What Leaders Do

What Leaders Do

Condensed from: LeadershipLetters.com

The last Letter began to discuss research on leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Their book, “The Leadership Challenge,” describes five fundamental practices of exemplary leaders.


  1. Challenge the process.
  2. Inspire a shared vision.
  3. Enable others to act.
  4. Model the way.
  5. Encourage the heart.
1) Leaders challenge the process

Good leaders are pioneers. They continually search for new opportunities to do what has never before been done. They are not content merely to maintain the status quo. Peter Drucker said, “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. All one can hope to get by solving problems is to restore normalcy.” Neither do they wait for circumstances to lead them in change, but they are initiators of change.

Furthermore, they desire significant change. They want to turn around a failing business or dying church, or start up some new radical entrepreneurial venture, or develop an original product line or service, or revolutionize an existing process. They want to mobilize others in the face of strong inertia or resistance. They may not change the world, but they passionately pursue making a significant difference. Leaders want to transform; they are not content merely to maintain.

This is one of the primary differences between leaders and managers. Leaders lead. They go first. They begin the quest for a new order. They plunge into new, sometimes dangerous, and always unpredictable territory. They take us to places we’ve never been before, and probably could never find on our own. Managers, on the other hand, maintain the existing order. They organize, and establish necessary processes and controls.

As agents of change, leaders will:

  • Treat every job as an adventure in an unexplored wilderness. If leaders want to inspire the best in others, they must find or create opportunities for people to outdo themselves in exploring new ground and reaching difficult goals. Furthermore, they must make work responsibilities enjoyable and exciting. Researchers have found that “appropriate” humor can lead to cohesion and bonding between team members.
  • Treat every new assignment as a start-over, even if it isn’t. There is always some new way to improve any organization. Moreover, the talent and resources for excellence are already present; they need merely to be unlocked. Leaders see opportunity everywhere – especially in their own people.
  • Question the status quo, and kill the sacred cows. Obviously, some standard practices and policies are critical to the organization’s success. But many are simply traditions. Leaders ruthlessly examine everything in their organizations. “The way we’ve always done it” is insufficient. Is there a better way to do it? Is there even a better thing to do in the first place?
  • Harvest new ideas – both inside and outside their organization. Many times the people who have been doing something for years have conceived of new and better processes. But no one has ever asked them for their opinion! Moreover, there is a great harvest-field of innovative ideas outside the doors of every organization. Leaders continually explore – even in unrelated and entirely dissimilar fields.
  • Find something that needs fixing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” often doesn’t cut it for a true leader. It may work well, but can it work better? Naiveté can be a leader’s best friend in a new assignment. His dumb questions are tolerated as he uncovers needed improvements; and his fresh, uninstitutionalized approach can yield the conceptual breakthrough necessary for quantum leaps in organizational effectiveness.
  • Assign their people wisely. Organizations frequently commit the error of assigning their best people to deal with problems. Leaders, on the other hand, assign their people to opportunities. Naturally, problems must be dealt with, but opportunities are the life-blood of our organizations. Solving a problem contains and prevents damage, but seizing an opportunity produces growth and new life.
  • Renew their teams. Even the best teams get stale and need to be revived. Bringing new people on board adds fresh perspective and energy. Leaders also force their people to interact with others and to listen for new ideas.
  • Lead their people in continual learning. We all need to keep adding to our resource and skill bases – through reading a book, taking a course, attending a seminar, subscribing to a journal. Good leaders, and those who follow them, are lifetime learners.
  • Look for opportunities to glorify God. Christian leaders, above all, should seek opportunities to glorify God and accomplish His purposes with excellence.

Since leaders are forever venturing into uncharted waters, they are, of necessity, risk-takers. In their quest for the new and the better, leaders are open to ideas. They are willing to listen to others, and they try untested approaches, accepting the risks of failure that accompany all experimentation.

Without constant innovation, an organization will atrophy. Even the loosest of organizations adopt practices that become traditions. These traditions impose ways of thinking that become constraints, making it impossible to solve new problems or to exploit new opportunities. The leader is the organization’s primary change agent. Thus, it is his responsibility to identify these barriers and to lead his people in breaking free from self-imposed limitations.

