Changing Expectations of Leaders

During my 30 plus year career working in leadership development, there have been a couple of admired characteristics which high percentages of people continually said they looked for in their leaders. They are Forward-Looking and Inspiring. It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, leaders are people who step up to take us to places we have never been before. They are the ones who look out into the future and paint a compelling picture of a better tomorrow. And then they somehow must mobilize us to join them on that difficult and unpredictable path to get there.

Some recent survey data by authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge, 2023) have shown a change in peoples’ perspectives about these two characteristics. From their all-time highs of 75% and 69% respectively, Forward-Looking and Inspiring have dropped noticeably. In their latest round of research, Kouzes and Posner found that today only 53% of respondents say that Forward Looking is a most important characteristic, while 54% say the same about Inspiring.

So, my question to you – does this trouble or concern you in any way? Is it OK to accept that Forward-Looking and Inspiring are simply not as important for leaders as they once were? What do you think about this?

No matter the role or job title, success requires an individual to be competent and trustworthy. As vital as these are, they do not by themselves, make one a leader.  For me, I have always viewed the Forward-Looking piece as the key factor which separates leaders from everyone else. It is the leader who is responsible for clarifying and communicating where the organization is going and why it matters.

Without that vision thing, transformational change would occur on a much slower basis, if at all. Think about landing on the moon without Kennedy’s vision or the ongoing progress toward a more free and equal America without King’s dream. Or consider the movement of women in business without the trailblazing efforts of Mary Kay Ash or the prevalence of family enjoyment meccas without Disney’s imagination. Without vision, grand opportunities go unfulfilled and pesky problems linger longer.

And since the road forward is arduous with no guarantees of success, leaders must also provide some level of inspiration to excite people to pursue tough challenges. Please remember this; you cannot command commitment to a future course of action. You can only inspire it.

Therefore, I still believe we need people able and willing to look and dream beyond today while also able and willing to enlist people to totally commit to a difficult, challenging, and unknown road forward.

One reasonable explanation for the changes in these important characteristics might be this. Much of the data was collected during the months of the pandemic when merely surviving may have been a bit more top of mind than achieving lofty future possibilities. Very understandable.

But there are a couple of other potential causes that I continue to wrestle with. Might it be that people are seeing fewer and fewer role models of inspiring, visionary leaders. Is it possible that the more frequent examples are those of so-called leaders who just hammer their personal agendas through either by political maneuvering or imposed will? One could conclude that neither Forward-Looking nor Inspiring is very important.

Or worse yet, what if people are simply losing hope for the future? Without hope they would likely downplay the need for an inspiring, future-focused leader. Let’s all hope that is not the case.

Regardless of the reason I would offer this. We will always need leaders who are willing to look forward, dream big, and show others why their work positively matters in creating a better tomorrow. Whether or not people believe these actions are of greatest importance in their leaders, they will certainly benefit greatly from experiencing this kind of leadership.

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