When Leaders Are At Their Best

Most of what is currently known about leadership came to light in the last 100 years. There is no universally accepted definition of leadership. However, leadership can be seen as a process whereby an individual influences followers to achieve a common goal.

Leadership principles are universal just like gravity is universal. With minor cultural variations, people all over the world desire similar behavior from their leaders.

In 1982, James Kouzes and Barry Posner set out on a global quest to find what leaders did when they were at their personal best. They interviewed thousands of leaders all over the world asking them a basic question, “What did you do when you were at your personal best as a leader?” They talked to men and women, young and old, representing just about every type of organization there is, at all levels, in all functions, from many different places around the world. The result was the best-selling evidence-based book The Leadership Challenge also nicknamed The Leadership Bible. The research continues on the Internet visited by 500,000 to 750,000 people every year.

They discovered that irrespective of culture, gender, age, and other variables when leaders are at their personal best there are five core practices common to all.

They crystallized their conclusions as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership:

  1. Model the Way,
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision,
  3. Challenge the Process,
  4. Enable Others to Act
  5. Encourage the Heart.

Their findings are similar to those found by another groundbreaking research project initiated in 1991 by Robert House. He worked with 170 research associates around the world to study the perceived characteristics of effective leaders across the globe. The now world famous project was named the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) research program.

The research was done on all continents except Antarctica and it showed that transformational leadership is found in one form or another at all levels and in all cultures. It identified many cultural differences but also revealed four universal facilitators and three universal hindrances of leadership effectiveness. The facilitators were identified as:

  1. Being trustworthy, just, and honest [being credible];
  2. Having foresight and planning ahead [being visionary];
  3. Being positive, dynamic, encouraging, motivating, and building confidence [empowering followers]; and,
  4. Being communicative, informed, a coordinator, and team integrator [being interactive].

The hindrances were identified as:

  1. Being a loner and asocial (self-protective);
  2. Being non-cooperative and irritable (malevolent); and
  3. Being dictatorial (autocratic).

 The story of David and his mighty men as related in 1 Samuel is an exceptional example of a leader taking on a dodgy group of followers, and empowering them to achieve results far beyond what they could ever have dreamed possible. King David’s motley bunch was transformed from a group of fugitives and social outcasts (I Samuel 22:2) to the nucleus of the most formidable army in their generation, only likened to the army of God (I Chronicles 12:22). Most times though, leaders and followers are at odds with each other and the results are much less than spectacular.

  1. Model the Way

Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives.

They loosen bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there, and they create opportunities for victory.

Kouzes and Posner (2012) consistently found in their global research that honesty was the characteristic that followers desired most in their leaders. Trustworthiness is critical to effective leadership since the leader-follower relationship is built on trust. Integrity makes a leader believable and worthy of our trust. Constituents must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders.

Leaders with integrity inspire confidence in others because they can be trusted to do what they say they are going to do. Dishonesty, on the other hand, creates distrust resulting in the compromising of a leader’s impact because of loss of follower confidence.

Leaders must never take their credibility for granted but rather must be diligent in guarding it because it is the foundation of leadership. Society is demanding greater integrity of character in its leaders. Credibility is the foundation for successful influence. It is key that leaders work on building their credibility. Followers above all else want leaders they can trust.   This means leaders must be dependable and people of character.

These findings by Kouzes and Posner (2012) correlate with GLOBE’s Universal Leadership Facilitator No. 1: Being trustworthy, just, and honest. When leaders effectively model their values, identity, emotions and goals to their followers, the potential for genuine followership increases.

Modeling the way speaks of being a person of character. Character is crucial to all global leadership contexts. It is character that generates trust among followers. A leader’s first job is to inspire trust.

Steve Covey describes trust as confidence born of character and competence. Leadership at any level should be morally sound and ethical in order to transfer successfully across cultures. Hence, moral leadership is tantamount to the well-being of society itself. Moral leadership is being regulated by moral values that advance what is good. This is part of modeling the way. David demonstrated this to his followers when he refused to utilize two opportunities he had to kill King Saul who seeking his life.