This “beyond-the-boundaries” thinking always involves risk. You will never succeed unless you are willing to fail – and to be willing to fail is to assume some risk. This doesn’t mean “selling the farm,” necessarily. “Prudent” risk taking should be the norm. One of the significant differences between the leader and the bureaucrat is the leader’s inclination to encourage others to step out into the unknown rather than play it safe, and to learn from the mistakes that are the inevitable price we pay for innovation, change and learning.

As lifelong learners and risk-takers, leaders will:

  • Set up little experiments. Leaders experiment with new approaches to old problems, and it is cheaper to do this in the early stages of innovation. When you have a new idea for a new product, or approach, try it out soon. Don’t wait until you’ve perfected it.
  • Make it safe for others to experiment. The leader sets the tone for the organization’s creative climate. If you expect those you lead to venture out and take chances, you must make them feel safe and secure in doing so. As much as possible, reduce the costs of failure. Invite innovation and provide the resources necessary to nourish and sustain it. Furthermore, leaders encourage others to take risks by doing so themselves.
  • Eliminate fire hosing. It’s way too easy to put down new ideas. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the mantra of those who cling to familiar territory. “It’s too hard.” “It’ll never work.” Like firefighters hosing down a fire, these people douse innovation and extinguish enthusiasm. Leaders must discourage this draining negativity, and help people to see the possibilities that change is full of. Members of one organization agreed that anyone heard firehosing should be required to contribute 25 cents to a fund. Team members then policed each other on a daily basis, morale improved noticeably, and so did the number of innovative ideas!
  • Work even with ideas that sound strange initially. The lifeblood of any organization is a continual flow of new ideas. New innovations rarely appear fully created and ready to implement; they usually require nurturing. Give every idea at least a chance. If you are too quick to reject new ideas, you will lose good ideas in the process and you will also discourage people from offering future ideas through fear of rejection. People who know their ideas will receive a considered and balanced evaluation will be more likely to continue submitting ideas.
  • Honor their risk takers. This boosts morale and reminds people of the need to take risks. Moreover, good attempts must be rewarded, not just successes.
  • Debrief every failure as well as every success. Most innovations fail. Although it’s tempting to let painful memories slide, the lessons are too valuable to be ignored. Especially learn from the failures of others – those are the cheapest mistakes! Ask the following questions: What did we do well? What did we do poorly? What did we learn from this? How can we do better the next time?
  • Rely on God. Pray that God will lead you to new paths of opportunity to fulfill His purposes. He is the greatest Innovator of all!


2) Leaders inspire a shared vision

Leaders can see what others have not yet seen. Leaders see beyond the normal, the ordinary, the expected. They gaze across time and imagine the greater things that can lie ahead.

Vision is about possibility, and not probability. Probabilities will likely happen if the present merely continues into the future, whereas possibilities need not be. But to a visionary leader, who imagines beyond the limitations and constraints that intimidate the hearts and minds of most, anything is possible!

All new ventures begin with possibility thinking; and the clarity and force of this vision will sustain the leader through the rejection, failure and disappointment that inevitably accompany any truly new initiative.

A leader’s God-breathed vision acts as an organization’s magnetic north. It attracts human energy. It invites and draws others to participate sacrificially in the divine mission. The leader’s vision is what focuses the energy of the organization. Leaders see the possibilities of the future and then they share this vision with those they lead.

Visions are conceptualizations, but they become real as leaders express them in concrete terms. Just as architects make drawings and engineers build models, leaders find ways of expressing their hopes for the future. Then the vision becomes like a lens that focuses unrefracted rays of light. The clearer the vision, the more compelling it is to all who follow.

No matter how much involvement other people will have in shaping the vision, the leader must be able to articulate it clearly. He must keep the vision focused. To help them in internally clarifying, and then externally expressing their vision, leaders should:

  • Determine the will of God. God has very specific purposes for our lives. What are they? Unless our vision is based in the will and purpose of God, it will come to nothing.

Without Me you can do nothing (John 15:5)

All our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)

His vision must become our vision.

