Top 10 Leadership Lessons by Jim Kouzes



“In the end, leaders don’t decide who leads. Followers do.” ? James Kouzes

Editor’s note: This is a guest post on lessons learned in leadership by Jim Kouzes. Jim is a foremost researcher, award-winning writer, and highly sought after teacher in the field of leadership.

Jim is co-author of the award-winning and best selling book, The Leadership Challenge. 

The Leadership Challenge was the winner of the James A. Hamilton Hospital Administrators’ Book Award and the Critics’ Choice Award, was a BusinessWeek best-seller, and has sold over 1.4 million copies in more than twelve other languages. 

The Wall Street Journal has cited Jim as one of the twelve best executive educators in the United States.

Here’s Jim …

Leadership Insights from 950,000 Responses

Since 1982 Barry Posner and I have been exploring together what leaders do to mobilize others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. We’ve coauthored over 30 books, workbooks, and assessment instruments based on our research, including our bestseller, The Leadership Challenge. 

Last year we completed one of our most ambitious projects, analyzing 950,000 responses to our Leadership Practices Inventory —80,000 self-assessments from leaders and 870,000 assessments from observers who know those leaders.

Over the recent holidays I took a step back from all this data, and asked myself, “If I had to list the Top Ten Leadership Lessons I’ve learned over all these years, what would those Top Ten be?” Here is what I came up with. (Caveat:  We’ve learned a lot more than ten things about leadership, so this is not an exhaustive list. And, I might change this list next week after I reflect some more!)

Top 10 Leadership Lessons

  • Lesson 1. Leadership is everyone’s business.
  • Lesson 2. Credibility is the foundation.
  • Lesson 3: Personal values drive commitment.
  • Lesson 4. You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all.
  • Lesson 5. Looking forward is a leadership prerequisite.
  • Lesson 6. It’s not just the leaders vision.
  • Lesson 7. Challenge provides the opportunity for greatness.
  • Lesson 8. Leaders are team players.
  • Lesson 9. Leadership is a relationship.
  • Lesson 10. Caring is at the heart of leadership.

Lesson 1. Leadership is everyone’s business.

We keep finding leaders everywhere we look. They come from every type of organization, public and private, government and NGO, high-tech and low-tech, small and large, schools and professional services.

They are young and old, male and female, gay and straight, and are present in every ethnic group. They come from every imaginable vocation and avocation.

Leadership, in other words, is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women who are genetically endowed with some special power. 

Similarly, leadership is not about organizational power or authority.

It’s also not about celebrity or wealth, the family you are born into, being a CEO, president, general, or prime minister. And it’s definitely not about being a hero. Leadership is a set of skills and abilities that are accessible and learnable by anyone who has the motivation and desire to learn it.

Lesson 2. Credibility is the foundation.

Over these last 26 years we’ve asked people around the world to answer the question, “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?” (The key word in this question is willingly!) What we’ve found in our investigation of admired leader qualities is that, more than anything, people want leaders who are credible. Quite simply, people need to believe in their leaders.

Because our findings have been so pervasive and consistent, we’ve come to identify it as “The First Law of Leadership”: If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.

And, what is credibility behaviorally? How do you know it when you see it?  When we ask these questions, the responses we get are essentially the same, regardless of how they are phrased.

Credible leaders walk the talk, practice what they preach, are consistent in word and deed, put their money where their mouth is, and follow through on promises. This has led us to the Second Law of Leadership:

To become a credible leader you must Do What You Say You Will Do, or DWYSYWD for short.

Lesson 3: Personal values drive commitment.

DWYSYWD has to fundamental parts to it—the say part and the do part. People expect their leaders to stand up for their beliefs.  But to stand up for your beliefs, you have to know what you stand for.

To walk the talk, you have to have a talk to walk. 

To do what you say, you have to know what you want to say. 

To earn and sustain personal credibility, you must first be able to clearly articulate deeply held beliefs. 

