Model the Way: How To Embody the Characteristics of an Admired Leader

Jun 26, 2023

When you think of a leader that you admire, what are the characteristics that come to mind? Perhaps they are confident, inspiring, intelligent. They lead with humility and vision, ready to take themselves and their organization to the next level by building trust with their people.

We recently learned more about the Characteristics of Admired Leaders from The Leadership Challenge coauthor and leadership development expert, Jim Kouzes, and how despite all of the change and challenge in the world today the top four Characteristics of Admired Leaders remain honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking.

In part two of our conversation with Kouzes, we will learn how important it is to clarify your values and commit to them, and share your vision with others as you lead by example which is the basis for the first of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, Model the Way.

Through their groundbreaking research on leadership development dating back to 1984, Kouzes and coauthor Barry Posner started to see patterns emerge in what people wanted from their leaders and it all starts with credibility.

Image of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner and their book The Leadership Challenge

Exemplary Leadership Starts With You


When considering your own leadership journey, it’s important to start within yourself. You cannot effectively lead until you are clear on what your own values are. What matters most to you? What do you stand for and believe in?

Interestingly, the foundational tenants of The Leadership Challenge®, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® (which originated from the learnings from Jim and Barry’s Personal Best Leadership Experiences research and were reinforced by the Characteristics of Admired Leaders survey), were not always in the order in which we see them today.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® badges

Kouzes shared that in the third edition of The Leadership Challenge, they moved the discussion of Model the Way from the fourth practice to the first. When asked why they made that change, Kouzes replies “We made that change because consistently over time, people kept selecting honest and competent as the two most important characteristics of admired leaders. These two are also the most important characteristics of personal credibility. And what is credibility behaviorally? It’s about doing what you say you will do, or DWYSYWD for short. ‘Say’ and ‘do,’ coincidentally, are the key elements of Model the Way.”

“So, we said ‘If this is what people want from their leaders, we’ll start the conversation with Model the Way.’”

An Inner Journey Towards Success


An important way leaders can get clear on how they will Model the Way is to first clarify their values. Ask yourself what do I stand for? What is important to me? What are my core values? “Your first step as a leader is to do an inner journey to make sure that you are crystal clear about what you believe in, what you value, what the principles are that should guide your decisions and actions,” Kouzes says.

However, leadership is not only about the leader themselves. An organization thrives when all are committed and engaged, and it is important to remember that your people’s values and beliefs are their driving force. Once you have gained more clarity into your own values, it’s important to create space where everyone can explore their own belief systems which will model commitment to a common set of guiding principles.

Title: Steps to Model the Way
Clarify Your Own Values
Affirm Shared Values
Do What You Say You’ll Do

“You need to get clear about your leadership philosophy and clarify your values and then engage others. Learn more about your shared values and then set an example based upon the shared values that you and your constituents hold,” Kouzes says.

Shared Values Build Common Ground


When everyone works together and is committed to a common set of shared values, while staying true to their own values, incredible things can happen. Having a shared understanding of guiding principles strengthens credibility and authenticity and increases trust and collaboration.

“Make sure that you listen and engage others in a conversation about shared values so that everyone comes to a consensus about what’s important. Then you need to build the competence for people to deliver on those values,” he says.

Building the competence for people to deliver is one of the most important pieces of the leadership puzzle. Coming up with ambitious ideals is one thing, but actually facilitating success by ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to achieve those goals is imperative. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, many organizations had to pivot to virtual settings. That involved giving individuals access to and training on many platforms that used to be primarily in the fringes of an average workday (like Teams or Zoom, for example). Competence building was essential to delivering on values such as collaboration and service excellence.

“Leaders have to ask themselves ‘Are we capable of delivering on these values? Do we have the systems? Do we have the structure? Do we have the resources? Do we have the skills and abilities? What kind of training and development experiences do we need?’,” Kouzes says, adding “You can't do what you say if you don't know how.”

How to Build Competence to Deliver
Consider Your Values
Do You Have the Abilities and Tools You Need?
Provide Skills Training and Supporting Resources Necessary to Succeed
The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® badges

Do What You Say You’ll Do


It is important to refer back to the acronym Kouzes shared in our last blog, DWYSYD: Do what you say you’ll do. As you get clear on your values, share them with others, and work together to get the tangible skills and tools you will need to make things happen. Remember to keep DWYSYD at the forefront of your thoughts.

The path to exemplary leadership takes time and effort, but with the essential skills, right tools, and appropriate behaviors everyone, at every level regardless of role or title, can embody the characteristics of an admired leader – when they start by looking within.

Learn more about how to Model the Way and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership by visiting our website.

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