Know How Important You Are

Special 12th Anniversary Edition Guest Blogger: Jim Kouzes


First the bad news. Tuesday, October 16, was not a very good day for bosses. It should have been a good day—it was Boss’s Day after all—but it wasn’t. Instead of getting congratulatory notes, candy, and flowers bosses nationally got a report card from author and researcher Michelle McQuaid saying that “bosses are leaving American workers feeling unappreciated, uninspired, lonely, and miserable.” This situation, she says, costs the country $360 billion a year in lost productivity. Not exactly what you want to hear on your special day.

Among the miserable statistics from McQuaid were these: only 36 percent of American’s are happy at their work. Seventy percent say they’d be happier, 60 percent said they’d do a better job, and 55 percent said they’d be more successful in their careers if they had a better relationship with their boss. Younger worker workers were even more critical, with 80 percent saying they’d be better off with a better boss. And given these numbers, it’s not surprising that only 38 percent of Americans said they’d thank their bosses on National Boss’s Day. Ouch.

A colleague of mine, Carmine Gallo, who writes a regular column for Forbes magazine, offers a very personal example of this disgust. Recently he related the story of a friend of his who’s the number one sales person for her company but “is willing to leave her job and take a 50 percent cut in salary to work for a more inspiring leader.” When Gallo asked her why she wanted to leave and why she would take such a drastic step, she responded, “My CEO has never said one nice thing to me. He’s never shown me any kind of praise and he doesn’t make me feel valued.” This kind of story is getting repeated around the world.

McQuaid’s study and Gallo’s story are small parts of a much bigger picture. According to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government leaders fell in 2011 to a record low of 43 percent globally, and trust in business leaders, while better than government, fell to 53 percent globally. Leaders around the world are just not held in very high esteem these days.

So you ask, What’s the good news? Two things. First, people want and expect good leadership. Yes a majority of people may be negative about their current situation, but their responses suggest that they know the power of a positive leader.

And that’s the second thing. While the data suggest a rather negative experience with many leaders, the numbers also reveal another very important truth. Leaders make a difference—both negative and positive. Leaders have an impact on people’s commitment, desire to stay or leave, willingness to put forth more discretionary effort if required, and performance in their jobs. Bad leaders have a dampening effect on these things, but exemplary leaders have just the opposite effect. They make a positive difference in our lives, and everyone knows what it feels like when they are engaged with leaders who are exceptional. Those leaders energize and mobilize us to want to make extraordinary things happen. And when we experience that kind of leadership we want more of it.

My coauthor Barry Posner and I have been studying leadership for over that last 30 years, and we have found that the worst leaders on average are able to tap into only about a third of their constituent’s talents and energy. The best leaders, on the other hand, on average utilize 95 percent of available talent. The bottom line: the best leaders elicit nearly three times the amount of energy, drive, commitment, and productivity from their constituents compared to their counterparts at the other end of the spectrum.

But there’s something else that our data show. People are watching you, regardless of whether you know it or not. And you are having an impact on them, regardless of whether you intend to or not.

If you’re a manager in an organization, to your direct reports you are the most important leader in your organization. You are more likely than any other leader to influence their desire to stay or leave, the trajectory of their careers, their ethical behavior, their ability to perform at their best, their drive to wow customers, their satisfaction with their jobs, and their motivation to share the organization’s vision and values.

If you’re a parent, teacher, coach, or community leader you are the person that’s setting the leadership example for young people. It’s not hip-hop artists, movie stars, or professional athletes they seek guidance from. You are the one they are most likely going to look to for the example of how a leader responds to competitive situations, handles crises, deals with loss, or resolves ethical dilemmas. It’s not someone else. It’s you.

This data challenges the myth that leadership is about position and power. And, it supports the notion that leadership is about the actions you take. Let me repeat that. Leadership is about the actions that you take.

Here are three little things you can do immediately to be a better leader:

First, clarify your philosophy of leadership and communicate it to others. In our research we found that the first question people want to ask a new leader is “Who are you and what do you stand for and believe in?” If you want people to willingly follow you, you have to be clear with them about the values and beliefs that guide your decisions and actions. Constituents who report that their leaders are in the top 10 percent on this leadership behavior are 30 percent more engaged in their work and view their leader to be 40 percent more effective than those whose leaders fall in the bottom 10 percent.

Second, treat every interaction as a chance to positively impact someone’s life.  Before your next, and every, interaction with another human being, ask yourself this question: What can I do in this interaction—whether it lasts one minute or one hour—to make the person I am with feel more powerful, positive, and more capable than when we started the interaction. I guarantee you that if you have this mindset in every interaction, you will greatly improve other people’s performance and increase their commitment. (Okay, I know it may not be possible in every single interaction, but it out to be your mindset in every interaction.) Again, the data indicate that leaders who are in the top 10 percent on behaviors that make others feel more efficacious and powerful have constituents who are 30 percent more engaged and see their leaders as 60 percent more effective. Think about that for a moment. You are seen as significantly more effective when you give your power away to others.

Third, say thank you more often. Jane Binger, executive director of leadership development at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, told us that the people in her organization “…want to know that I value them. That I think they are doing a great job. And that I am not taking their contribution for granted.” No one likes to be taken for granted. No one likes to be ignored. They want to know you appreciate their efforts and contributions. Research shows that to remain committed to a relationship people need to experience at least three times the amount of positive compared to negative affect from a leader at work and five times the positive to negative affect from a partner at home. So the next time you wonder what you should say to someone if you want them to make extraordinary things happen, know that the first words out of your mouth should be positive ones.

For everyday leaders like you and me, leadership is in the moment. And there are many moments each day when you can choose to lead, and many moments each day when you can choose to make a difference. Each of these moments serves up the prospect of making others, including yourself, more engaged with their work and their lives. What you do with your next moment is entirely up to you.

As Dan Mulhern would say, lead with your best self.


Jim Kouzes is the coauthor with Barry Posner of the bestselling book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, now in its 5th edition with over 2 million copies sold, and the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University.

  • Excellent article and so very true. I had an extremely poor boss and it affected everything in my life, and not for the better. I was completely demoralized and woke up every morning dreading going into work. The three longets years of my life.

  • I find that many managers are not aware of their impact on others. If they understood the effect of their negative messages and the potential of their appreciative and empowering messages the workplace would be transformed.

  • As I read this I thought of the assult public employees. It cannot be good to be a public employee when government service is criticized and their pay and benefits are in insulting tones said to be excessive. How is it that so much of the public have been convinced that government employees are overpaid, instead of thinking that they, the rest of the public are not underpaid? I would prefer to lift up those who are not doing well, rather than take away the wages and benefits that contribute to the attraction of talented and skilled employees to government. By cutting public employee wages, we contribute to the decline in our standard of living.
    There are applications of Jim Kouzes articel above to public policy. The more government employees are criticized as inefficient (when they are efficient), and have their wages and benefits taken the less motivated they become. The public are their ultimate boses.

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