And we know from our research that those leaders who are the clearest about their own values, and who see the fit between their own values and the values of the organizations they serve, are the most committed leaders. 

Personal values clarity is essential to commitment…and to integrity and authenticity.

Lesson 4. You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all.

The second part of earning credibility—or, DWYSYWD—is the “do” part. The only way people know we value something is when they see it in action.

When leaders practice what they preach they become role models for their constituents, and leaders who are seen as exemplary role models have higher performing units. In fact, in our most recent analysis of over 950,000 responses to our Leadership Practices Inventory, we found that Model the Way is the leadership practice that has more impact on constituents’ performance than any of the other Five Practices in our model.

If you could only do one thing as a leader to energize the performance of others, it would be, based on our data, to be set an example based on a set of shared values.

Lesson 5. Looking forward is a leadership prerequisite.

In our most recent surveys, 72 percent of respondents selected the “forward-looking” as one of their most sought-after leadership characteristics.

Among the most senior executives, the percentage expecting this quality is 88 percent.

People expect leaders to have a sense of direction and a concern for the future of the organization. Exemplary leaders are able to envision the future, to gaze across the horizon of time and imagine the greater opportunities to come. 

They are able to develop a unique image of the future. This ability, more than any of the other leadership skills, differentiates leaders from individual contributors.

Lesson 6. It’s not just the leaders vision.

At some point during all this talk over the years about the importance of being future-oriented, leaders got the sense that they were the ones who had to be the visionaries.


This is not what constituents expect. Yes, leaders are expected to be forward-looking, but they aren’t expected to be prophets. Exemplary leadership is not about uttering divinely inspired revelations.

What people really want to hear is not just the leader’s vision. They want to hear about their own aspirations. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be fulfilled.

The very best leaders understand that they are supposed to Inspire a Shared Vision, not sell their idiosyncratic view of the world.

Lesson 7. Challenge provides the opportunity for greatness.

When we ask people to tell us about their personal best leadership experiences, they talk about times of crisis, adversity, change, and great difficulty.

We don’t do our best as leaders when we are maintaining the status quo or when we feel comfortable.

The situations that bring out our best are those that challenge us. The study of leadership, then, is the study of how men and women guide people through adversity, uncertainty, hardship, disruption, transformation, transition, recovery, new beginnings, and other significant challenges.

It’s also the study of how men and women, in times of constancy and complacency, actively seek to disturb the status quo and awaken new possibilities.

Leadership and challenge are simply inseparable.

Lesson 8. Leaders are team players.

Leaders can’t do it alone. No leader in history ever got anything extraordinary done by himself or herself. When it comes to superior performance collaboration out produces both competition and individualistic efforts.

And, at the heart of collaboration is trust.

Without trust you cannot lead.

As one leader put it to us: “I have a strong willingness to be a part of what is going on, rather than apart from.  I don’t think people enjoy working for long stretches for someone who won’t be part of what’s happening.”

Lesson 9. Leadership is a relationship.

Leadership is a relationship between those who choose to lead and those who choose to follow.  Any discussion of leadership must attend to the dynamics of this relationship.

Exemplary leaders are devoted to building relationships based on mutual respect and caring, because they know that the quality of the relationship will determine the quality of the results.

The emotional intelligence of a leader has more to do with their effectiveness than their experience and their expertise.

One leader told us, “I may not be the most knowledgeable person…but I know how to get other people to think well about themselves.”

What an awesome ability to have. The very best leaders know that their job is to make others feel powerful and capable, not to acquire power for themselves.

Lesson 10. Caring is at the heart of leadership.

Contrary to a lot of public myth about how managers have to be cold and rational — “it’s not personal, it’s just business” — research indicates just the opposite.

The highest performing managers and leaders are the most open and caring.

The best demonstrate more affection toward others and want others to be more open with them. Exemplary leaders excel at improving performance through more attention to the human heart. 

The climb to the top of the summit is arduous and steep.