  • Think about their past. Reflecting on our past enhances our ability to be forward thinking. As we contemplate the events of our lives – both the mountains and the valleys – we can identify our strengths and weaknesses, and the patterns and themes that have carried us to the present, and which form the foundation on which our future will be built.
  • Test their assumptions. Our assumptions often blind us to new solutions and opportunities. We should ask God to help us “think outside of the box.”
  • Act on their intuition. Visions can begin somewhat vague and ill-defined. They can take time to shape themselves to the point of lucid articulation. So, instead of struggling with words on paper, we should do something to act on our intuition. Visions, like objects in the distance, become clearer as we move toward them.
  • Write a short vision statement. A compelling vision must be shared in a few words. Vision statements should capture the essential purpose and nature of the new initiative.
  • Live in the future. The Holy Spirit is Lord of the future as well as of the past and present. We should ask Him what the future holds for our organizations. Whose view of the future is dominating our lives, our organizations and our strategies? Is it God’s?

It is not enough for the leader to have a grand vision; his followers must “buy into” his dream. When properly communicated, a divinely-inspired vision will empower positive change by focusing the collective energy of all involved, and by building commitment and a willingness to take personal responsibility for the organization’s success.

This process is not a monologue but a dialogue. An effective leader does not merely impose his own personal dream, but he develops a shared sense of destiny.

Even the most “on-fire” leaders cannot accomplish extraordinary things alone. To enlist others to rally around a common vision, leaders will:

  • Identify their constituents. Leaders must first identify all those who have a stake in the outcome of what they envision. This will include all the members of their organization as well as suppliers, customers, and members of the community. Broad visions need broad support to be accomplished.
  • Appeal to a common purpose. No matter how grand the vision is, if people don’t see in it the possibility of realizing their own hopes and dreams, they won’t follow. By knowing their constituents, leaders are able to fuse them together around a common purpose.
  • Listen first – and often. Listening is one of the key characteristics of exemplary leaders. By taking time to listen, leaders can hear what their constituents want included in the vision, and thus build a truly shared destiny.
  • Breathe life into the vision. By using vivid metaphors, stories, symbols and slogans, and by communicating with fire and enthusiasm, leaders make their intangible vision come alive so that others can see it, hear it, taste it and touch it.
  • Speak positively. There is no room for tentativeness in a vision statement. The obstacles and difficulties should be addressed, but not dwelled on. Leaders must express to their followers that, together, they are well able to succeed and to “take the land”!
  • Speak from the heart. The greatest inhibitor to enlisting others in a common vision is a lack of personal conviction. Others will never share a dream if the leader is not fully convinced of it himself. Leaders must genuinely believe in their own dream; then the vision will live and compel.
3) Leaders enable others to act

Nothing truly great occurs without the active involvement and support of many people. Fulfilling the purpose of God for our organizations must be everyone’s responsibility, and good leaders promote teamwork rather than competition as the road to success. Competition (which is trying to beat others) is vastly different in purpose from collaboration (which is trying to do well).

The relationships of the team members are the organization’s key asset, and leaders must know how to nurture them. In building a strong team out of people with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, leaders must develop cooperative goals, seek integrative solutions and build trusting relationships, through:

