The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership
So what is it that leaders do to build and sustain credibility? What do they do that makes others see them as capable and trustworthy leaders? What are the behaviors that people exhibit that engage and mobilize others to want to follow? What are people actually doing when they are leading and making extraordinary things happen?
Before finding out what others said, reflect for a moment on something that you would consider your Personal-Best Leadership Experience. This experience could be a time when you emerged as the informal leader, or it could be a time when you were appointed to take on the lead role in a new project. It could be in any functional area, in any type of organization, in a staff or line role. The experience does not need to be in your current organization. It could be in a prior job, a club, a community volunteer setting, a professional organization, a school, a team, a congregation, or even a family setting.
In the thousands of personal-best stories the authors have collected, two meta-lessons emerged and continue to be front and center.
- The first lesson we learned is that everyone has a story to tell. Regardless of whom we ask, people are able to identify a time when they did their best as a leader.
- Despite any individual differences, settings, and circumstances, the second lesson is that the actions and behaviors of leaders when at their best are more similar than they are different. There is a set of common behaviors and actions that people demonstrate when they operate at their personal-best as leaders. These behaviors are universal, and they have stood the test of time and place.
The authors have grouped these behaviors into a leadership operating system that the authors call The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.
The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership
Practice #1 Model the Way
Titles are granted, but it’s your behavior that earns you respect. This sentiment was expressed in everyone’s personal-best case, as represented by such comments as “I couldn’t tell anyone what to do, I had to show them,” “I had to be a role model for the behavior I wanted from others,” and “I had to be clear about my personal values and then make sure that I walked the talk.” Exemplary leaders know that if they want to earn the respect of the people around them and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others. Exemplary leaders Model the Way.
To effectively model the way, you first must be clear about your guiding principles. You must clarify values by finding your voice. When you understand who you are and the values you hold dear, then you can speak authentically about the beliefs that you want to guide your decisions and actions. But your values aren’t the only values that matter. Leaders don’t speak just for themselves. They also speak for the group, and in every team, organization, and community, there are others who also feel strongly about matters of principle. As a leader, you also must help identify and affirm the shared values of the group you are working with. Without an agreed-on and collective understanding of what is right and what is wrong, then anything goes, and there are neither practical nor ethical standards for people to follow.
Practice #2 Inspire a Shared Vision
People describe their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences as times when they imagined exciting and meaningful futures for themselves and others. They reported actions such as: “I told the team that we need everyone’s commitment to make our vision a reality, to reach our dreams and make them happen,” “The more I imagined what was possible, the more clearly I could describe what the future might hold in store for all of us,” and “We had to be aligned so that we could find a common purpose as a team going forward.” They had a desire to create something that no one else had ever created before. They had visions of what could be, and they had absolute faith and confidence that those aspirations could become reality. When performing at their best, leaders Inspire a Shared Vision.
In many ways, leaders live their lives backward. By building upon experiences, they see pictures in their mind’s eye of what success will look like even before they’ve started their projects, much as architects draw blueprints or engineers build models. Their clear image of the future pulls them forward, and they are able to speak enthusiastically and energetically about the compelling possibilities. They envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities.
Practice #3 Challenge the Process
Every single personal-best leadership case involved some change from the status quo. Not one person claimed to achieve a personal best by keeping things the same, doing what had always been done. They said: “I needed to change the business-as-usual climate by finding ways to experiment and learn,” “We began by brainstorming what we would change if anything was possible,” and “We found that big things are done by doing lots of small things.” This is why leaders Challenge the Process.
Challenge is the crucible for greatness. It provides the context in which adversity and vision interact to provide for the creation of something new. When at their best leaders are pioneers. They are willing to step out into the unknown and continuously search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and by looking outward for innovative ways to improve.
Practice #4 Enable Others to Act
Leaders know they can’t do it alone. Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of a single person. In their personal-best cases, they showed their appreciation of this truth with statements such as: “It was necessary to take into consideration each person’s perspectives and ensure that the decisions were made by the team and not individual decisions,” “The key was building relationships with people who were needed to help us make this happen,” and “Giving them the space and latitude to do their work gave them the confidence to do what hadn’t been done before.” Leadership is a team effort, not a solo performance, and to make extraordinary things happen in organizations exemplary leaders Enable Others to Act.
Leaders proudly discussed how they had to foster collaboration by building a climate of trust and facilitating relationships. They engage all those who were necessary to make the project work, and develop collaborative relationships with colleagues. They are considerate of the needs and interests of others. They bring people together, creating an atmosphere where people understand they have a shared fate and that they should treat others as they would like to be treated. They make sure that everyone wins.
Practice #5 Encourage the Heart
The climb to the top of any new and challenging endeavor is arduous and steep, and it is not surprising that people can become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted. Leaders indicated in their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences that they had to Encourage the Heart of those with whom they were working to carry on, especially when they might have been tempted to give up. They said things such as: “You have to show people that you care about them as people and how they are capable of doing a lot more than they think,” “Praise and encouragement are the best gifts because people need to have their hard work and efforts acknowledged, to know that they are making a difference,” and “We were generous with compliments and this allowed us to feel good about ourselves, and when you feel good you are more productive.”
Genuine acts of caring, whether exhibited in dramatic gestures or simple actions, uplift people’s spirits and keep them motivated. It is part of a leader’s job to recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.