What 80 Top Leaders Really Want

Ask any veteran “what do leaders really do?” and you’ll get a fairly predictable set of responses. You’ll probably hear that good leaders cast vision, set direction, inspire and motivate, align and communicate, coach and delegate, and listen well before making final decisions. There are dozens of “How To” leadership books published each year that repackage those skills in an attempt to help aspiring leaders lead well.

What if we asked a different question?

What if we asked veteran leaders, “How do you want to be led?”

During the past two years I had the opportunity to interact with 80 of my organization’s top global leaders who represent every area of the world. Most of these men and women have served for over 15 years in some type of distance leadership involving oversight of strategies in multiple countries. A large percentage have served outside their home nation for five years or longer. They help set longterm direction for our organization and are responsible for moving the mission forward in over 160 nations.

Here are five consistent answers that surfaced from my interviews:

1. Leaders want respect. Though respect is conferred differently in various cultures, people always appreciate graciousness, honor and appropriate deference to their experience. Mature leaders don’t demand respect, rather they exude a gravitas of character and humble confidence that reflects wisdom. Each one is worth listening to.

2. Leaders want understanding and empathy. These women and men have difficult jobs. They travel a lot. Their time is stretched thin. They are doing their best to find rhythm between work, home, church and a meaningful social life. Often they have few true peers that live nearby. Their vision typically outstrips their resources by a factor of 10 or 100. Remember these pressures in conversations where I’m evaluating their effectiveness or asking them to consider taking on a new project. Get on the same emotional page.

3. Leaders want to be led by someone honest, authentic and competent. People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect; they do expect us to be honest. They want to see us respond authentically as we share about our failures and our successes. They want to see us growing in competencies that help us do our jobs well, and thus improve the overall organization. Few, if any, mentioned that they wanted to have their direction set, their strategies formulated, or to be aligned or motivated with more words from leaders above them. If that’s not what people want from their leaders, why would we assume that we should be giving those we lead more of this type of leadership?

4. Leaders want a clear challenge to contribute to the organization’s purpose. That’s why most of them signed on. They want more clarity on the what’s of the mission, not the how’s. They’ll figure out how to get there. They want to be entrusted with more. What they need from us is an appropriate challenge, consistent support, and honest feedback on how they’re doing.

5. Leaders want to share leadership. I found this one fascinating. When our organization restructured two years ago, one of the five principles guiding our efforts was “shared leadership.” Many leaders initially resisted this, claiming that the essence of leadership (at least in their culture) was having someone in charge to make the final decisions. Yet people don’t want to be led that way. They want to voice their opinions. They want to shape overall direction. They long for the dynamic interaction among leader-followers that characterizes high performance teams. They want to be engaged in issues and decisions that they will ultimately own. They long to share leadership.

How do you want to be led?


By Ken

Dr. Ken Cochrum (DMin, Bethel University) is Vice President of Global Digital Strategies at Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) in Orlando, Florida. An avid cyclist and aspiring guitarist, he also holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Texas and a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He recently co-founded, a movement passionate about connecting people to Jesus using digital strategies. He previously served as vice president of Cru’s student-led movements worldwide. He and his wife Ann spent 13 years in East Asia where they raised their two children. Ken blogs regularly at

7 replies on “What 80 Top Leaders Really Want”

This is really helpful, Ken. These are all aspects of leadership I value highly…I would like to be led like this! 🙂 It provides a great grid to think through my own leadership.
I’m curious…did you find that different aspects of leadership were more valued by certain cultures, or were the 5 things you mentioned universal?

@Stephanie – thanks for your comments.

The five themes I found were not universal in the sense that all 80 people mentioned every item. However, they were consistent across all cultures. If you’d like more specifics, you might want to peruse the section of my thesis on Leading Across Cultures (Download here: ; then page 64ff. You may already know about the GLOBE study of nearly 18,000 leaders from 62 national cultures and the development of “Culturally Endorsed Implicit Leadership Theory.” There actually ARE universally desirable leadership traits that are true in all cultures. Kouzes’ and Posner’s research of 25 years and over 2 million participants in their Leadership surveys reflect nearly identical qualities that are true in any culture. Not surprisingly, these also match character and competency requirements for elders, deacons and deaconesses as laid out in the New Testament.

Awesome…thanks for the resources, Ken. I had not heard of the GLOBE study before, but just tracked down the CEILT paper. (I’ve had your thesis on my Kindle…I just need to read it!)

It’s so great Ken, not just a theory but really answered from leaders who really lead and have experience about that.
I want to share about point number 2 and number 5.
As a leader I need my team or people who I lead them understand about my focus on but some time they did not want to understand. So how I must do according with this situation?
And about share leadership. I think that we do not just share leadership without have some potential leader. How or when we should know the right time we want to share our leadership? Thank you.

@Zandy – I appreciate your insights. As for the best time to share leadership – any time I can engage others in discussion, debate, decision-making, and doing the work is the right time to share leadership. Almost always!

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