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Leadership: 5 practices of effective leaders

Effective Leadership

In any senior manager’s career, the transition from manager to leader can be a tricky one.

In any manager’s career, the transition to leader can be tricky. How do you lift yourself up from the operational to the strategic? What are the secrets to providing visionary leadership? How can you inspire and lead change in your organisation? One practical answer is Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices. This article explains the model and how it can help you transform your own impact as a leader.

Management vs Leadership

Managers at all levels are now expected to be able to step up to be leaders in a range of circumstances. It’s not simply something expected of CEOs or the most senior managers.

There are a host of definitions of management and leadership – and certainly too many to mention in this article. At =mc we often use two of the simplest definitions offered by management guru Peter Drucker:

  • Leadership: from an ancient Greek word meaning pathmaker
  • Management: from an ancient Greek word meaning pathfollower

Drucker also speaks about managers doing things right, and leaders doing the right thing.

At =mc we’ve translated Drucker’s ideas onto some key activities shared by managers and leaders, such as planning, resources, and people management.

Issue Manager Leader
Planning Sequence and task Overview and result
Thinking Assess risk and be rational Challenge and be intuitive
People Supervise and support Motivate and encourage
Change Maintain status quo Actively promote change
Resources Allocate and monitor Identify and seek out
Focus Detail conscious Big picture

The implication of the pathmaker/pathfollower distinction is that as managers we have to be concerned with organising stable systems, ensuring quality, and identifying and implementing best practice. Whereas as leaders we need to be concerned about creativity and innovation, making positive changes and seeking to challenge and push boundaries.

And with the ‘do the right thing’ distinction we can see the importance of choice and vision. At the same time once a choice is made it’s essential that ‘things are done well’ – that is, the choice is executed well, and that others are engaged in delivery.

However, even this approach doesn’t necessary help us to indentify what exactly we have to do. And that’s where Leadership Practices comes in.

Five practices of effective leaders

If you think there are a lot of definitions of leadership then you might be very concerned by the number of models there are to explain what leaders actually do.

However, there is a practical model that works effectively within a range of public bodies and charities we’ve worked with. The model is Leadership Practices, developed by two researchers, Kouzes and Posner, from original work by Tom Peters.

Kouzes and Posner’s research was carried out over an initial five year period with over 1,000 high performing leaders – and importantly with their ‘followers’ too – establishing what made them successful.

Combining the two perspectives, the research project involved asking leaders and followers questions around:

  • what qualities individual leaders believed they needed when they were at their most successful
  • what qualities those who were being led believed were important when they felt themselves being well led

The research team’s analysis of the data revealed a pattern of agreement between leaders and those being led about the behaviours that underpinned action when people were accomplishing extraordinary things in organisations. These were then codified as the five practices of leadership. The specific practices needed and their characteristics can vary according to the challenges you face, but at some point you’ll have to access them all.

When working at their best, leaders and followers said leaders challenged, inspired, enabled, modelled and encouraged. And they did this through committing themselves to particular sets of behaviour and values. In the 20 years since the model was first developed, Kouzes and Posner have clearly established that these behaviours were an observable and learnable set of practices. They developed training that ensured anyone prepared to spend time developing the practices could become excellent at them. =mc has built on this training and we now use the model extensively in our in-house and open work.

Kouzes and Posner also developed a 360º Inventory to help establish individuals’:

  • current level of competence – as perceived by them and others – in each practice
  • where they need to develop to empower their team and deliver for the organisation

Note that Kouzes and Posner call them practices – that is, these qualities only manifest themselves when people actually do them.

The Five Practices

Here in more detail are the five practices and their implications for leaders.

1. Challenge the process

Kouzes and Posner’s research found that leaders thrive on and learn from adversity and difficult situations. They are risk takers who regard failure – where not caused by poor performance – as a useful chance to learn and innovate. They are also early adopters. They seek out things that appear to work and then insist that they are improved. They challenge 24/7.

This practice suggests that we shouldn’t be content to do ‘business as usual’. As a leader you need to:

  • Seek challenging opportunities to change, grow, innovate, and improve at a personal and organisational level
  • Experiment, take risks, and encourage others to do so. Create a culture in which people feel able to learn from the accompanying mistakes

Consider what part of your organisation’s work you need to challenge – even those parts that seem to work. Do you drive ideas you want to implement and allow others to share theirs? Are you prepared to take risks and allow others to do so?

2. Inspire a shared vision

Kouzes and Posner found in their research that people are motivated most not by fear or reward, but by ideas that capture their imagination. This is not so much about having a vision, but communicating it effectively so that others take it on board. Great leaders are future-orientated and seek to energise others by passion, enthusiasm and emotion. They want to bring people on board with this sense of shared purpose.

They will:

  • Create a vision of an uplifting and ennobling future where individuals feel energised by the orgaisational or team vision
  • Enlist others in this common vision by appealing to their values, interests, hopes and dreams

It’s easy to concentrate too much on crafting the perfect words for a vision and mission, and not spend enough time on communicating it. Can you repeat your organisation’s mission? How hard do you try to share it with others?

3. Enable others to act

Leaders don’t seek to achieve it all themselves – they achieve results through others. But they do this not by simply repeating the vision mantra – encouragement and exhortation isn’t enough. People must feel able to act and then must be supported to put their ideas into action. Collaboration and relationship-based work is central to success.

As a leader you will need to:

  • Foster collaboration by promoting co-operative goals and building trust between leaders and team members, and between teams
  • Strengthen others by sharing information and power and by increasing their discretion and visibility

Who in your team or organisation needs help and encouragement to act? What would help them to act? Do you have a systematic process for developing people and helping them grow in confidence and competence?

4. Model the way

Modelling means being prepared to go first, living the behaviours you want others to adopt before asking them to adopt them. People will believe not what they hear leaders say, but what they see their leaders consistently do. Great leaders should, demonstrate the desired approach, and specifically:

  • Set an example for others by behaving in ways that are consistent with your values and those of your organisation
  • Plan small wins that promote progress in individuals and teams, then build on these to maintain momentum

Do you tighten your own budget belt before asking others to cut back on expenditure? If you’re in fundraising, do you donate to your own cause as an example of modelling the way?

5. Encourage the heart

Finally Kouzes and Posner established that people act best of all when they are passionate about what they’re doing. Leaders unleash the enthusiasm of their followers with stories and passions of their own. They enjoy celebrating successes – even small ones. They tackle difficult projects recognising others’ contributions. They:

  • seek out and recognise individual and team contributions to the success of every project.
  • celebrate team and individual accomplishments regularly – and look for engaging and novel ways to do so.

Have a think about your last staff newsletter or conference – did it meet this encouragement criterion? Was it exciting – or dull and safe? What could you do to encourage the heart at an organisational level?

By identifying your strengths and weaknesses across the five leadership practices, it’s possible to spot a relatively small number of areas you need to work on. Through awareness, coaching, practice and feedback, you can quickly make the transition from effective manager to outstanding leader.

What’s Next?

Kouzes and Posner also developed a 360° assessment questionnaire – the Leadership Practices Inventory. This tool scores leadership behaviour against the five practices. This powerful tool forms an important part of =mc’s Strategic Leadership and Transformational Leadership programmes.

If you’ve found this article helpful and you would like more information, please call +44 (0)20 7978 1516 and speak to one of our senior learning and development consultants or contact us online.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...