Leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior—an observable set of skills and abilities. And when we first set out to discover what great leaders actually do when they are at their personal best, we collected thousands of stories from ordinary people—the experiences they recalled when asked to think of a peak leadership experience. Despite differences in culture, gender, age, and other variables, these “Personal Best” stories revealed similar patterns of behavior. In fact, we discovered that when leaders are at their personal best there are five core practices common to all: they Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and last but certainly not least, they Encourage the Heart.
Three decades later, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model continues to prove its effectiveness as a clear, evidence-based path to achieving the extraordinary—for individuals, teams, organizations, and communities. It turns the abstract concept of leadership into easy-to-grasp Practices and behaviors that can be taught and learned by anyone willing to step up and accept the challenge to lead. As measured and validated by the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI)—one of the most widely used leadership assessment instruments in the world—ongoing studies consistently confirm that The Five Practices and our assessment tools are positively related to both the effectiveness of leaders and the level of commitment, engagement, and satisfaction of those that follow.
Model the Way
Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities for victory.
Leaders are supposed to stand up for their beliefs, so they’d better have beliefs to stand up for. Leaders must be clear about their guiding principles. They must find their own voices, and then they must clearly and authentically give voice to their values. Yet leaders can’t simply impose their values on others and expect commitment. They have to engage others in common aspirations. Modeling the Way begins with the clarification of personal values and involves building and affirming shared values that all can embrace.
Eloquent speeches about common values are not nearly enough. Exemplary leaders know that it’s their behavior that earns them respect. The real test is whether they do what they say—whether their words and deeds are consistent. Leaders set an example and build commitment through simple, daily acts that create progress and build momentum. The personal-best leadership case studies were distinguished by the fact that all of them required relentless effort, steadfastness, competence, and attention to detail. It wasn’t the grand gesture that had the most lasting impact. Instead it was the power of spending time with someone, of working side-by-side with colleagues, of telling stories that made values come alive, of being highly visible during times of uncertainty, of handling critical incidents with grace and discipline, and of asking questions to get people to focus on values and priorities.
Inspire a Shared Vision
Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.
Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They have a desire to make something better than it is today; change the way things are, and create something that no one else has ever produced. Yet visions seen only by leaders are insufficient to create an organized movement or a significant change in a product, let alone in an organization. A person with no constituents is not a leader, and people will not follow until they accept a vision as their own. Leaders cannot command commitment; they can only inspire it. What may begin as “my” vision emerges as “our” vision?
To enlist people in a vision, leaders must get to know their constituents and learn to speak their language. Other people must believe that leaders understand their needs and have their interests at heart if they are to sign up for journeys into the future. Leaders forge a unity of purpose by showing constituents how the dream is for the common good. Leaders breathe life into visions—through vivid language and an expressive style. Their own enthusiasm and excitement are contagious and spread from the leader to constituents. Their belief in and enthusiasm for the vision are the sparks that ignite the flame of inspiration. Leaders uplift people’s spirits with an ennobling perspective about why they should strive to be better than they are today.
Challenge the Process
Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the
inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.
Leaders are pioneers—they are willing to step out into the unknown. The work of leaders is change, and the status quo is unacceptable to them. They search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve. But leaders need not always be the creators or originators. In fact, it’s just as likely that they’re not. Sometimes a dramatic external event thrusts an organization into a radically new condition. Therefore, leaders must remain open to receiving ideas from anyone and anywhere. The leader’s primary contribution is in recognizing and supporting good ideas and in being willing to challenge the system to get new products, processes, services, and systems adopted.
Leaders are early supporters and adopters of innovation. Leaders know well that innovation and challenge involve experimentation, risk, and even failure. Experiments don’t always work out as planned. People often make mistakes when they try something new. Instead of trying to fix blame for mistakes, leaders learn from them and encourage others to do the same. Leaders understand that the key that unlocks the door to opportunity is learning, especially in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, problems shape leaders. Leaders are learners.
Change can be stressful, so leaders must also create a climate in which people are psychologically hardy—in which they feel in charge of change. Part of creating a psychologically hardy team is making sure that the magnitude of change isn’t overwhelming. Leaders provide energy and generally approach change through incremental steps and small wins. Little victories, when piled on top of each other, build confidence that even the greatest challenges can be met. In so doing they strengthen commitment to the long-term future. Extraordinary things don’t get done in huge leaps forward. They get done one step at a time.
Enable Others to Act
Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.
At the very heart of cooperation is trust. Leaders help create a trusting cli- mate. They understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts. When leadership is understood as a relationship founded on trust and confidence, people take risks; make changes; and keep programs, organizations, and movements alive. Without trust and confidence, people do not take risks. Without risks, there is no change.
Creating a climate in which people are involved and feel important is at the heart of strengthening others. It’s essentially the process of turning constituents into leaders themselves—making people capable of acting on their own initiative. Leaders know that people do their best when they feel a sense of personal power and ownership. Commitment-and-support structures have replaced command-and-control structures.
The work of leaders is making people feel strong, capable, informed, and connected. Exemplary leaders use their power in service of others; they en- able others to act, not by hoarding the power they have, but by giving it away. When people have more discretion, more authority, and more information, they’re much more likely to use their energies to produce extraordinary results that serve everyone’s best interests.
Encourage the Heart
Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.
Exemplary leaders set high standards and have high expectations of their organizations. Leaders also expect the best of people and create self-fulfilling prophecies about how ordinary people can produce extraordinary results. By paying attention, offering encouragement, personalizing appreciation, and maintaining a positive outlook, student leaders stimulate, rekindle, and focus people’s energies.
Part of the leader’s job is to show appreciation for people’s contributions and to create a climate of celebration. Encouragement can come from dramatic gestures or simple actions. Leaders know that, in a winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts. Public celebrations let everyone know that “We’re all in this together.”
Yet recognition and celebration aren’t simply about fun and games. Neither are they about pretentious ceremonies designed to create some phony sense of camaraderie. Encouragement is a curiously serious business. By celebrating people’s accomplishments visibly and in group settings, leaders create and sustain team spirit; by basing celebrations on the accomplishment of key values and milestones, they sustain people’s focus. Encouraging the Heart is how leaders visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance and behavior with cherished values. Leaders know that celebrations and rituals, when done with authenticity and from the heart, build a strong sense of collective identity and community spirit that can carry a group through turbulent and difficult times. Caring is at the heart of leadership.