The Leadership Challenge

The Leadership Challenge

The book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner is considered to be one of the most influential books in the field of leadership. Now it has its 25th Anniversary Edition, which is the 5th edition of this significant book.

The most appealing aspect of the book is that it is data based with an extensive research. The authors administrated a questionnaire to over 75.000 people all around the globe, asking what qualities in a leader would inspire them to follow willingly (“What do they expect from a leader they would follow, not because they have to, but because they want to?”).

The results (which were updated throughout a period of more than twenty years) are showing that four characteristic constantly were on the top of the list with more than 60% of the votes. The conclusion was that for people to follow someone willingly, the leader must be considered as Honest, Forward-looking, Inspiring and Competent.

This post will take a closer look at each of the four attributes that compel people to follow a leader willingly. Here are some highlights from the book regarding these four characteristics. 


It’s clear that if people anywhere are to willingly follow someone—whether it’s into battle or into the boardroom, the front office or the front lines—they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust. They want to know that the person is truthful, ethical, and principled.

When people talk to us about the qualities they admire in leaders, they often use the terms integrity and character as synonymous with honesty. No matter what the setting, everyone wants to be fully confident in their leaders, and to be fully confident they have to believe that their leaders are individuals of strong character and solid integrity.

Honesty is strongly tied to values and ethics. We appreciate people who know where they stand on important principles. We resolutely refuse to follow those who lack confidence in their own beliefs. We simply don’t trust people who can’t or won’t disclose a clear set of values, ethics, and standards and live by them. 


A little more than 70 percent of our most recent respondents selected the ability to look ahead as one of their most sought-after leadership traits. People expect leaders to have a sense of direction and a concern for the future of the organization.

By forward-looking, people don’t mean the magical power of a prescient visionary. The reality is far more down to earth. It’s the ability to imagine or discover a desirable destination toward which the company, agency, congregation, or community should head. Vision reveals the beckoning summit that provides others with the capacity to chart their course toward the future. As constituents, we ask that a leader have a well-defined orientation toward the future. We want to know what the organization will look like, feel like, and be like when it arrives at its destination in six quarters or six years. We want to have it described to us in rich detail so that we can select the proper route for getting there and know when we’ve arrived. 


People expect their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic, and positive about the future. It’s not enough for a leader to have a dream. A leader must be able to communicate the vision in ways that encourage people to sign on for the duration and excite them about the cause. Although the enthusiasm, energy, and positive attitude of an exemplary leader may not change the content of work, they certainly can make the context more meaningful. Whatever the circumstances, when leaders breathe life into peoples’ dreams and aspirations, those people are much more willing to enlist in the movement.

Emotions are contagious, and positive emotions resonate throughout an organization and into relationships with other constituents. To get extraordinary things done in extraordinary times, leaders must inspire optimal performance—and that can only be fueled with positive emotions.


To enlist in a common cause, people must believe that the leader is competent to guide them where they’re headed. They must see the leader as having relevant experience and sound judgment. If they doubt the person’s abilities, they’re unlikely to join in the crusade.

Leadership competence refers to the leader’s track record and ability to get things done. This kind of competence inspires confidence that the leader will be able to guide the entire organization, large or small, in the direction in which it needs to go.

Relevant experience is a dimension of competence, one that is different from technical expertise. Experience is about active participation in situational, functional, and industry events and activities and the accumulation of knowledge derived from participation. Experience correlates with one’s track record, and the broader one’s experience, the more likely he or she is to be successful across organizations and industries.

What we found in our investigation of admired leadership qualities is that more than anything, people want to follow leaders who are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership.

Above all else, we as constituents must be able to believe in our leaders. We must believe that their word can be trusted, that they’re personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work that they’re doing, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.

Even so, although compelling visions are necessary for leadership, if the leader is not credible the message rests on a weak and precarious foundation. Leaders therefore must be ever-diligent in guarding their credibility. Their ability to take strong stands, to challenge the status quo, and to point us in new directions depends on their being highly credible. Leaders must never take their credibility for granted, regardless of the times or their positions. 

Because these findings about the characteristics of admired leaders—people we would willingly follow—have been so pervasive and so consistent, we’ve come to call this “The Kouzes-Posner First Law of Leadership”: If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message. 

A judgment of “credible” is handed down when words and deeds are consonant. If people don’t see consistency, they conclude that the leader is, at best, not really serious, or, at worst, an outright hypocrite. If leaders espouse one set of values but personally practice another, people find them to be duplicitous. If leaders practice what they preach, people are more willing to entrust them with their livelihood and even their lives.

This realization leads to a straightforward prescription for leaders on how to establish credibility. This is “The Kouzes-Posner Second Law of Leadership”: DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do.


T. N.