The challenges are immense and often frightening. Against these odds leaders must sustain hope and offer encouragement. And the research is very clear. High hope leads to high performance.

I hope you’ll add your most important leadership lessons to this list. 

The best leaders are the best learners, and I know we have so much more to learn from you.

Additional Resources

Jim Kouszes (Biography)

The Leadership Challenge (Web site)

The Leadership Challenge LeaderTalk (Blog)

The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition (Book)

Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) –  a 360-degree questionnaire for assessing leadership behavior, which is one of the most widely used leadership assessment instruments in the world.


  1. I like that last one about caring being at the heart of all management. It’s true that when you treat people like people instead of numbers they tend to behave like people in return. 🙂

  2. Good stuff. The bit about the personal connection really hit home for me. We are a social species and to disavow the interpersonal relationships we have with people we lead or work with is just plain foolish.

  3. Great post! The ones that particularly resonated with me are:
    – Looking forward: something that many leaders don’t know nearly enough. You have to make time for it!
    – Being a team player: Surround yourself with good people. Executing on a vision is most often a strong team game.
    – Caring: A fundamental, yet often overlooked, law of both leadership and management.

  4. Good rundown of leadership.

    On the last point about dealing with the heart, I’ve certainly found this to be true. There seems to be this separate between “business” and “personal” in the workplace that can be very unnatural. My experience has shown me this separation often means that underlying effectiveness issues cannot be solved because they are personal effectivness issues. Issues of effectiveness are best to include the heart and emotions in a holistic way in my opinion.

    I do understand the issue of not getting bogged down in personal issues that have nothing to do with work or trying to provide counseling in the workplace. But just a little understanding and compassion in the face of personal issues can go a long way towards clearing the issue. When an issue has to be hidden from the workplace unnaturally, it can set up a personal duality that takes energy to maintain. If your wife is dying, your leader should probably know about it if it’s causing emotional stress for you. It takes energy to hide these issues. And if the leader makes is “okay” to be human, workers are free to share more of themselves, not being afraid of being judged for having personal issues.

    I’ve found this be be true myself and it’s one of the reasons that I seek out leaders where I can actually talk about underlying issues and how they may be effecting my personal performance when it’s relevant.

    My father, who was a successful leader and high ranking member of a major investiment company before retiring 6 years ago, also displayed these qualities. He was very much a type A personality, but his inner compassion and ability to admit that life could often get in the way and that it was “okay” to have these difficulties is what made him so sucessful as a leader (and as a father). My friends would often come over and talk with him when I was growing up and I always wondered why I could not experience this same feeling with my friends fathers. I seek to carry on what I learned from him with my step daughter and it certainly seems to work.

  5. Jim,

    Lesson #6 really resonated with me. Our current society is almost entirely ‘functional’ (what’s in it for me) and so really (like it or not) the needs of the business, leader and employees all need to be clearly reflected somehow in the business strategy. I am glad you called this out. Great posting!


  6. Wow. Beat that. Leadership is not about authority and power.

    In my personal experience, I have found that when people with good leadership skills get elevated to the position of actually leading others, they get overwhelmed by it so much that they forget the reason behind them being the chosen one. This will be a good lesson for all such misguided leaders to be led back into reality.

    Excellent post.

    My key takeaways, credibility, integrity, shared vision,
    Leader is the nucleus, Team is the cell – Cant have one without the other.

    I read from the comments that most of them are kind of talking about lesson 10. In my opinion, it is true to everyone, not just leaders. I guess good leadership starts from you being a good human. The moment you lose it, you are not worthy of being called either.

  7. I think Jim has hit the core of matter when he says that leadership is a relationship.

    Relationship is built on trust and many if not most of the other points he makes are requirements of a high trust relationship. Many people are tallented but few have the character and disipline to lead. Once they do have the charactor and disipline their position doesn’t matter that much, they lead naturally…

    -Jim Dosch

  8. Thanks for the guidance, Jim; you have some great points here. I particularly like #3 – Personal Value Drive Commitment. I feel that oftentimes people sell their soul in a way and allow conflict between their true self and what they want people to perceive them as. It is key to know your personal values and drive your life around those.

