Who Are You Following and Why?

There are some people who are so respected for their leadership that they have a following of men and women who want to be a part of their team. People respect them so much that they will leave a job, change a career or close a business to go work for that gifted leader.

Over thirty years ago, two leaders and authors, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, wanted to understand the characteristics, traits and values that people look for in a person they would willingly follow.

They sent a questionnaire to several hundred business and government leaders. They received over 200 different values, traits and characteristics that people look for in a person they would follow. Using content analysis and independent judges, they narrowed the list to the 20 you see below.

Before you read further, review the list and pick seven characteristics that you look for in a leader you admire, someone you would follow willingly because you want to, not because you have to. There are no wrong answers.

Independent                       Determined                           Imaginative
Self-Controlled                    Ambitious                             Inspiring
Broad-Minded                     Cooperative                           Honest
Straightforward                   Forward Looking                    Fair-Minded
Mature                               Caring                                   Loyal
Competent                         Courageous                           Dependable
Intelligent                                                                       Supportive

If you selected your seven, you just took the survey. If you haven’t picked your seven, do it now before you read further.

From the list, they developed a survey and have administered it to well over 100,000 people around the globe. The one-page survey asks people to select seven qualities, from the 20, they most look for in a leader they would “willingly” follow.

The survey was first published in 1987 and has been continuously updated. Subsequent surveys and results were published in 1995, 2002, 2007 and 2012.

The results of the survey have been strikingly similar. Which means that what people look for in a leader has remained the same over the past two decades. Four characteristics have been the top four every time the survey was conducted. One has been the top vote getter every time. Here are the top four of the most recent survey, published in 2012. They appear in reverse order.

  1. Inspiring. What inspires people can be subjective, but one common element about leaders who inspire is their presence. Leaders awaken us to new possibilities and can transform us. Leaders who inspire are a bit of a cheerleader. It involves positive talk, empowering others to act, sharing knowledge, and enabling creativity. It can’t be willed – it happens. Inspiration comes from the heart. One CEO’s message to his employees was “Bring your heart to work.”
  1. Competent. Leadership competencies are skills and behaviors that contribute to superior performance. They include managing change, solving problems and making decisions. Competent leaders have a positive track record and get things done. They know their industry, their company and the operations of their company.
  1. Forward-Looking. An idealistic vision motivates us. We want our leaders to take us toward something consequential and noble. People will follow those who can articulate where they are taking the company, and subsequently its employees. Good leaders create a vision, articulate it and own it passionately.
  1. Honest. We want our leaders to be honest, to tell us their values and show their integrity. If we follow leaders who are dishonest, it is a reflection on us. Honesty is the most important leadership characteristic. Honesty is about integrity and character. It is about knowing right from wrong and not misleading others.

Embedded in these characteristics is the natural thing we all do as humans: communicate. When we have the opportunity and responsibility to lead, communicating effectively is essential. Effective communication is vital in your journey to leadership success.

Practicing these characteristics and communicating them effectively will help you develop a cadre of individuals who will follow you.

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