Leadership Challenge -- Leadership Credibility
The catalyst of all successful leadership is trust and the ability to stay consistent, transparent and honest even in the midst of exceptionally challenging and stressful situations. Paradoxically this is why there is such a crisis of confidence in leadership today; the landscape many companies and their leaders travel over daily is uncharted and it takes exceptional insight, intellectual, maturity and leadership skill to stay on course. The four characteristics as defined by Kouzes and Posner (2012) are how honest, forward-looking, inspiring and competent a leader is as perceived by their subordinates and peers. Contrasting these attributes are the skills and trait-based approaches defined by Northouse (2013). The skills-based frameworks that supports much of the theoretical models of leadership Northouse relies on to explain his theories lacks a definition of how leaders mature over time however. Taken to an extreme, the skills and traits-based approaches that Northouse defines and uses extensively throughout his analysis and recommendations on leadership lack a clear path of maturation for a leader. Contrasting this is the deliberate definition of a progression of leadership maturity throughout many of the concepts and frameworks Kouzes and Posner (2012) discuss. The intent of this analysis is to evaluate how the four leadership characteristics as defined by Kouzes and Posner are indicative of a skills or trait-based approach to leadership development. Leaders reported to and worked with are also presented as part of this analysis to more fully explain and illustrate the concepts. Ultimately leadership is about getting an exponential increase in organizational performance by enabling every member of a team to excel. Examples provides illustrate how excellent leaders are very adept at dealing with exceptional uncertainty while providing a strong foundation of trust with their teams. Great leaders find a way to achieve even in the midst of chaotic, turbulent times.
Analysis of the Four Leadership Characteristics
Of the many conceptual and theoretical frameworks that support much of Kouzes and Posner's theories and frameworks (2012), the series of four leadership characteristics are the most significant from the standpoint of bridging the theoretical to the practical. These four attributes of honesty, forward-thinking or visionary leaders, inspiring leaders who are genuinely excited about the future, and those with deep competence are the ones who can gain acceptance, trust and commitment on the part of their teams. What is also so powerful about these four characteristics of leadership is that they unify the logic and emotion of a subordinate at the same time, encompassing both logic and emotion. These four attributes are universally seen as determinants of leadership competence and therefore are also excellent indicators of the capability of a leader to gain and grow trust with subordinates as well (Kouzes, Posner, 2012).
Beginning with honesty, this trait is the foundation of how trust must be created and kept for a leader to remain effective. This is paradoxically much more difficult than it appears from a practical standpoint however as leaders in organizations often have a significantly greater depth and complexity available to them relative to their subordinates. Much of this information contains data that if let out to subordinates, could lead to a questioning of a company's direction, prospects and hiring plans. It takes an exceptional leader to hold such essential data to the operations of a business in confidence while still striving for honesty with their subordinates. The more this trait is observed in organizations on a person level, the more of an appreciation one gets for emotional and intellectual maturity of knowing how to navigate what one says and does. This characteristic of honesty also has a maturity dimension to it, which is an attribute many of the skill- and trait-based approaches lack (Northouse, 2013). While honesty is unequivocal in its role as a foundational element of trust in a leader, the maturation of a manager who plans, organizes, leads and controls to a true leader who transforms organizations is more evident in this characteristic than its comparable skill or trait. That's because honesty is learned and the ability to stay within the boundaries of confidentiality is an aspect of leadership maturity.
The second characteristic is the capability of being forward-thinking. Like honesty, this is a characteristic that matures over time. Leaders who are forward thinking may have attained their level of insight and acumen through a combination of skills and traits, yet the maturation of this skill set can take years and potentially decades (Kouzes, Posner, 2012). Forward-thinking leaders may have this trait from an innate perspective. It is more likely that the ability to perceive causality in diverse events in learned over time however. Forward-thinking leaders often have several other complimentary...
Often the most effective transformational leaders have the ability to situational apply their forward-thinking perspective to overcome complexity, risk and uncertainty so that an organization still accomplishes its goals despite obstacles. This ability to combine a forward-thinking mindset with transformational leadership skill makes its classification as a characteristic more accurate than considering it a trait alone. Finally, forward-thinking leadership and its effectiveness is best learned over decades of experience, which further supports its classification as a characteristic
(Kouzes, Posner, 2012).
The ability of a leader to inspire is essential for their ability to motivate. Many excellent leaders inspire by the actions and sacrifices they make. Exceptional leaders inspire through example and will often sacrifice many opportunities for recognition so their subordinates can excel and gain the limelight. Inspirational leaders make exceptional sacrifices for their teams. They routinely act with intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integration and sociality, in short all the aspects of a trait-based leadership approach (Northouse, 2013). These traits however aren't enough. There needs to be a core component of EI to guide the decision of how best to address a given situation. This is the one characteristic that is very situationally driven and defies easy categorization as either a skill, trait or characteristic.
Finally there is the issue of a leader's competency. In the 21st century where the pace of technological change is accelerating daily, great leaders have a passion for learning and teaching. They freely share their expertise with their subordinates, looking to enrich them in the process. Competency is also measured in how effective a leader is in making their own subordinates reach higher level of mastery in their roles as well.
Seeing Leadership Characteristics, Skills and Traits
Of the many leaders worked with, one is particularly memorable as a leader. This person ran the product marketing organization and had a very clear vision of what could be accomplished, how, and was passionate in explaining to everyone how vital their role was in making it happen. I found myself speeding to work in the morning just to make a contribution and see how we could get more done. This leader energized a diverse group of marketing, development and sales teams to a common goal of excelling in a new market. By relying heavily on EI-based skills and being able to quickly move across the spectrum of leadership characteristics, this leader was instrumental in a product division growing to over $600M in revenue in 18 months. People were asking to work for this leader over time as well. He made everyone see their contribution and he honored their effort and commitment too. It was impressive to watch how EI-based skills were used to navigate across these characteristics. While he had a core skill set, it's clear that over time these characteristics of leadership emerged as lessons were learned and the leader progressed in their career.
In conclusion, my own personal experience of relying on the leadership characteristic of honesty. I had a department reporting to me and there was bad news about the company's performance being shared at my level of the organization and above. As conditions worsened it was clear there would be layoffs and even the possibility of paychecks bouncing. I chose to protect my department and told them that layoffs were coming and that they should cash their paychecks immediately. I also told them to start looking for new jobs and I would cover for them. Thankfully fifteen of my sixteen direct reports' paychecks cleared. The one that did not was the department's most senior person. I was able to immediately go to the CFO and get his pay however, which was a relief for me as I felt responsible for him. It was a very stressful experience but it taught me to always look out for my subordinates first and tell them the truth. Today I am still in contact with many of them and thankfully they are doing well. It is gratifying to see them sidestep what could have been a major disruption of their lives by choosing to be honest beyond what was required of me as their manager and leader.
Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge (5th ed.). San…
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