Why Leaders Get Followed – Pointers From 297 People Who Chose To Follow

20 Feb

Does every manager lead, inspire and motivate their team to new heights?  Of course not, but some are remembered for years…even decades by members of their team.  People have told me they have fond, warm memories when I ask them to tell me about the best leader they ever worked for.  So instead of writing an article about the dynamics of leadership, I though it may be more useful to view leadership from the eyes of those that follow.

I wanted to know what people thought about the best leader they ever worked for.  I had asked the question numerous times in leadership training classes, but the people attending were speaking out amongst peers so I wasn’t sure they were speaking from the heart.  So I posed the question on LinkedIn, a business oriented social media site.  In LinkedIn there are groups where you can post a discussion/question and members of that group are free to comment.  I posted the question on two sales groups, a CFO group, two HR groups and a general executive group.  297 people responded, offering 495 words and 132 phrases.

The results were both confirming to some of what I have seen before, but at the same time I read words I had never hear in a classroom environment.  Words like “servant” were offered more than once.  I followed up with some people to ensure I understood their meaning as many comments came from around the world.

Visionary was the word most commonly mentioned 1st, and was the most common word offered overall.  Integrity and inspiration came in tied for 2nd.  I won’t bore you by listing all the words, but the longer I thought about them, the more clearly I saw what people thought differentiated this leader from all the others.  When I began to bundle these words under 5 traits it became clear what people value most from leaders vs. everyday managers.  The traits I identified were; technical competency, leadership competency, character, composure, and care for people. 

Competency/Functional – I was surprised that this trait was not more highly valued.  Comments from around the world with many submissions from the technology world still barely registered.  The two most commonly offered words, knowledgeable and competent, only appeared 9 times out of 495 words.

Competency/Leadership – This trait had double the offering of the next most valued trait (of course leadership was part of the question).  The most common submissions were visionary, inspirational, empowering and mentoring.  Of interest to me was that when I sent an email to thank people for commenting in the discussion they offered more information about these traits but rarely mentioned the leader.  I only note this because I found it very different from those who wrote back about character and care for people.

Character – This was the 2nd most commonly valued trait, and easily the most common word used was integrity.  Honesty, humility and trusting were all mentioned often but integrity was offered more often then the other 3 combined.  The tone of follow up discussions was interesting.  This trait was definately highly valued but again, they spoke more about the trait than the person.  My inference was that this trait was the entrance ticket, not the main attraction.

Care for people – This is the 3rd place trait but don’t dismiss this if you aspire to be someone’s best leader!  The words most commonly offered were; Trustworthy, caring, supporting and compassionate.  Now for the most interesting part…this is the trait that naturally evokes the most emotion.  I got unsolicited emails from several respondents thanking me for posing a question that reminded them of a particular person.  More than one told me how warm the memories were.  This was inspirational to me because it seemed that even though this was the third place trait in my survey it may be the trait that many good leaders do not have, or at least do not display.  Statistically this may be in third place, but those that experienced it absolutely loved it.

Composure – This is an interesting trait because people seem to appreciate behavior in a leader that is opposite to those that are following!  In a time of dramatic change, they speak of being calm under pressure.  When the environment is calm and sleepy, they appreciate passion over any overlooked principle.  The top two words were passionate and listens.

This was a very interesting excercise for me and I hope enlightening for you.  If you are inspired to become that one leader that someone will remember…maybe even decades after they worked for you then I would suggest you focus on the following.

Leadership competency – the most high valued trait.  Driven by perceptions of vision, inspiration and empowerment.

Character – the second most valued trait.  Warning!  If anyone spots ANY lack of integrity then move on.  Always do the right thing even when no one is watching.

Care for people – maybe 3rd place in people’s mind but 1st place in their heart.  Perception will be driven by your trustworthiness, compassion and support.

Composure – 4th place BUT a lack of composure will always ruin all the hard work you put in the other traits.  People appreciate calm under pressure and passion over principal.

20 Responses to “Why Leaders Get Followed – Pointers From 297 People Who Chose To Follow”

  1. Edward Williams February 20, 2009 at 8:37 am #


    These are great insights and it would be great to share this with Cold Closing Network. I really like the analysis of the traits broken down into the words… very good stuff. This will help me to increase my leadership skills dramatically. Thanks a bunch for taking the time to pull this together. There will be many to benefit from the time you have invested… and many to be remembered.


  2. thejobcoach February 20, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    Great post. And very timely. I believe folks really care about leadership. I work with clients to help them understand how they can transition from being managers to becoming leaders. They are shocked and delighted.
    The best corporate leader from my sorted past is someone I often quote in blogs and books: Renn Zaphiropoulos, founder of Versatec and later, VP at Xerox which acquired his company. While his is text book high tech adventure, the reason I consider him a true leader is that no matter what he did, he was inclusive. He held whole company meetings once a quarter and shared what was happening, the problems, the solutions, who was chartered with the tasks and the thinking. He claimed he did it to avert speculation and gossip, but the results were low turn over, highly motivated employees and an innovative product line.
    Another of my personal leader/heros is Roy Barker, formerly GM at Tektronix printer division. He, too was inclusive. He frequently walked the halls just chatting with people, even service providers like me. What a man. The printer division was Teks biggest success story, after O scopes.
    Rita Ashley, Job Search Coach
    My clients get hired.

