Characteristics of Admired Leaders: A Conversation with Jim Kouzes

May 22, 2023

In many ways we as a society are “post-pandemic.” While the long-lasting effects of what we went through may not be known for years, perhaps generations, the day-to-day reminders of what we lived through are decreasing. Many organizations have moved back to in-person or hybrid models, live events are filling conference rooms around the country, and airports are abuzz with business travelers.

Though many things in the world of work are slowly starting to resemble the pre-2020 status quo, we were curious how the last three years have impacted leaders and more specifically, what kind of leadership qualities people are looking for today. Who better to gain insight into leadership characteristics from than one of the top leadership experts in the country, and coauthor of The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes?

In the latest edition of The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner dive into their foundational research on the Characteristics of Admired Leaders and how they have changed, and perhaps surprisingly, stayed the same in recent years.

Photo of The Leadership Challenge coauthor Jim Kouzes smiling with arms crossed.


The Origin of the Characteristics of Admired Leaders

While The Leadership Challenge® learning experiences are based on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, and incorporate the Leadership Practices Inventory®, the Characteristics of Admired Leaders survey actually predates both of them and adds an additional perspective to consider when applying The Five Practices®.

We wanted to know from (our respondents) what they did when they were at their best as leaders,” Kouzes says, calling in from his California home. “That research is what led to The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the model that we use for leadership behavior.”

While we often think about leadership in terms of what we, ourselves, can do to be great leaders, the Characteristics of Admired Leaders survey flips the script and asks respondents what they look for and admire in their leaders.

Initially open-ended, the research gathered around 150 characteristics. Learning quickly that those characteristics could be further categorized into twenty main qualities, they then asked respondents to select seven of the twenty characteristics that they most “looked for and admired in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow.”

Well into the fifth decade of collecting this data, they have found that while many things in the world have changed, the top four Characteristics of Admired Leaders, have not.

The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same…For the Most Part

“What we found, encouragingly, was that the top four qualities people look for and admire in leaders have remained the same,” Kouzes says. “Those are honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking. What has changed slightly is the percentage of people who select each of them.”

Top Four Characteristics of Admired Leaders
1. Honest
2. Competent
3. Inspiring
4. Forward-Looking

Additionally, there have been some changes in the percentage of people selecting some of the other characteristics. For example, dependable and supportive moved up in the top seven during the pandemic while courageous fell from 22% of people selecting it in 2017 to only 13% in 2023. Interestingly, courageous fell the most out of any of the characteristics.

When asked what he attributes that to, Kouzes offers, “Let's recall the context. What happened in March of 2020? The COVID pandemic. That was the most significant global challenge we’ve seen since we've been working on The Leadership Challenge research. It changed the world.”

Where in previous editions some minor changes occurred in the research, nothing had ever happened on such a large scale as a worldwide pandemic. That, coupled with political unrest, lockdowns, and the societal changes that were universally experienced, influenced what people wanted from leaders when collecting data during the early years of this decade.

“We were all affected in some similar ways. There was the lockdown, there was masking, there was social distancing. There was work from home. Learn from home. A lot of the context in which people were working, living, and learning changed,” Kouzes says. “We had the social injustice with the murder of George Floyd and all of the protests that followed that, as well as the political instability that occurred. Things became more uncertain during that period of time. People felt more distressed, stress increased, and mental health issues became more prevalent.”

When looking at the state of the world during the time period the majority of the research was collected, it makes sense that people would want leaders who are more supportive and dependable, versus something like courageous which is often associated with taking risks, making mistakes, disruption, and instability during an already-unstable time.

Even though we are now moving into a post-pandemic version of a new normal, individuals currently want leaders who also offer stability, reliability, and reassurance as we continue to recover.

Credibility is the Foundation of Leadership

Now that we have a better idea of what the majority of people see as the characteristics of an admired leader, the question is: how can individuals work towards embodying those qualities in both work and life?

The answer, according to Kouzes and Posner, is credibility.

“Decades of research finds that trustworthiness, expertise, and dynamism are the three most important considerations people give when they're thinking about a trustworthy source of information and guidance, such as leaders,” Kouzes says.

“People need to believe in the leader, need to believe in the person who is delivering the message. That observation resulted in the development of the first law of leadership. If you don't believe in the messenger, you won't believe the message.”

Credibility is the foundation of leadership. And what is credibility behaviorally? Kouzes and Posner offer the acronym DWYSYD: Do what you say you’ll do.

How to Gain Credibility
1. Clarify Values
2. Develop competence and provide resources.
3. Set an example for others.

Walk the Talk: The First Step Towards Exemplary Leadership

“Walk the talk. Put your money where your mouth is. Practice what you preach. If you say something is important to you, you need to back that up with resources. You need to back that up with a budget and you need to back that up with your own behavior. You need to be a good role model. You need to do what you say you will do,” he says.

An important part of doing what you say you’ll do is confirming that you can follow through before offering something as a viable option. Confirm that you can back it up with resources and give your team what they need to be able to complete the task while leading the way by example.

“You have to ask yourself, am I capable of delivering on these values? And if I find that I'm not as capable as I need to be, I need to do some work on myself,” Kouzes says.

Credibility is the founding tenant of The Five Practices and forms the foundation of the first practice, Model the Way. Once you understand how to be a credible leader, you can start your journey through The Five Practices towards exemplary leadership.

We look forward to part two of this conversation with Jim Kouzes and more practical steps you can take to embody the Characteristics of Admired Leaders and start to Model the Way in your organization.

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