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Exemplary Leadership

Jan 7th, 2020 • Annie Smith

People in a leadership role may often ask themselves, and others, “Am I a good leader?” And they may get the standard answers – Yes, you listen. Yes, your door is open. Or, perhaps you can improve…

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner believe that leaders can be better than good – they can be exemplary. They made this discovery over 35 years ago while conducting a leadership session. At that time, they did not have extensive material or data to share, so they relied on their audience to describe their personal best leadership experience. They found that both individuals and groups seemed to come up with very similar lessons learned. This was the beginning of what would become The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership™, and The Leadership Challenge™.

Why is the Leadership Challenge™ so different from other leadership development programs?  Because it looks at behavior. While others look at leadership traits or motivations, Jim and Barry believe that observing and providing feedback on behavior is the key to better performance as a leader. They discovered that when leaders are at their personal best there are five core practices common to all: they Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and they Encourage the Heart. 

More than likely, every leader is proficient in one or more of the practice areas. But which one is the most important? All of them. To be exemplary, a leader needs to consistently work toward improvement in each area.  During a recent episode of HRD’s podcast Being [at Work], Jim explained, “Leadership is like a pentathlon. If you’re going to compete in a pentathlon, you need to be able to compete in all five events. You can’t say, oh, I’m not very good at javelin throwing, so I’m not going to do that one. Well, sorry, but if you’re going to compete in it, you’ve got to do it. You may not do it as well as the others, but you still got to be able to do it. Leadership is like that.”

Jim believes that achieving excellence is not an individual sport – leaders need to be humble and understand that they need a team of other people in order to get anything extraordinary done. His most memorable lesson was from Don Bennett, who summited Mount Rainer “on one leg and two poles.” Don shared that his most important lesson was that you can’t do it alone. And so it is with leadership. Exemplary leaders are always seeking out the helpful advice, coaching and counseling of others.

Being an exemplary leader is not a destination, but a journey. A journey of successes and mishaps, of wondering if something will work or not, and of “What did I learn from this?” But mostly it is about behavior that can be improved upon over time.   

At HRD, we are passionate about equipping leaders to be successful. Leadership development is a process, not an event. We have deep expertise in the development and facilitation of experiences that prepare leaders to be exemplary. Connect with us at HRD  to learn more.