  3. John Feeney February 20, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Visionary is something I always try to mirror in becoming a Leader. Seeing through to a better day an having the determination, committment and compassion for others to achieve it.

  4. Imran February 20, 2009 at 11:31 pm #

    Thanks for a brillaint article . The thing that interest me more is the executive opinion.

    Good luck for many more to come!

  5. Robert DaSilva February 21, 2009 at 7:14 am #

    Thanks… Great job.

  6. Craig Belowski February 22, 2009 at 8:18 am #

    This is a great list for aspiring leaders and those of us already in the role who strive to become better. Leadership, whether your following or leading is inspiring when you are around someone who has this combination of traits. Thanks for making me remember some of the great leaders I have had the pleasure of working with.

  7. Andy Rudin February 23, 2009 at 9:00 am #

    Thanks for sharing these insights. I would like to recommend a book I am reading, “Leading Minds/ An Anatomy of Leadership,” by Howard Gardner. It’s a deep dive into leadership, and contains the profiles of some well-known contemporary leaders. I think leadership in sales requires different competencies than what Gardner profiles, and I regret that in my experience, I have found very, very few exemplary sales leaders. One situation comes to mind during a phone interview I had with one sales VP many years ago. When I asked him what attributes he considers most important in a salesperson, he told me “loyalty.” That was a red flag to me, since he had no leadership vision to offer in exchange for the loyalty he expected. That same person also was late for the call and interrupted our conversation to take a call on his cell phone. When I explained to the recruiter what a poor impression he made, the recruiter told me that it was the end of the quarter and that he was “under a lot of stress.” That was valuable information for me: now I remind my clients that te behaviors people exhibit under stress are more telling about their personalities and abilities than the beaviors they exhibit when things are “normal.”

  8. Skip Anderson February 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    I’m so glad I was introduced to your blog today. I like your post a great deal. I am not surprised that “leadership competency” was the first place word in your informal study. Many start businesses because of the owner’s technical competency, but it is leadership competency, in my view, that propels an organization farther forward than any other trait.

    All the best,


  9. Greg Basham February 26, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    Great summary and analysis of the comments. It is in one of the most instructive exercises I have ever participated in and is both a testament to the power of Linkedin and your personal insights in categorizing the results.

    While I may have been alone in adding the word “courageous” to focused and strategic, it did not mean the CEO I worked with at the time lacked other key leadership characteristics – he didn’t.

    It was because he had the vision that his strategic insights and focus on the critical levers engaged the entire organization in ways that were unprecedented and long lasting for that organization – even today I can still see the impact from outside that successful organization.

  10. Diane L. Harris February 27, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    Frank Steck, he best boss I’ve ever had, stands out in my memory because he was always true to his word, he genuinely cared about the people who worked for him, and he was one of the most enthusiastic encouragers I’ve ever met. Plus he was sharp as a tack. How could you not want to follow someone like that?

  11. Mike March 1, 2009 at 6:50 am #

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  12. oscarmarquez March 1, 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    Thanks for reading my blog “Semper Fi.” I liked your article as well.

  13. Ed Roach March 6, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    For me it’s confidence. Even if we disagree, confidence shows a passion in their convictions.

  14. John C. Turley March 9, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    I agree with your article and the ranking of the leader’s differentiation points. I only add that the leader must demonstrate these qualities at the very outset of their relationship with their followers. The employees must witness and “sense” these admirable leadership characteristics in order to follow. The greater emphasis is on the intuitive side since people must “feel” that the leader has the team’s best interests at heart.


    • CurlyLawp March 16, 2012 at 11:30 am #

      I think even a leader who starts out on the wrong foot, or from a position of weakness, has potiential to be a successful leader.

      My experience? People are very willing to forgive and move on if genuine change is effected. I work in an environment where leaders are acknowledged as being in charge but also being human. I heard it put this way from a team with a struggling manager “We don’t want to have to train an new manager, help her to be the manager we need her to be”.

      I think it says a lot about a group of people who are willing to be led, even when their leader has struggles.

  15. Michael March 12, 2009 at 11:39 am #

    Great post! I would agree with your findings. Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog 🙂

  16. Steve Richards March 13, 2009 at 3:51 am #


  17. Hank Trisler April 3, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    I’m not surprised about the relatively low showing of technical competency. I think people skills are far more important in the leadership function. You hire guys to do the techie stuff.

    I think both “Loyalty” and “Fairness” (a part of your leadership competency) are terribly important.

    A fine post and well worth reading, even if leadership is not your objective. Thanks for all the good work.

  18. Kimberly Collins April 15, 2009 at 6:28 am #

    This post was great. I am a recruiter, thus I meet with so many people everyday that are lost in their careers looking for work. As I learn about their backgrounds and their experiences, most of them entered careers and changed jobs several times, never having found a good leader. Having been lucky enough to have joined a company with an unbelievable leader, I know his influence in my career, was the discerning factor that changed the track my career was on. When I think of what made him different it is a few things:
    1. He is genuine and real. He admitted fault and asked for help.
    2. He is an intensely positive thinker – and his attitude is contagious to his teams.
    3. He is ethical and always does the right thing.
    Thank you for all the great posts.

  19. Hank Trisler June 5, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    Excellent work, Greg. I know it took a LOT of effort to compile these data and then make sense of them. You did an admirable job.

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