5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership

UPDATED: January 5, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 2, 2017

We’ve been conducting original, global research for more than 30 years. When we ask leaders to tell us about their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences—experiences that they believe are their individual standards of excellence—there are thousands of success stories. We’ve found them in profit-based firms and nonprofits, agriculture and mining, manufacturing and utilities, banking and healthcare, government and education, and the arts and community service.

These leaders are employees and volunteers, young and old, women and men. Leadership knows no racial or religious bounds, no ethnic or cultural borders. Leaders reside in every city and every country, in every function and every organization. We find exemplary leadership everywhere we look.

Related: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

We’ve also found that in excellent organizations, everyone, regardless of title or position, is encouraged to act like a leader. In these places, people don’t just believe that everyone can make a difference, they act in ways to develop and grow people’s talents, including their leadership. They don’t subscribe to the many myths that keep people from developing their leadership capabilities, and organizations from creating leadership cultures.

One of the greatest myths about leadership is that some people have it and some don’t. A corollary myth is that if you don’t have it, then you can’t learn it. Neither could be further from the empirical truth. After reflecting on their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences, people come to the same conclusion as Tanvi Lotwala, a revenue accountant at Bloom Energy: “All of us are born leaders. We all have leadership qualities ingrained. All we need is polishing them up and bringing them to the forefront. It is an ongoing process to develop ourselves as a leader, but unless we take on the leadership challenges presented to us on a daily basis, we cannot become better at it.”

One of the greatest myths about leadership is that some people have it and some don’t.

We first asked people in the early 1980s to tell us what they did when they were at their “personal best” leading others, and we continue to ask this question of people around the world. After analyzing thousands of these leadership experiences, we discovered—and continue to find—that regardless of the times or settings, individuals who guide others along pioneering journeys follow surprisingly similar paths. Although each experience was unique in its individual expression, there were clearly identifiable behaviors and actions that made a difference. When making extraordinary things happen in organizations, leaders engage in what we call The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.

These practices are not the private purview of the people we studied. Nor do they belong to a few select shining stars. Leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior. The Five Practices are available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge—the challenge of taking people and organizations to places they have never been before. It is the challenge of moving beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary.

The Five Practices framework is not an accident of a special moment in history. It has passed the test of time. Although the context of leadership has changed dramatically over the years, the content of leadership has not changed much at all. The fundamental behaviors and actions of leaders have remained essentially the same, and they are as relevant today as they were when we began our study of exemplary leadership. The truth of each individual Personal-Best Leadership Experience, multiplied thousands of times and substantiated empirically by millions of respondents and hundreds of scholars, establishes The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership as an operating system for leaders everywhere.

Related: 10 Qualities of Masterful Leaders

1. Model the way.

Titles are granted, but your behavior earns you respect. Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others. To model the behavior they expect of others, leaders must first be clear about guiding principles. They must clarify values. Leaders must find their own voice, and then they must clearly and distinctively give voice to their values. As the personal-best stories illustrate, leaders are supposed to stand up for their beliefs, so they’d better have some beliefs to stand up for.

But it’s not just the leader’s values that are important. Leaders aren’t just representing themselves. They speak and act on behalf of a larger organization. When Terry Callahan asks, “How can I help you?” he means it. When Miller Valentine Group, a real estate solution provider, needed to make an important community grand opening event happen in record time, it required an “all hands on deck” effort. What surprised the team the most was when Callahan removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and literally got down and dirty as he started mulching the landscape.

“Terry taught me that leadership is not about titles and ranks,” one of his direct reports says, “but about personal responsibility and setting a positive example.” Terry sets the example through daily actions that demonstrate he is deeply committed to their beliefs.

2. Inspire a shared vision.

People describe their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences as times when they imagined an exciting, highly attractive future for their organizations. They had visions and dreams of what could be. They had absolute and total personal faith in their dreams, and they were confident in their abilities to make those extraordinary things happen. Every organization, every social movement, begins with a vision. It is the force that creates the future.

Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. You need to have an appreciation of the past and a clear image of what the results should look like even before starting any project, much as an architect draws a blueprint or an engineer builds a model. As Ajay Aggrawal, an information technology project manager for Oracle, says, “You have to connect to what’s meaningful to others and create the belief that people can achieve something grand. Otherwise, people might fail to see how their work is meaningful and their contributions fit into the big picture.”

Leaders have to enlist others in a common vision. To enlist people in a vision, leaders must know their constituents and speak their language. People must believe that leaders understand their needs and have their interests at heart. Leadership is a dialogue, not a monologue. To enlist support, leaders must have intimate knowledge of people’s dreams, hopes, aspirations, visions and values.

3. Challenge the process.

Challenge is the crucible for greatness. Every single personal-best leadership case involved a change from the status quo. Not one person achieved a personal-best by keeping things the same. Regardless of the specifics, they all involved overcoming adversity and embracing opportunities to grow, innovate and improve.

Leaders venture out. None of the individuals in our study sat idly by waiting for fate to smile upon them. Leaders are pioneers. They are willing to step out into the unknown. They search for opportunities to innovate, grow and improve. But leaders aren’t the only creators or originators of new products, services or processes. Leaders know well that innovation and change involve experimenting and taking risks. Despite the inevitability of mistakes and failures, leaders proceed anyway.

One way of dealing with the potential risks and failures of experimentation is to approach change through incremental steps and small wins. Success in any endeavor isn’t a process of simply buying enough lottery tickets. Life is the leader’s laboratory, and exemplary leaders use it to conduct as many experiments as possible. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. That’s the leader’s mantra.

4. Enable others to act.

Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of a single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and enduring relationships. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability, which begins, as Sushma Bhope, co-founder of Stealth Technology Startup, employed, “by empowering those around you.” She concluded, just as many others had when reviewing their personal-best experiences that “no one could have this done this alone. It was essential to be open to all ideas and to give everyone a voice in the decision-making process. The one guiding principle on the project was that the team was larger than any individual on the team.”

Leaders foster collaboration and build trust. Leaders make it possible for others to do good work. They know that those who are expected to produce the results must feel a sense of personal power and ownership. Exemplary leaders work to make people feel strong, capable and committed. Leaders enable others to act not by hoarding the power they have, but by giving it away. Exemplary leaders strengthen everyone’s capacity to deliver on the promises they make.

5. Encourage the heart.

The climb to the top is arduous and steep, and people become exhausted, frustrated and disenchanted. They are often tempted to give up. Genuine acts of caring draw people forward, which is an important lesson Denise Straka, vice president of corporate insurance for Calpine, took away from her Personal-Best Leadership Experience: “People want to know that their managers believe in them and in their abilities to get a job done. They want to feel valued by their employers, and acknowledging an accomplishment is a great way to demonstrate their value.”

Recognizing contributions can be one-to-one or with many people. It can come from dramatic gestures or simple actions.

It’s part of the leader’s job to show appreciation for people’s contributions and to create a culture of celebrating values and victories. In the cases we collected, we saw thousands of examples of individual recognition and group celebration. Encouragement is, curiously, serious business. It’s how leaders visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance. When striving to raise quality, recover from disaster, start up a new service or make dramatic change of any kind, leaders make sure people see the benefit of behavior that’s aligned with cherished values.

Related: 5 Things Strong Leaders Do

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 6th Edition by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Copyright (c) 2017 by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Barry Z. Posner is Accolti Professor of Leadership and former dean of the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. An accomplished scholar, he also provides leadership workshops and seminars worldwide. Posner and James M. Kouzes are the authors of the award-winning and best-selling book The Leadership Challenge, now in its sixth edition, which has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide and is available in 22 languages.