Ten truths about leadership

Context is constantly shifting. But the content of leadership has not changed much at all.

Now that millennials are entering organizations in increasingly large numbers, many have grown intensely curious about generational differences, and they keep asking our advice on how they and their young colleagues should lead in these challenging times. So we did what we’ve done in the past, as all good academics do: We reviewed the existing literature, conducted studies, and gathered data. We brought together focus groups of millennials and explored their values, work perspectives, and what they wanted to know about leadership. We found that essentially they wanted to know what every generation has wanted to know. Age made no difference in our findings, nor did subsequent studies around the globe reveal that geography matter.

Much has, and is, changing in the world, but there’s a whole lot more that’s stayed the same. Lessons true when we first began researching and writing about leadership over three decades ago are true today, and will be true 30 years from now. They speak to what the newest and youngest leaders need to appreciate and understand about leading themselves and others. They speak just as meaningfully to the oldest and most experienced leaders. They are true regardless of your place in the hierarchy or location on the GPS.

1. You make a difference.
It is the most fundamental truth of all. Before you can lead, you have to believe that you can have a positive impact on others. You have to believe in yourself. That’s where it all begins. Leadership begins when you believe you can make a difference.

2. Credibility is the foundation of leadership.
You have to believe in you, but others have to believe in you too. What does it take? Short answer: Credibility. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe your message and willingly follow you.

3. Values drive commitment.
People want to know what you stand for and believe in. They want to know what you value. And leaders need to know what others value if they are going to be able to forge alignments between personal values and organizational demands.

4. Focusing on the future sets leaders apart.
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competence of leaders. You have to take the long-term perspective. Gain insight from reviewing your past and develop outsight by looking around.

5. You can’t do it alone.
No leader ever got anything extraordinary done without the talent and support of others. Leadership is a team sport, and you need to engage others in the cause. What strengthens and sustains the relationship between leader and constituent is that leaders are obsessed with what is best for others, not what is best for them.

6. Trust rules.
If you can’t do it alone and have to rely on others, what’s needed to make that happen? Trust. Trust is the social glue that holds individuals and groups together. And the level of trust others have in you will determine the amount of influence you have. You have to earn your constituents’ trust before they’ll be willing to trust you. That means you have to give trust before you can get trust.

7. Challenge is the crucible for greatness.
Exemplary leaders—the kind of leaders people want to follow—are always associated with changing the status quo. Great achievements don’t happen when you keep things the same. Change invariably involves challenge, and challenge tests you. It introduces you to yourself, bringing you face-to-face with your level of commitment, your grittiness, and your values.

8. You either lead by example or you don’t lead at all.
Leaders have to keep their promises and become role models for the values and actions they espouse. You have to go first as a leader. You can’t ask others to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.

9. The best leaders are the best learners.
You have to believe that you (and others) can learn to lead, and that you can become a better leader tomorrow than you are today. Leaders are constant improvement fanatics. Learning takes time and attention, practice and feedback, along with good coaching.

10. Leadership is an affair of the heart.
Leaders are in love with their constituents, their customers, and the mission that they are serving. Leaders make others feel important and are gracious in showing their appreciation. Love is the motivation that energizes leaders to give so much for others. You just won’t work hard enough to become great if you aren’t doing what you love.

James M. Kouzes is an executive fellow at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business; Barry Z. Posner is a professor of leadership in the Leavey School of Business and served 1997—2008 as dean of the business school. Adapted from The Truth About Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

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