I love leadership because when done well, it can truly make the world a better place. As I write this, I am in the midst of teaching a university course on leadership. The primary book we are using is a superb primer on leadership entitled, The Leadership Challenge, and it is based on over 30 years of research by James Kouzes and Barry Posner from Santa Clara University. Their study of what practices the best leaders do has included input from over one million people! The Leadership Challenge is about leaders mobilizing others to want to get extraordinary things in an organization. I say, let's rise up to the leadership challenge and help make positive differences in the workplaces and the world we engage in!

Kouzes and Posner have identified five key practices (what they call “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership”) that when done consistently will lead to great results — for the leader and her team members, and the stakeholders that the team serves. In fact, the leaders that consistently perform the five practices have 95.8% of their direct reports that are highly engaged, compared to only 4.2% of direct reports that are highly engaged when their leaders only use the five practices occasionally. Using these five practices can increase high engagement 23 times compared to not using regularly! The experiences of myself, my students, and other managers certainly are in line with these statistics.

Before looking at these five important practices, let's discuss the four most desired characteristics that people look for in their leaders. Keep in mind John Maxwell’s statement that, “People buy into the leaders before they buy into the vision.” After 30 years of research and after a million-plus surveys, these four characteristics consistently rise to the top of what people desire:

Honest (aka integrity, authenticity). First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest, authentic, and acts with integrity.

Competent. People want a leader who has a track record and ability to get things done.

Inspiring. People desire a leader who is enthusiastic, passionate, and positive about future possibilities.

Forward-looking. People expect leaders to have a sense of direction and concern for the future. Leaders must know where they are going if they want others to join them on the journey.

Kouzes and Posner suggest that credibility is the foundation of leadership, and I agree! I teach the 3 Cs approach to being a successful leader: Character, Competence, and Chemistry. The four characteristics above speak to character; the five practices below speak to leadership competence, and chemistry involves pursuing positive relationships and leading with love. Leaders inspire and mobilize others to want to act because of the credibility we have.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership

Model the Way. The starting place for modeling the way is for us to clarify our own key values and leadership philosophy. I aspire to be a servant leader, which, in a nutshell, emphasizes that leaders are here to serve others, and not have the traditional perspective that others are here to serve us. Along with clarifying our personal values, we need to identify and affirm shared values within our team(s). Once values are clarified, the next key commitment we need is to set a positive example. This includes consistently following the identified values, and when we occasionally fall short, being humble and transparent and admitting our shortcomings. Remember, people desire honest, authentic leaders who lead and act with integrity.

Inspire a Shared Vision. To be an exemplary leader that inspires people, we must be able to imagine a positive future. The best leaders are forward-looking and envision a future that excites people and motivates them to want to pursue it. But the vision of a better future can’t belong only to the leader – it must be owned and shared by the team members. As leaders, we must develop and inspire a shared vision. Ken Blanchard counseled, “The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision.”

To develop a shared vision, we must listen carefully to what people have to say and how they feel. When we involve people in developing a future vision and related goals, we get two main benefits: 1) buy-in (sense of ownership) and 2) a higher quality product compared to us as leaders developing a vision and goals in a vacuum. When promoting the vision, we need to not only appeal to people’s “heads,” we also need to appeal to people’s “hearts” (emotions). Explaining how the vision benefits others is one way to appeal to hearts and build more enthusiasm among our team members.

Challenge the Process. We need to look for opportunities to make positive changes to improve our processes and better serve our stakeholders. Many of the best ideas to make improvements can come from our front-line team members that are doing the bulk of the work. How do we get these ideas? Ask them. We also should be looking for ideas outside our organization. We have multiple sources we can utilize: trade journals (like this one!), professional organizations like PCCs and MSMA, conferences like National Postal Forum and MAILCOM, and books (like Your Team Can Soar! Sorry for the shameless plug!). We also need to experiment and take risks. My philosophy is to “be reasonably leading edge, but not bleeding edge.” Another tip: generate small wins and celebrate them when they come. Small improvements that are recognized can build momentum and lead to bigger successes down the road.

Enable Others to Act. Great success is never achieved through the actions of a single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. We need to foster a culture of collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships. Remember the saying, “there is no I in team!” Or, as Andrew Carnegie stated, “No man will be a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

We can build trust by extending trust to others, showing concern for people, sharing knowledge and information, being honest, and doing what we say we will do. We can build better relationships by practicing the Golden Rule (treating others positively like we appreciate) and practicing the 3 Rs (Recognize people for who they are and the value they bring; Reward people in ways they appreciate; and show Respect). We also need to strengthen others by providing helpful training and development opportunities, and by positive coaching that builds competence and confidence.

Encourage the Heart. Genuine acts of caring draw people forward. People want to feel valued and esteemed by their leaders. I agree with Sam Walton’s statement, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” One way to help people feel valued is to recognize their contributions. And to make recognition valued, we should personalize it whenever possible, and be specific, timely, and sincere. A common complaint about recognition is that it’s often mundane, impersonal, and not sincere. Let’s avoid falling into that trap! People also want to feel they are part of a winning team, so let’s make sure we take time to celebrate the victories and accomplishments along the way.

The closing statement by Kouzes and Posner really resonates with me: “The best-kept secret of successful leaders is love: staying in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what their organizations provide, and with those who honor the organization by using its products and services.”

Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award winning University Instructor and Speaker, and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. He serves as the Industry Co-Chair of the Greater Portland PCC.

His book, Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you—and your team—soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer. Wes can be contacted at wesmfriesen@gmail.com or at 971-806-0812.

This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.