by Bevin Theodore

Anyone can be a leader. All it takes is a passion for extraordinary results. But deciding to be an exemplary leader is only the first step to becoming one. So how will YOU do it? In “The Leadership Challenge,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner outline the characteristics and frequent behaviors of strong leaders. Presented as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the actions provide a road map to help leaders build trust, engage their teams and achieve shared success. This blog, the first in a five-part series, focuses on the practice “Model the Way.”

Leadership begins with defining your values. Until you are certain what you stand for and what you want to achieve, you cannot ask others to buy into your plan. Think about your organization’s overall values and why they were the ones the company chose to highlight. How do they relate to your team’s goals? How do they resonate with your personal philosophy on leadership? Perhaps you want to focus on innovation or safety or excellence or stewardship. Whatever it is you claim to value, it is critical that you can speak about it with an authentic voice and build consensus around common values on your team. When you know who you are and what you stand for, you have found your voice as a leader.  If your company’s values do not fit with your own, it could be a sign that you need to realign or move on because there is no faking it in leadership.

The people who work at a company place a lot of trust in leaders and they look to you to practice what you preach or Model the Way. That means you must examine how you spend your time to ensure it adheres to the principles you espouse. If you say you value innovation, yet your calendar is full of routine meetings that never yield new results, you are not living your values. Same goes if you claim to value collaboration but are holed away in your office eight hours a day and never ask for anyone else’s input. You need to be credible so the people who work for you and with you recognize you as someone who is proud to be part of the organization and the team. Even when you don’t realize it, people are watching you.

My first career was in journalism, a fast-paced, exciting, but sometimes stressful environment where what you do today is going to be mostly forgotten tomorrow, unless you really get something wrong or raise someone’s ire. It’s easy in that sort of environment to just churn out a story and move onto the next one. But I’ll never forget a colleague who showed me why it is sometimes worth slowing down even when you feel like you don’t have time. I was only a few months into the job when a teenager was shot and killed in a gang-related incident. Police provided the basic details, and I interviewed the owner of the business near where the shooting occurred, but the victim’s family refused to talk. I was piecing together the story, wishing I had a few more details, when I remembered a situation from a few weeks earlier. A fellow reporter, who had also had no luck talking to a victim’s family after a car crash, canvassed the neighborhood, talking to neighbors who could provide additional insight into the person’s life. Instead of a bland story comprised solely of police facts, he infused details about how the woman was in a bowling league and enjoyed sitting on her front porch, talking to everyone who passed. Following his lead, I headed back out and learned the victim had been a star athlete in high school, and that he was often seen spending time with his two brothers. Those details made for a much stronger story, but I might not have thought of that approach if I hadn’t seen my colleague Model the Way.

When others see you as someone to follow, you naturally build trust and values start to align. Shared experiences and stories help people see why they should care. But as a leader, make sure that you are not just expecting people to follow everything you do. Be proactive and ask questions to get other people’s perspectives too. So many clashes in the workplace occur because of misunderstandings or assumptions. If you can find out what your employees or coworkers value, it will be easier to keep them engaged. Keeping an open dialogue encourages everyone to contribute to the conversation and share their viewpoints. Everyone is a leader, no matter what your role.  Routinely ask for feedback; it’s the easiest way to find out how you are doing. Ensure that any meetings you hold or are a part of our productive, timely and give everyone the chance to speak. This environment of collaboration has many benefits, from greater team unity to increased productivity to higher retention rates. Research shows most people quit their bosses, not their jobs. Don’t be the person someone wants to quit. Your team deserves better. They deserve your best.

Think about how you present yourself to those around you. Are you genuine? Do you follow through on commitments? Do you roll up your sleeves and pitch in when your team has an important deadline? Do you address difficult issues head-on, providing as much information as you can to your team? Do you operate from a viewpoint of “we” versus “I”? Are you leading or merely managing? Anyone can learn to manage a project, delegate tasks and ensure work gets done. But leadership is more refined. It has nothing to do with your title or how many people report to you and everything to do with how you interact with and inspire other people and whether they perceive you as trustworthy. In my experience at the newspaper, it was a colleague, not a boss, who taught me a valuable lesson that helped in my career for years after. We often talk about role models for children, but that does not always translate into leadership models for adults. Who do you trust and look to for leadership guidance? It might be a relative, friend, boss, coach or community volunteer. It is likely someone close to you, who you have had countless opportunities to see in action and grow to respect. That is because real leadership is not about grandiose actions but day-to-day interactions that demonstrate stability. Anyone can lead. It just takes a commitment to being honest, competent, and forward-thinking and a commitment to Model the Way.

In addition to having defined values, every leader must have a clear vision. When you know where you are headed, it is much easier for others to walk with you. When you can articulate what you want your team to achieve and what you expect from each team member, it is also a lot easier to get them to agree and keep them engaged. And employees who are engaged have a sense of pride in their work, deliver better outcomes and help the company overall thrive. Remember, leadership is not an innate talent given to a select few. It can be learned if you are willing to make a conscious, consistent effort. Be humble, be open and continue to find ways to develop yourself while helping those around you grow.

Are you ready to develop yourself as an exemplary leader?  Northstar Women Leaders is offering the first ever Leadership Challenge exclusively for women coming soon.  Claim your seat at the table by contacting Julie McGee at 610-984-5637 or by email at