What Do People Want in a Leader?

Jeffrey J. Anderson

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“How do I become a great leader?” It’s a question I hear every day from senior business executives as well as current and prospective MBA students. Why does this remain such a puzzle? Organizations spend billions of dollars each year on leadership development and there are more than 130,000 books on leadership available at Amazon. Shouldn’t the answer be abundantly clear?

I believe that the solution starts with asking the right question – “what do people want from you as a leader?” In the same way that a good strategy starts with an outside/in perspective, the path to effective leadership begins by looking through the eyes of followers.

Leaders Don’t Need to be Experts

James Kouzes and Barry Posner have spent over 30 years asking employees around the world about the attributes they most want in a leader. The answers are pretty surprising. It’s not about technical expertise or intelligence; it’s not even about ambition or determination.

Rather, people consistently say they want their leaders to be honest, forward-looking, competent, and inspiring.

These attributes – honest, forward-looking, competent, and inspiring – create a strong bond of trust. They help people see and connect with the future. They help them be truly energized by the work they are doing. In the end, they make us want to follow someone.

Being the best accountant or engineer takes skill and experience, but it doesn’t gain you admiration. Supporting employees, being transparent about goals and challenges, and providing a vision will attract committed followers.

Do Managers Matter?

Google, an organization which has long prided itself on attracting the most technically gifted employees, set out several years ago to answer this question. They found that leadership mattered, but not at all in the way they first thought. Their results were remarkably similar to the work of Kouzes and Posner. Technical expertise was at the bottom of the most important behaviors/traits.

In qualitative terms, Google found that their best managers were good coaches who empowered their teams by tuning into their employees’ needs and goals. They were willing to pitch in and work side-by-side with their team, but also focused on creating an environment under which employees could succeed professionally and personally. In turn, these teams delivered creative solutions to big challenges, met budget and schedule goals and were consistently happier and more fulfilled.

Are You a Leader?

Step back and look at your leadership style. How are you spending your time? How do you engage with others? Are you leading with your expertise and spending too much time trying to do other people’s jobs? Are you empowering employees to do their best work or are you micromanaging? Do you have the values your employees respect? Are you inspiring them to reach their potential?

Several years ago a group of students I was working with coined the phrase – “leadership is not about you, but it starts with you.” Perhaps this holds the secret to becoming an effective leader. It starts by letting go of your need to be the technical expert and turning your attention to the needs of those around you.



Jeff Anderson, President & CEO, LFGSM



Jeffrey J. Anderson
President & Chief Executive Officer,
Lake Forest Graduate School of Management




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