James Kouzes: The Challenge of Leadership

James Kouzes

James Kouzes

James M. Kouzes is a professor at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business. He’s also the co-author, with Barry Posner, of more than a dozen books on leadership development, including the award-winning The Leadership ChallengeA Leader’s LegacyCredibility, and Encouraging the Heart.

The Wall Street Journal has called Kouzes one of the twelve best executive educators in the US. His clients include Accenture, Applied Materials, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, Charles Schwab, Dell Computers, and a host of other companies.

For more than twenty years, The Leadership Challenge has been a trusted resource. The fourth edition of the book includes updated research and case studies.

We asked Kouzes to update us on the latest about leadership.

Interview Summary: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership

  1. Model the Way
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision
  3. Challenge the Process
  4. Enable Others to Act
  5. Encourage the Heart

Source: The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

McLaughlin: What is the challenge you address in The Leadership Challenge?

Kouzes: The initial subtitle of the book was “how to get extraordinary things done in an organization,” and I think that reflects the basic challenge we’re discussing. Leaders must strive for higher levels of performance and make sure that they are doing exemplary, not just ordinary work.

But there’s another reason why we ended up using challenge in the title. When we started our research twenty-five years ago, we wanted to discover the actions that leaders took when they were at their personal best. When we asked leaders to tell us a story about a time when they achieved their peak performance, one of the things that came out was that personal best always involved some kind of challenge.

McLaughlin: Leadership has so many definitions that sometimes that term loses its meaning. How do you define it?

Kouzes: Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. That part about struggling for shared aspirations may set our definition apart.

From our analysis of the thousands of personal best stories we’ve collected, we have come to define leadership through a set of five practices of exemplary behavior:

You’ve got to first be clear about a set of values and beliefs that will guide you, and then you need to set a personal example. Second, you have to inspire a shared vision—think about the long term and then enlist others in a mutual vision of that future.

The third is to challenge the process, search for opportunities to grow, innovate and improve, and then experiment and take the risks necessary to bring about that change. Fourth, enable others to act by strengthening individual capacity and fostering collaboration. And lastly, encourage the heart by celebrating the values and the victories of the group, as well as recognizing individual contributions to success.

McLaughlin: Do you think leaders are better now as a result of all the studies and material that’s been written on this subject?

Kouzes: I find this an intriguing question because my entire career has been devoted to developing better leaders, and it’s often humbling to look at how we’ve done over the years.

When we compare the most recent scores on our leadership practices to the average of five years ago, we see a very slight decline in scores. The initial reaction is oh, the numbers tell us that leadership has gotten worse, or at least not gotten any better.

But there is greater awareness and more sophistication about leadership. And we could even say that leaders have actually improved because constituents are now tougher graders. They’re looking for even more effective leaders.

It’s not unlike what’s happened in sports—tennis, golf, track, team sports, and so on—we’ve raised the bar higher and expect more. We’re tougher. It’s more difficult to attain higher levels of performance.

McLaughlin: Are there typical stumbling points or common mistakes that you see leaders make?

Kouzes: Two things come to mind. According to our data, the area in which leaders have the poorest performance is inspiring a shared vision. Of the five practices, consistently over time, that’s been the most difficult for leaders to master—despite all the emphasis on how important it is for leaders to have and convey a vision.

If we look closer at our data, leaders come up short in the ability to make their vision compelling to their constituents. Leaders not only need a vision, but must be able to communicate it in such a way that other people want to join in and see that it’s in their interests to further that vision.

The way to enlist others is not through facts and figures. What we imagine or recall when we think about an exciting place or idea is the senses it evokes—the sights, smells, tastes, and feelings. That’s what leaders need to communicate to inspire a shared vision.

The second weakness which the majority of leaders share is failing to ask others for feedback. It’s an area in which people consistently score the lowest, both in their own opinions and in the opinion of others. And yet the most fundamental way to improve performance is by getting feedback on how we’re doing.

At some level, I think we’re all uncomfortable with feedback. We don’t, as leaders, ask for it until HR mandates a 360 degree assessment. And then we cringe before we receive that written report. The best leaders are the best learners, and they invite feedback. For some people, that’s scary.

McLaughlin: Do you think there are common assumptions about leaders—like they’re born versus made—that hold people back from becoming better leaders?

Kouzes: You’ve put your finger on the first common assumption about leadership that hamstrings people: that leadership is some kind of gift or talent. And it’s just not the case. No one is born with a particular gene for being a carpenter, basketball player, engineer, or a leader.

The assumption that leadership is a gift holds us back from learning. Leadership is a set of skills and abilities. If you have the desire, which is really critical, and the proper training, coaching, and the personal will to work hard and practice, you can significantly improve your ability to lead over time.

Another assumption that holds us back is that it’s really about the leader, which it’s not. Leadership is about relationships. True understanding comes from the dynamics between leader and constituents, between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.

The third assumption that inhibits us is that you find leadership only at the highest levels of society and organizations. Of course, this notion is reinforced every day when you read about CEOs, presidents, or famous leaders on the covers of business and news magazines.

Those people represent a fraction of the total number of real leaders. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, the most influential leaders are those who are closest to us, like our immediate manager. Our immediate managers have far more impact on our day-to-day behavior than the CEO of any corporation.

McLaughlin: If people want to assess their own abilities as leaders, how do you suggest they get started?

Kouzes: Before you can assess your capability as a leader, you first need a framework for that assessment. Now we happen to use the five practices of exemplary leadership model which we talked about earlier.

Recognizing that the practice which seems to make us most uncomfortable is asking others for feedback, start there. Based on that feedback, you’ll get a profile of where you’re strong and what you need to work on.

Then, set improvement goals and create designed learning activities, whether it’s one-on-one learning, reading, observing others, or seeking specific experiences. Pick a method for your development plan and follow it. And then it’s just iterating that cycle many times over.

But make sure you pay as much attention to the activity and the technique as you do to the outcome. Yes, you have goals to improve, but also focus on getting the technique right, whether it’s interviewing, negotiation, or presentation skills.

Another important point about developing expertise is that you have to practice a lot to become an expert. If you compare experts to average performers, the research suggests that experts log about twice as many hours compared to those who are average.

McLaughlin: Any advice on how consultants can become better leaders in client environments where they have responsibility and accountability but very little authority?

Kouzes: The greatest test of leadership comes when you don’t have line authority. I think one could argue that leading volunteers is the only true test of leadership skill because you can’t use that ultimate authority a manager has to say well, do it because I’m your boss and I can make you do it.

If you have no authority, you can’t fall back on position to get people to act. The situation that you describe requires the purest form of leadership. It requires true mastery of the five practices. Whether you’re a consultant who’s working with a client team or you’re trying to influence a client, you have to be better than they are at leading.

I think the first thing for a leader without authority to ask is: what are the needs of my constituents, the people I’m trying to lead? And then, can I provide that?

McLaughlin: If you were to give a consultant one piece of advice on becoming a better leader, what would it be?

Kouzes: It’s really two words: deliberate practice. The whole notion of talent has been highly overrated and will only get you so far. The rest is about hard work and deliberate practice.

Carve out at least two hours every day to use as a learning experience of deliberate practice. That means going back to what we discussed earlier about developing a plan for improvement. Set a goal, and engage in designed learning activities to help you achieve that goal. Make sure you pay as much attention to technique as outcome. Get some feedback on how well you’re doing and then, based on that, reset your goals.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

Find out more about James Kouzes at www.leadershipchallenge.com.

You might also be interested in our podcast, James Kouzes: Credibility.

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