  • Always saying “we.” The leader’s task is to help people reach mutual goals and not merely his own goals. Inclusive language will communicate the fact that goals are truly collaborative and not exploitative. This will lead to stable and committed relationships that are able to weather conflicts and difficulties.
  • Sustaining ongoing interactions between team members. The leader must ensure that team members don’t work in isolation from one another. Formal and informal meetings will help, as will sharing resources. Teams should be limited in size to a “knowable” number of people. Moreover, team members must be encouraged to work through their conflicts together rather than using the leader as a go-between.
  • Focusing on gains, not losses. When dealing with problems, team members must be led to focus on their areas of agreement first, rather than their differences. Deliberately recognizing the alignment of everyone’s goals is a powerful way to create a sense of mutuality. Furthermore, emphasizing the long-term nature of the team’s goals will strengthen the vision and assist collaboration.
  • Viewing differences as creative opportunities. In reality, differences can generate more alternatives – and thus new opportunities – than similarities do. The leader must ask lots of questions and listen closely to the needs, problems and ideas of the team members, to find solutions no-one has previously discovered.
  • Trusting team members. Individuals who cannot trust others, fail to become leaders. They end up either doing all the work themselves or supervising so closely they become overbearing and controlling. Moreover, their demonstration of lack of trust for others, undermines others’ trust in them. To build strong partnerships, leaders should involve the people closest to the work in planning and solving problems associated with it. Delegation builds broad ownership and establishes an atmosphere of trust.
  • Going first. One cannot legislate true cooperation or trust. As the leader first shows a willingness to cooperate and to trust others, his example encourages others to do the same. Thus, leaders should be open and honest with others regarding their own limitations and mistakes, and should be liberal with information, resources, spontaneous (versus mechanical) affirmations, showing genuine interest, and giving a listening ear. They should also avoid talking negatively about other team members.
  • Listening to the Holy Spirit. We must allow the Holy Spirit to crucify our natural competitiveness, and to replace it with the servant attitude of Jesus. Moreover, He will show us the true nature of our organizations and teams, exposing what needs to be changed, and helping us to build effective teams that will accomplish His purposes and bring Him glory.

In organizations that rely on external power and control to make people perform, the constituents rarely achieve their best. The capacity of individuals and organizations to excel grows when the people do things because they want to, and not because they have to. When people are mere powerless pawns, they feel weak and insignificant. Empowered people, however, possess greater confidence, determination and effectiveness.

Exemplary leaders accomplish great things by enabling others to take ownership of and responsibility for the organization’s success.

Leaders have a choice: they can hold onto their power and use it purely for selfish ends, or they can give their power away to others. Servant leaders who take the power that flows to them and connect it to others, become power generators from which their constituents draw strength.

The five leadership essentials of sharing power with others are:

  • Give power away. Paradoxically, leaders become more powerful when they give their own power away. Leadership power is not a fixed and limited sum to be hoarded and grudgingly divided up only when absolutely necessary. A leader’s power is not reduced when he empowers others. Organizationally, power actually expands and multiplies when it is shared with others. When people have responsibility and genuine influence, their commitment to the organization and its success drastically increases. The key to unleashing an organization’s potential to excel is putting the power in the hands of the people who perform the work. Thus leaders must trust and respect their constituents, and they must know their people well enough to empower them appropriately.
  • Provide choices. Good leaders will enlarge their constituents’ spheres of influence, and will provide them with greater decision-making authority and responsibility. They will remove or reduce unnecessary approval steps, eliminate as many rules as possible, increase people’s flexibility regarding processes, support the exercise of independent judgment, encourage creative solutions to problems, define jobs more broadly (as projects, not tasks), provide the resources necessary for success, and support freedom of organizational communication (both vertically and horizontally).
  • Develop competence. If people are to succeed in their new and increasing responsibilities, they need to develop their capacities. Leaders must invest in developing their people’s skills and competencies.
  • Assign critical tasks. People’s increased sphere of influence ought to involve something relevant to the most pressing concerns and core issues of the organization. We do our best when our work is critical to success. Empowerment should be genuinely significant and not merely a token acquiescence to the latest management fad. Moreover, leaders should regularly inform their constituents regarding the organization’s performance and the evolving challenges it faces.
  • Offer visible support. It’s who you know that counts. Leaders should assist their people in making connections and building strong relationships with others who can help them accomplish their tasks – both inside and outside the organization. Facilitating this networking is empowering. Also, by making visible heroes and heroines of others, a leader will increase those people’s power as well as build a stronger bond between himself and them.
4) Leaders model the way

It is not enough to deliver rousing speeches; leaders must actually participate in the doing of what they ask others to do. Leading by example is how leaders provide evidence that they are deeply and personally committed to the vision they champion. Credible leaders practice what they preach. They do what they say they will do, and thus set the example for others to follow.

