Becoming a Leader


September 25, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

I recently had the chance to talk with my good friend, award-winning author Jim Kouzes, about the publication of the fourth edition of his and co-author Barry Posner’s classic book, The Leadership Challenge. I’ve followed Jim and Barry’s work since the publication of the first edition in 1987. I consider The Leadership Challenge to be the best research-based book ever written in the field of leadership. It is also one of the best selling books on leadership ever published. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

One of the things I love about your book is that you have actually written it for the readers. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t chief executives. Most of your work is based on learnings from leaders at all levels, and it shows how every one of us can make a huge, positive difference in their organizations. 

Most of the leading that goes on in the world does not come from chief executive officers, presidents of companies, military generals, or famous people. Most of the day-to-day leading comes from ordinary folks, the everyday heroes of our world. When we’re at work – whether in the executive suite, the retail shop, the factory floor, the back room, a field operation, or the corporate headquarters – the person most likely to influence our performance, positively or negatively, is our most immediate manager.

That person is most likely to influence the trajectory of our careers, our ethical behavior, and our satisfaction with our jobs. If you’re a parent, teacher, coach, or community leader you are the person setting the example for young people. What this means, no matter what your level or role is that, to those closest to you, you are the most important leader in the organization. The “great person” theory of leadership is just plain wrong. If you have the desire and the will to train and practice, we know you can improve your abilities to lead. I think that’s a positive and affirmative message, and people are responding to it. Deep down, we all want to do a better job, and that’s what we’re trying to help people do.

That’s a very refreshing perspective. It suggests that each of us has to take more responsibility for the leading that we are doing and to stop looking up for the answers. 

Precisely. The question for each of us is not “Do I matter?” but “How do I matter? ” If others look to you for leadership, how are you doing in leading them right now? Not how is my boss doing, or how is the CEO doing, or how is that famous leader doing, but how am I doing?

So, if I am going to take more responsibility for leading and my own development as a leader, where do I start? 

You start by recognizing that leadership is a relationship. It’s a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. Any discussion of leadership has to consider the dynamics of the relationship between leader and constituent.

Okay, then. What are some of those dynamics? 

For over 25 years now, we’ve been asking people to tell us what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. The emphasis is on “willingly.” And what people tell us has been surprisingly constant over time. For people to follow someone willingly, the majority of constituents want the leader to be honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.

From our very first study until the present, honesty has been at the top of the list of what people admire in their leaders.

That’s not surprising. 

It’s clear that if people are to willingly follow someone – whether it’s into battle or into the boardroom, the front office or the front lines – they want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust. The second thing constituents expect from their leaders is a sense of direction, a clear vision of the future. We also expect our leaders to be energetic, enthusiastic, and positive about the future. And we also expect our leaders to have the competence to execute, that they have the capability to get the job done.

Three of these four attributes – honest, competent, and inspiring – add up to what communication researchers call “source credibility.” Credibility is the foundation of leadership. This finding has been so constant over time that we’ve come to refer to it as the First Law of Leadership: If you don’t believe in the messenger, then you won’t believe the message.

The fourth quality, forward-looking, is the one that distinguishes leaders from other credible people. It’s what makes the role of leader distinct. So, after 25 years, if I were to describe the essence of leadership in two words, those words would be credibility plus vision.

And what are the actions leaders must take to get extraordinary things done? 

Five practices of exemplary leadership have emerged from our research. When getting extraordinary things done, leaders:

2 Model the Way

2 Inspire a Shared Vision

2 Challenge the Process

2 Enable Others to Act, and

2 Encourage the Heart

Have these practices changed over the years? Do they differ across geography? 

We have found desired leadership practices to be remarkably consistent over the past thirty years – and around the world.

Based on your research, what do leaders need to do better? 

Each leader is unique. There is no single profile that looks exactly the same, so each of us needs to get the feedback we need to be able to answer that question for ourselves. However, three things jump out at me from our recent data analysis.

The practice in which the majority of leaders are the most deficient is Inspire a Shared Vision. And because being forward-looking is a prerequisite to leading – a full 72% of our respondents expect it, 88% at the most senior levels – it’s of even greater concern. Today’s leaders stink at the one practice that distinguishes leaders from other credible people. And those of us who help leaders become better at creating and communicating visions of the future stink at it, too. We need to focus a lot of attention on this practice, more so than any other.

One other thing. And this is something you will appreciate, Marshall, because of the work you do in executive coaching. The one leadership behavior on which leaders score the lowest from the constituents’ perspective is “He/she asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance.” So we are the poorest in a behavior that is absolutely essential to leadership improvement. How can we expect to do better than we’re now doing if we are not routinely asking others for feedback?

Thanks, Jim. And if our readers want to contact you for more information on becoming the best leaders they can be, how would they contact you? 

I’d be delighted to hear from them. I can be reached at