  9. I was unaware of Jim’s work and greatly appreciate the summary and the pointers. Thanks to Jim and JD. It’s fascinating reading and I’m looking forward to read more of Jim’s work.

    I believe that people do their very best, when they are passionate about what they are doing and recognize the impact. Plus feel encouraged and rewarded for their effort.

    The majority of us have more impact in teams, groups, orginazations compared to individual efforts, so teaming is key. Example of exceptions are unique thinkers and/or artists that is likely less concerned about leadership.

    A couple of questions below.

    How is the information assembled, is it based on compiling and analyzing information about successful leaders? or is the assumption that people in specific roles are leaders? The question originates from a belief that “modeling the best” is a successful approach.

    How do leaders incorporate the learning aspect at different levels of the organzation? For me this is at the core of a successful organization: set a goal/do/learn/adjust. Is there any correlation with the reward system?

    How do leaders expose their professional value system? How do they ensure alignment and/or influence and/or adjust to the organizational value system?

    Do leaders have value system that balance the rational and the emotional? How do they address it? How do they communicate this?

    Is a leader inspiring for and help growing new leaders?

    Challenges can come to you, knock, knock, or you can seek them out. Is there a difference in the leader capability and approach?

    Do leaders consider the composition of their teams, groups and organization?

    How do they consider scalability?

  10. This guest post is so timely, thank you JD & Mr. Kouzes! I’ve owned “The Leadership Challenge” for nearly 3 years now, but have only begun to read it as part of my 2009 career plan.

    These 10 lessons resonate with me. I can see how I can apply them to my style and step up to leadership roles more comfortably. I absolutely love Lessons 8-10. Influence is much easier once I have the rapport, feel like a team player, and care about the deliverable.

    Thank you!

  11. I read the leadership challenge long ago when i went thru the management program at the university of washington. it was my favorite book from the entire program and it really forced me to reflect on the leaders that i’ve admired over the years and question “why”. I’ve also reccomended the “leadership challenge” to countless people looking to learn about leadership of the years.

    thx for your contributions to my career Jim – you’ve had a major impact.


  12. First of all I would really thank JD for getting such wonderful writers and thought leaders to post on the sources of insight.

    In my personal experience, watever team I have been with, if there was not a formal leader oppointed – one emerged within the team. When I look back at the leaders that had emerged – they possesed most of the qualities Jim Kouzes had listed in his post.

    But to really articulate the skills of a true leader is commnadable, it helps people who have been elevated to be leaders to know, what they di right and what they should keep doing to be the leaders.

    Overall a great post thanks for such a good distilled information.


  13. Great post Jim!

    As many other people have said in the comments it seems to really boil down to caring about your fellow human beings and sharing with them the what that person sees as the best way to achieve a certain goal. It is great that you point out these characteristics, I just wish more people knew them and could recognize them when it happens in their workplace :). I am always amazed at seeing the difference in teams that have good leaders vs. ones that only have a manager but no real leader (not saying the manager is always the leader).


  14. Thanks for sharing these leadership lessons. Few other which I think important are: A leader should be approachable. A leader should share success with his team. A leader should make sure his team is proud to work for you and proud of what they are doing.

  15. Good stuff – loved a lot!

    My favorite is “Lesson 4. You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all.”

    Oh my… that is so true. I am surrounded with leaders of all kinds at work and when working directly with customers. Those that walk their talk have followers (read – lead). Those that only talk…. they just talk…

  16. Another great guest and another great post. Thanks.

    What strikes me about this great advice and that of other proven leaderships coaches are the themes.

    It’s about personal relationships, people matter, make meaning first and you will make ……..