Leaders set the example by behaving in ways that are consistent with their organization’s shared values. They accomplish this by:

  • Building a consensus of shared values based upon the Scriptures. Leaders represent groups. For the people to be mobilized in unity, they must all share the same values. Thus the leaders, through the clear teaching of Scripture, must gain consensus on a common cause and a common set of principles, thereby building a community of shared values that will form the solid bedrock of an organization’s vitality and effectiveness. This takes time since the people must truly own the values; unity is forged, not forced. Biblical values are not negotiable but it still takes time for the people to understand and personally own them.
  • Clarifying their own personal values. People expect their leaders to stand for something, and to have the courage of their convictions. Leaders who lack core values are likely to change their position with every fad, and will be judged eventually as inconsistent and “political” in their behavior. Values are the standards that help us determine what we will and will not do. They influence every aspect of our lives: our moral judgments, our responses to others, our commitments to personal and organizational goals. A Christian leader’s values must be based directly upon the eternal Scriptures and not the latest opinion poll.
  • Auditing their actions. People pay more attention to the values their leaders actually use than to those the leaders say they believe in. Effective leaders must set good examples, establish high standards for themselves, and personally practice what they preach. A profitable exercise in this regard is to list the values you preach and then systematically compare them with those values actually reflected by your calendar and checkbook for the last month. To be consistent, how you spend your time and money should line up with your espoused priorities.
  • Seizing opportunities to teach. Critical incidents present opportunities for leaders to teach important lessons about appropriate norms of behavior. Leaders will watch for these opportunities, and use them to illuminate and reinforce the organization’s values.
  • Following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus and His leaders. The call to imitate godly leaders as they walk in righteousness, and not only talk it, is found throughout the New Testament: e.g., 1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 6:12; 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:21-23.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course! The most effective change processes are incremental. Leaders who try to accomplish the extraordinary must learn the discipline of breaking down big problems and opportunities into small, doable steps. Problems that are conceived of too broadly overwhelm us, but anybody can take “just one more step.” Leaders help others to see how progress can be made by breaking the journey down into achievable goals and milestones. This makes the task more easily understood and accomplished.

Moreover, when only a small task is tackled, the chances of success are much higher, and the “small-wins” process enables leaders to build momentum and their constituents’ commitment to the broader course of action. This creates a climate in which success is not only seen as possible, but imminent.

In leading the small-wins process and building commitment to the long-term vision, leaders will:

  • Take it personally. If you’re the leader, the first small-win “unit” is you. Actions speak louder than words and build your credibility. What new initiatives have you taken lately? What small battles have you won?
  • Make a plan. You’ll never be able to foresee it all, and by the time you get there it will likely all be different anyway. Nevertheless, you’ve got to start somewhere and the process of planning gets people to mentally walk through the entire journey, anticipating the events, milestones, tasks and goals, and imagining their success.
  • Within the parameters of the overall vision, give people choices. Choice is the cement that binds action to the person, motivating individuals to take ownership and accept responsibility for what they do.
  • Break it down. Once you’ve set your sights, move forward incrementally – especially at the beginning. Break large groups and goals into small cohesive teams and doable tasks. There is nothing more discouraging than starting off with a failure, so make sure you include a few early successes in your plan.
  • Publicize your commitments and your progress. By making your corporate goals visible, you create accountability and increase everyone’s sense of obligation to the vision. And by publicizing successes, you generate positive momentum and reinforce everyone’s long-term commitment.
  • Trust God for the outcomes. When change is rushed, it can increase resistance and be extremely expensive. However, when leaders allow change to happen more naturally, it tends to be slower but it also receives greater acceptance. Build alliances and take the time to show people the benefits of moving ahead.
  • Encourage people constantly. Once people start moving down a new path, they need frequent encouragement, especially when they encounter the inevitable obstacles, unexpected disasters and the uncharted forks in the road.

The next two Leadership Letters will consider how leaders “encourage the heart” of their followers

5) Leaders encourage the heart

Leaders cannot assume their constituents know when they’ve done a job good or that they’re appreciated; leaders must recognize contributions. People need encouragement as they persist in their journey to fulfill the vision, and they need it frequently. This is the leader’s role: to encourage the hearts of the people.

