has depth)

• Self-Controlled (restrained, self-disciplined)

• Straightforward (direct, candid, forthright)

• Supportive (helpful, offers assistance, comforting)

Our research also includes more than 1,000 written case studies of ‘‘My Most Admired Leader,’’ in which people responded to questions about leaders with whom they had personal experience and for whom

they had great admiration and respect. From these case studies we collected specific examples of actions of respected leaders, information on the affective nature of admired leader–constituent relationships, and

profiles on the types of projects or programs involved. This information came from sources in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Focus groups further enabled us to determine the behaviours of admired leaders. Finally, a series of empirical studies provided further insights into the leadership actions that specifically influence people’s assessments of credibility.

Additionally, in-depth interviews with more than 150 managers revealed the qualities they looked for and admired in their leaders and why. These richly detailed, colourful anecdotes and specific examples brought the survey data to life. From all of this data we developed a framework for describing the actions that admired leaders take to build a special kind of leader-constituent relationship, one that not only leaves a lifelong impression but builds community and makes a significant performance difference.

The results of our studies over the last three decades have been strikingly consistent. They have remained consistent not only over time but also around the world and across categories of age, gender, ethnicity, functional discipline, organisational level, and the like. People are remarkably clear about the qualities leaders must demonstrate if they want others to voluntarily enlist in a common cause and to freely commit to action.

What are these crucial attributes? According to our empirical data, the majority of people look for and admire leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.

In summary, leadership is a relationship:

• Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.

• People choose to follow a leader not because of a leader’s authority but because a leader lives up to the expectations constituents hold.

• The majority of people look for their leaders to be honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.

• Credibility is the foundation of leadership.

• Credibility is earned by daily actions leaders take over time. It does not come automatically with the job or the title.


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