Being Truly Led

Steve Coats

At International Leadership Associates (ILA), we have been working with The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® for close to a quarter century. Conceived by authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, this powerful leadership model is detailed in their book, The Leadership Challenge, first released in 1987 and now in its 4th edition as Jim and Barry have continued to further develop and share the richness of their ideas and the practices.

Today, it seems that there are as many leadership models floating around as there are models of automobiles. And as expected, people want to know which ones actually produce more effective leaders. Fortunately for us, Kouzes and Posner have answered that question about The Leadership Challenge model, with over two decades of ongoing research and validation processes. There is now a significant body of work, by Jim and Barry as well as others, which convincingly establishes the value of The Five Practices in helping people develop their leadership abilities.

During our work at ILA with this development methodology, we have continued to gather data about leader effectiveness, too, and the results of one research effort have proven to be particularly fascinating. (Although I can't claim that our study involves the academic rigor to be considered Tier One research, in its own way it does lend credence to the findings of others.)

Jim and Barry's original work was based on the Personal Leadership Best case methodology, where they identified the most common leadership behaviors found among leaders performing at their individual best. Our independent research, on the other hand, focused more on followers, rather than the leaders themselves. We asked people at all levels and from all kinds of organizations to describe times in their careers or lives when they were truly led, not simply managed.

Perhaps you have been led–really led–at some time in your life. Maybe it was in business, high school sports, or in a personal situation. If so, what responses come to your mind for you?

The responses we received through our research were both very interesting and consistent. For example, we noted how people almost always tended to respond based on how they felt, indicating "I felt connected to my team members," rather than "there was a great deal of collaboration." This should remind us all that the often cited quote, "people may not remember what you say or do, but they do remember how you make them feel," is certainly alive and well in our relationship with people who are leading us.

Overall, some of the most common responses included feeling:

  1. inspired, noting that they felt more motivated, excited and energized
  2. greatly empowered, more capable, strong or competent
  3. more committed to a goal, a cause, or the group
  4. recognized, sometimes even special; they felt validated–not only for what they did but for who they were as individuals
  5. challenged and stretched, many commenting on how much they had grown in skills and confidence during the period of being led

Other responses–most of which could easily be included in the above Top 5 list–included descriptions of feeling deeply supported, part of a collaborative team, connected, engaged, released, and trusted.

Funny thing about these findings: no one ever mentioned feeling strategically agile or filled to the brim with business acumen. They shied away from characteristics often associated with typical leadership competencies. And we never heard words such as confused, discounted, micromanaged, or alone.

And one other very important observation: our respondents were adamant in expressing that while being led, they performed at much higher levels, sometimes doing the best work of their lives. They could usually explain how and why in vivid detail. And when they talked about subsequently moving into a situation when the leadership was not as vibrant, they would get a bit of a saddened look on their faces as they admitted becoming less committed and engaged.

You probably are not surprised by these responses, as you likely resonate with many, if not all, of them.

These findings re-confirm that when people are led, they have an emotional connection with the leader. We never specifically asked our survey participants how being led felt different, yet that is the way the vast majority responded. There is much truth in the adage that we choose to follow leaders based on how they make us feel.

The findings of our research at ILA have also pointed out more clearly why The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® has become such a useful and effective approach. When people described what they associated most with being led, they gave us almost perfect definitions of these practices. At the same time, they did not come close to describing any other contemporary leadership models, which significantly differ from The Five Practices.

Kouzes and Posner found that leaders at their best Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. Our ILA research found that when people are being truly led they most frequently feel highly inspired, committed, challenged, enabled, and encouraged. This is a remarkable set of similarities, isn't it?

It also is important to remember the relationship between our survey participants' responses about being led and actual results. The leader's consistent and deliberate actions (the Model the Way component), helped them and their teams accomplish much more than when they were merely being managed.

We know that effective leadership contributes to higher performance and better results. Our study indicates that when people are being led, they most frequently relate to the value and impact of The Five Practices in action. This is just one more reason why people and organizations around the world have directly benefited from this unique and proven approach to leadership development.

Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Certified Master, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com

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