Ask an Expert February 2018

Ask an Expert

Q: I seem to recall seeing data comparing responses from executives, managers, and students to the Characteristics of an Admired Leader (CAL) questionnaire. Specifically the slide indicated this breakdown:

Forward Looking

• Senior Executives 88%
• Middle Managers 68%
• Students 44%

Does this mean that Senior Executives regard “forward looking” as more important than Students? 

A: For those not familiar with the Characteristics of an Admired Leader (CAL), it is a research questionnaire on which we list 20 leadership qualities, along with several synonyms for each. We instruct respondents to do the following when completing the CAL: “From this list of 20 attributes, please select the seven you most look for in a leader—someone whose direction you would willingly follow.”

The data on the slide means that 88% of those who were senior executives selected “forward looking” as one of the seven attributes they most look for in a leader; 68% of those who were middle managers selected “forward looking,” and 44% of those who were students selected “forward looking.” The implication is that more senior executives value “forward-looking” compared to middle managers and students, and more middle managers value it than do students.

“Forward looking” is one of those leadership attributes that appears to relate to level in the organization. Executives in senior roles are much more likely to look for a leader with a vision of the future than individuals in middle management or student roles. Middle managers are more likely than students to value “forward-looking” as a preferred leader quality. Other researchers, particularly Elliot Jaques, have made this argument as well.

This makes sense, since leaders in C-suite positions are more likely going to be focused on longer-term strategy—the direction of the organization over the next 5-10 years, for example—than are middle managers or students who are thinking about shorter time horizons. But, there’s something else to consider. As students mature (i.e., age) and begin to move into more senior-level positions, the value they place on “forward looking” is likely to increase. They are likely to value it more as they become more concerned about the future direction of the business. So, the preference for “forward looking” is not necessarily fixed. As people become accountable for projects that require more years to complete and goals that take longer to achieve, it’s likely that they will also see the importance of becoming more forward-looking in their outlook.

There’s something else to keep in mind. While younger, emerging leaders may not see “forward looking” as an important leader attribute, we, as leadership developers, should continue to emphasize its importance. The fact that younger leaders may value “forward-looking” less does not diminish its long-term importance to them as leaders. We know from our research that they will come to appreciate its importance as they have to think 5, 10 or 20 years into the future. It would be to their advantage to start learning at a younger age to appreciate the value of being “forward-looking” and to practice the skills and abilities related to it. They will be better off later in their careers if they do.

Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also winner of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the just released fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.

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