    Much like thorughout the ages it all seems so simplistic when you read the distilled truth on paper but arriving at that truth is a skill reserved for real observational expertize.

    Great great stuff!!

  17. Wow, great post –

    I have a question reguarding Credibility = DWYSASWYD.

    It seems that crediblity is also about ‘Trust’ and that trusing is about a person being able to deliver. Delivery is about management.
    Management of expectations, others, what you will deliver on and most of all yourself.

    So I am wondering what is the common ‘patterns of time management’ that the greatest leaders have? (has this been identified?)
    Additionally, if great leaders all have creadibility do we know if they have high trust quotients, and are the two related?

    Thank you,

    Dennis Groves

  18. Great post. Excellent lessons in leadership. I especially enjoyed lesson four – you either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  19. Awesome data. Thanks for sharing. I will definitely check out mentioned books. Its so timely to read up on this subject especially in these difficult times where leadership is very much needed everywhere; at work, within government, and other aspects of life. Reflecting back on my previous and current experiences with others, I can see those who I felt were leaders that had exhibited some or all of those personality traits. Another behavior that I observed in who I felt were leaders who I was willing to follow and be loyal to; was the courage they exhibited in talking and doing the “right” thing especially when it appeared to be not the popular position to take. When others were driven by fear or swimming with the main stream flow, leaders were willing to standout, overcome short-lived/term fears and push for the “right” longterm stand (I guess its part of having a vision). When everyone was running for cover or silent, they were not. I hope that Jim Kouzes in a future post can share any data around what drives leaders to be leaders? Thanks JD for creating this valuable space.

  20. Fantastic post and a superb of list of top ten leadership lessons. I am reading the “Leadership Challenge” book now and looking forward to completing the exercise.

    “Lesson 7. Challenge provides the opportunity for greatness.” is timely with the current economic conditions.

    Thanks for writing this post Jim.

  21. Hi JD,

    The emotional intelligence of a leader has more to do with their effectiveness than their experience and their expertise. One leader told us, “I may not be the most knowledgeable person…but I know how to get other people to think well about themselves.” What an awesome ability to have. The very best leaders know that their job is to make others feel powerful and capable, not to acquire power for themselves.

    There is so many great principles here for leadership qualities its hard to pick just one to mention. When I was a art director one of the things I think was so great was to teach people who never taught before how to believe that they could do it. And most of them did outstanding and got better with time and practice.

  22. I must say, for success, this is a very good gist not just for leaders but also for followers and future leaders. For me ,Lesson 5 (Exemplary leaders are able to envision the future…) is the most important.

    I would like to add two things:
    I believe, people feel good/motivated if leader explains thems his/her vision and “where do they fit”. This makes followers feel valuable and responsible players.

    Secondly, People like to follow a leader who gives credit of success to his/her team and takes responsibility if there is something wrong.

  23. […] Sources of Insight » Blog Archive » THE TOP TEN LEADERSHIP LESSONS tags: leadership management […]

  24. […] Top 10 Leadership Lessons @ Sources of Insight […]

  25. I greatly respect Jim’s insightful work in The Leadership Challenge. Regarding comment #1 that leadership is everyone’s business, I think that it is the responsible of everyone in an organization–from the top down–to be respectful to all colleagues. When that happens, people at all levels can begin to flex their leadership muscles and feel the power of being a leader. That would include inclusive behaviors such as listening carefully to what others have to say and, thereby, acknowledging that their voice is important and heard. Who knows, we could all learn something new in the process.

  26. Numbers 1 and 4 are a aha! moment for me. Living in Cambodia, I tend to slip into the mentality of the “haves” will always win over the “haves not”. What I fail to remind myself is that people are not born with manuals, you make your manual as you go. I am responsible for fostering and encouraging others to take on a leadership role. Leading by example is a biggie for me. I tend to say “been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and now let others do it for a change” I need to lead by example which is sometimes hard by rewarding.
    thanks for sharing this article.

Comments are closed.