In recognizing contributions, leaders will:

  • Recognize that we all are serving God. It is Him we all will stand before one day, and if we serve Him from our hearts, we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21). Our ultimate rewards for faithfulness are in eternity. Nevertheless, leaders should not use this as an excuse to deny temporal encouragement to their people.
  • Build confidence through high expectations. Leaders’ belief in others creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: people act in ways that are consistent with their leader’s expectations of them. Leaders who truly believe in their constituents and who express that confidence through high expectations are able to bring out the very best in their people.
  • Connect performance with rewards. People avoid behavior that is punished, repeat behavior that is rewarded and eventually drop behavior that is ignored. Therefore, if long hours and hard work are not noticed, people will soon decrease their efforts. When connecting performance with rewards, leaders should be sure that people know exactly what is expected of them, provide frequent feedback along the way, and reward only those who meet the standards.
  • Use a variety of rewards. The creative use of rewards is a defining characteristic of good leadership. Leaders should use both intrinsic rewards (that are built into the work itself, such as job satisfaction, praise and thank-you notes) and extrinsic rewards (such as material remuneration and promotions). The enthusiasm and motivation of the people will be increased if the reward and recognition system is designed participatively. Finally, peer-, subordinate-, or customer-recognition systems can be highly effective.
  • Be instant in season and out of season. The reward should be given as soon after the accomplishment as possible, so it is directly connected with it. The leader himself should proactively look for people who are doing the right things, and then personally present their reward to show his appreciation, making very specific mention of the reason for the reward.
  • Make recognition public. Public recognition promotes the individual as a model for others to emulate. It also empowers the recipients by increasing their visibility.
  • Be interminably positive and hopeful. Through their encouragement, leaders give their people the courage to endure the tough times and to win great victories. But they must not wait until the final victory is won before encouraging their people. Leaders should build up their constituents all along the way. God does that to us!

Accomplishing great things through organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize the contributions their people make. And because every winning team needs to share in the rewards of their corporate efforts, leaders celebrate accomplishments. Leaders are cheerleaders; they make everyone a part of the victory. Encouraging the heart does not only involve recognizing individual achievements; it also means celebrating the efforts of the entire group.

In Exodus 17:8-15 and in other places, the Old Testament saints built memorials to the great works of God. They stopped and rehearsed those works and built something to signify them and to remind them of God’s faithfulness in the future. Leaders should do this in their organizations. They should frequently pause and rehearse some of the victories God has given them. It is so easy in our fast paced society to rush past the faithfulness of God, and to just take it for granted. We need to pause and build memorials to the faithfulness of God to our organizations.

In celebrating team accomplishments, leaders will:

  • Celebrate the right things. Celebrations should call attention to and reinforce key organizational values. This will let others know what is valued. Moreover, there must be consistency between what the leader espouses and what he celebrates. The celebration must be an honest expression of commitment to certain key values and to the hard and sacrificial work of the people who have lived those values.
  • Celebrate publicly. The public nature of celebrations makes people’s actions more visible to others and helps to bond the people together as a team.
  • Schedule regular celebrations. Some celebrations should be spontaneous, but leaders should also have certain organizational celebrations at the same time each year. Nations do this to remind their people of their common struggles, sacrifices, legacies and continuing responsibilities to each other. As a minimum, each organization should have at least one celebration each year that involves everyone.
  • Join in the celebration. Celebrations are great times for leaders to personally connect with their constituents, creating a commonness (“we’re all in this together”) as well as a deeper level of shared vision, values and experiences. The leader does not necessarily have to lead the celebration, but he should participate in it.
  • Have fun. Without having some fun sometimes, few people will be able to handle the level of intensity and hard work required for high achievement. Researchers have found a significant relationship between fun and productivity! So, lighten up; enjoy life a little!
  • Create social support networks. Supportive relationships are critically important to maintain personal and organizational vitality. Through celebrating accomplishments, leaders help create these networks of relationships. As organizational members interact on more than just a professional level, their personal relationships are nurtured and they will grow in their love and caring for each other. Furthermore, without group celebrations, it is easy for individuals to believe that the organization revolves around their individual work. Thus, celebrations reinforce the truth that we are all dependent on, and responsible for, one other (1 Cor. 12:14-26).
  • Stay passionate. Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most enduring – his love for God and for the people he’s leading. Through celebrations, the leader can communicate this love to his people, and a passion communicated can be a passion imitated.