What do Great Leaders Have in Common?

February 8, 2017

Developing Leadership Skills: What Do Great Leaders Have in Common?

Two groups of authors and researchers have recently tried their hand at identifying what exactly makes for great leadership skills: Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (who wrote The Leadership Challenge), and Michael Jensen, Werner Erhard, Steve Zaffron, and Kari Granger (who all worked on a Harvard Business School research program, Leadership and Leadership Development: An Ontological Approach). Here is an overview of what they found (along with some of my own thoughts on the subject).

The Leadership Challenge

From their research, Kouzes and Posner identified five common factors in taking approaches to leadership. These are:

  1. Model the way

    As the leader, you need to model the behavior, values, and operating processes for all the stakeholders. You also set goals and establish signposts that provide demonstrable progress along the way. Your coworkers take their cues from you. If you’re supportive, hard-working, and fair, they will understand that these leadership skills are expected of them, too. For further reading on the subject of leader-modeling, check out The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabilea professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School.

  2. Inspire a shared vision

    As a leader with a vision for the future, it’s your job to recruit others into that vision like Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, does as she follows the yellow brick road. Or you can work with your organization to create a shared vision together, in which case it’s your responsibility to herald and promote that vision for the organization.

  3. Challenge the process

    David Whyte, the poet and philosopher, says that the CEO is the Chief Conversation Officer. The CEO must initiate and participate in the conversations that everyone else is afraid to have (or might not have even considered). These conversations often start with tough questions. Gary Hamel provides examples of exactly the kinds of tough questions leaders and organizations must ask in his HBR article “The Why, What, and How of Management Innovation”: What tough trade-offs do we never get right? What is our organization bad at? What challenges will the future hold for us? These questions lead to conversations that many leaders and organizations often avoid, but ought to have.

  4. Enable others to act

    As a leader, you can’t do it alone, especially as the organization grows. You must empower others to work in pursuit of the organization’s mission, vision, and goals. And you need to decentralize leadership at the appropriate stage of growth–providing both autonomy and authority for others to lead separately and together. The more you create a culture of respect, appreciation, and teamwork, the more your coworkers will feel empowered to act, and the more likely they will succeed. Still, getting others to work effectively as a team can be a challenge. Most teams that work exceeding well together do so by accident. Team coaching can help your organization learn, develop, and execute on the strategies and processes that lead to high collective performance (rather than a collection of talented individual working occasionally at cross purposes). While the merits of executive coaching have been understood for some time, Team Coaching is the single largest growth area in the leadership development space because we now understand how much an organization can benefit from coaching a whole team at once.

  5. Encourage the heart

    If you are not looking after your people, they will be forced to look after themselves. They will become more selfish than selfless. Their hearts will suffer. Scan for opportunities to make other people heroes and to give them credit. Look for ways to reward others for those things that are important to and elevate the organization. A great recent example of this was when President Obama awarded Vice President Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award with Distinction. Click on that link and watch the video, and you will see an extraordinary level of genuine respect and appreciation from both Biden and Obama. This is truly encouraging the heart–not just for the leader and his coworker, but for those who witness this recognition ceremony as well.

PEAK Leadership

There is one way, I’ve found, to achieve all five of the most important approaches to leadership identified by Kouzes and Postner in The Leadership Challenge: Ask great questions. If you ask great questions as a leader, you model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, and enable others to act, while also encouraging the heart. Greatness happens when you ask! Asking questions isn’t an abdication of leadership skills; it’s an act of empowerment. Great questions show a recognition of another person’s concerns and fears, while also demonstrating confidence in their abilities to find a solution, lead themselves, and engage with others.

I developed a tool to test leaders’ aptitude and tendencies when it comes to asking questions. Some leaders command way more than they ask. Others find themselves asking the same questions over and over. If you want to see what types of questions you tend to ask and what great questions you could add to your quiver, take a look at the PEAK Leadership tool. There are no costs or strings attached.

Ontology of Leadership

Jensen, Erhard, Zaffron, and Granger have reduced great leadership down to four foundational elements. Their belief and research shows that if you simply exemplify these four elements, you will show up as a great leader. These four elements are:

1. Integrity

Being whole and complete–achieved by “honoring one’s word” (creates workability, develops trust).

2. Authenticity

Being and acting consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for others, and who you hold yourself to be for yourself. When leading, being authentic leaves you grounded, and able to be straight without using force.

3. Being Committed to Something Bigger than Oneself

Source of the serene passion (charisma) required to lead and to developing leadership skills and to develop others as leaders, and the source of persistence (joy in the labor of) when the path gets tough.

4. Being Cause in the Matter

“Being Cause in the Matter” means being the cause in the matter of everything in your life, as a stand you take for
yourself and life – and acting from that stand. To take the stand that you are cause in the matter contrasts with it being your fault, or that you failed, or that you are to blame, or even that you did it.

Conclusion: What Great Leaders Have in Common

Although they use different language and approaches to leadership (one is more epistemological and the other ontological), these two groups of authors/researchers wound up with some overlapping characteristics. By demonstrating consistency, courage, and selflessness, leaders can be great. And they can inspire others to greatness.

What do think great leaders have in common? Which elements or traits do you think matter the most?


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