  1. Inspire a Shared Vision

Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. The leader’s domain is the future. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the society or organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

These findings by Kouzes and Posner (2012) correlate with GLOBE’s Universal Leadership Facilitator No. 2: Having foresight and planning ahead. Leaders that are transformational have a clear vision of the future state of their societies or organizations. It is usually a simple vision that is understandable, beneficial, and energy creating. The compelling nature of the vision pulls followers into supporting the organization.

David was able to cast a compelling vision of a new kingdom dispensation of righteous and justice to the level that his followers became resolute to make him king over all Israel (I Samuel 12:38). A powerful enough vision can transform routine and into collective focused energy. Communicating a vision to followers is a very important function.

In their book, Built to Last, Collins and Porras state that organizations/societies with a well-articulated vision that permeates their organizations are most likely to prosper and have long-term success. Compelling visions provide people with a sense of purpose and encourage commitment. Followers achieve more and make more ethical decisions when they pursue a worthy goal. To be compelling, a vision must be both desirable and attainable. Uninspiring or un-achievable visions are ineffective and may demoralize followers.

  1. Challenge the Process

Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the society or organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. They know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures and so they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

Creative leaders concentrate on the task rather than on what can go wrong. They recognize that failure is a significant learning tool; the only people who don’t fail are those who don’t try.

This particular practice of leaders is not addressed by GLOBE however transformational leaders recognize that satisfaction with the status quo poses a serious threat to the survival of their followers. They ignore the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” instead adopting the attitude, “If it ain’t broke, you’re not looking hard enough”.

  1. Enable Others to Act

Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

These findings by Kouzes and Posner (2012) correlate with GLOBE’s Universal Leadership Facilitator No. 3: Being positive, dynamic, encouraging, motivating, and building confidence. Transformational leaders are masterful communicators able to articulate and define ideas and concepts that escape others.

The more leadership responsibility an individual has, the more likely it is there will be a significant communication component to his or her job. By encouraging open communication, a leader allows followers to share their ideas and insights.

Transformational leaders encourage participation and involvement. The exchange of ideas between leader and follower does not pose a threat to the transformational leader. They know how to give power away and how to make others feel powerful. They are not insecure. David was the first giant slayer. He so empowered his followers that they too became giant slayers.

  1. Encourage the Heart. 

Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.

These findings by Kouzes and Posner correlate with GLOBE’s Universal Leadership Facilitator No. 4: Being communicative, informed, a coordinator, and team integrator. Effective leaders are passionate about what they do and the people they work with. This personal enthusiasm motivates them to perform well.

The most effective leaders spend time every day encouraging others and expressing confidence in their abilities. Leaders who are effective globally understand the power of appreciation of followers and use it often. The most effective leaders spend time every day encouraging others and expressing confidence in their abilities.

The GLOBE research program revealed three universal hindrances of leadership effectiveness that are the opposite of effective leadership.

  1. Being a loner and asocial (self-protective);

King David was a great communicator. The accounts of his life are full of incidents of him talking to different kinds of people. His communication skills played a major role in galvanizing the disparate group of people that increasingly joined his rebel camp. The phrase, “David said” appears about 90 times in the bible. Extraordinary leadership is first and foremost, a product of extraordinary communication. Effective leaders are masterful communicators able to articulate and define ideas and concepts that escape others. The more leadership responsibility an individual has, the more likely it is there will be a significant communication component to his or her job.

  1. Being non-cooperative and irritable (malevolent); and
  1. Being dictatorial (autocratic).


The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership as espoused by Kouzes and Posner and the GLOBE research project both give a universal picture of what one can be when they are at their best as a leader. Those leaders who frequently use these principles are considerably more effective than their counterparts who use them infrequently.

Both global research projects show that universally, a leader’s behavior contributes more to how the followers behave than any other variable in an organization or society. No wonder then that one leadership expert stated that if hired as a consultant to help a failing organization, the first step he would take is to fire the leader!

Every leader would then do well to look in the mirror when faced with failure in the group they lead and ask themselves how they can improve themselves before loading it on their followers.