Getting to guru: A conversation with leadership expert Jim Kouzes
Getting to Guru | This begins an ongoing series of interviews with prominent leadership experts in which we talk about the industry, the advice they have for new authors and the tools they’ve used to carve their careers.
First up is Jim Kouzes, half of the duo who authored one of the tomes in the business-meets-self-help canon, The Leadership Challenge . As Kouzes tells it, the work started when the two were trying to figure out what to do on the second day of a two-day seminar following leadership sage Tom Peters, who had just published In Search of Excellence. He was going to be talking about excellent companies. So Kouzes and Barry Posner decided to focus on what makes individual leaders excellent.
What emerged from that concept was a book that has birthed five editions and sold more than 2 million copies since its first publication in 1987. Kouzes and Posner have also developed the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model, an assessment tool used in leadership training programs at organizations ranging from the Red Cross to the Treasury Department to Cracker Barrel. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
What advice on writing would you give to the many people out there trying to break into the field of leadership publishing?
I don’t know that there’s any other secret to writing than that you have to feel passionate about what you’re writing. Many people tell me that they want to write a book so that they have something to give out as like a calling card. Well that’s great, but is that your passion? Do you feel that the message has to be released from you or you’re going to explode, it’s such a strong passion?
The easy work is coming up with the idea. The hard work is sitting down at the keyboard and waiting until, as they say, blood appears on your forehead. It requires extraordinary amounts of time and effort that I think many authors don’t appreciate about the process. It was another full-time job and required a tremendous amount of commitment.
I also always tell new writers that there’s essentially five Ps to writing: There’s a point of view you have to have, there are principles that support that point of view, there are practices which people can engage in, there are prescriptions so you can tell people how they can put this into practice, and there’s proof or evidence that this works.
How important was it to be part of a network of people, like Tom Peters, who were already very well-known names in this space?
It certainly helps. I think it helped that Barry Posner and I were at an academic institution initially, so we had a place that gave us some legitimacy. We also happened to be in Silicon Valley, a rapidly growing place that a lot of other people were interested in, and I think it helped that a lot of our stories came from there.
And yes, I think it helps tremendously to network with people. I had the good fortune of being invited by Tom to be CEO of the Tom Peters Company about eight years into my job at Santa Clara, so it helped that I had that connection.
People who are new writers, or new to the field, contact me all the time and I am always glad to be of support to them, because I do remember the kind of support I got. So even though folks think that we’re busy—and we are—please give it a shot. Connect with us and ask for an endorsement for a book. And if it’s a good book, generally if we have the time we’re quite willing to support it. Go to conferences and make presentations. And remember, an academic audience isn’t necessarily the audience that’s going to buy a business book. You need to be able to speak at trade association meetings, professional association meetings, places where people who are going to use the book in a business and corporate setting are going to hear you.
Any mistakes you remember making early on in your career?
One was a more conceptual mistake, and another was a mistake in terms of the way we approached marketing and sales.
Our book was about individual leadership behavior—that leadership is everyone’s business and it’s a set of skills and practices that can be learnable by anyone. The conceptual mistake we made in the first edition was that we used hierarchical managerial language throughout our book, even though we talked about leadership as everyone’s business. We two were so immersed in that way of thinking, that only in the second and third editions did we start to realize that we weren’t speaking to everyone even though we were talking about it philosophically. And so I think we have to be diligent that our writing is consistent with our message and our key point of view.
The other error we made was believing that once you publish a book, the publisher’s actually going to go out and sell the book for you. And I love our publisher, but a book becomes successful because of what the authors do, not what the publisher does. Speak as often as you can, to as many groups as you can. Go into bookstores and sign books if they’re on the shelves, make sure that you give copies away to as many people as you feel comfortable. You have to recognize that, as a new author, you’re the primary salesperson for the book.
How have you seen the field change? Of course it’s become more and more crowded, but have you had any other observations?
You’re absolutely right, the field is extremely crowded now and it’s very hard for new authors to get published. And publishing is going through its own transition. And again, I think that speaks to how important it is to find your own point of view that cuts through all of it. What differentiates the authors who tend to be more successful is that they have a clear and distinguished voice.
But in our field, I think another thing that I would say to new writers, based on our experience, is that you need to make your work evidence based these days. That’s one of the things that managers want to know today more so than when we started—and even then it was one of the reasons that people invited us in, because we had evidence. This information didn’t come out of our heads. It came out of observing and listening to what leaders do. And I think that’s what has helped our work survive over time.
Some new authors say one of the most frustrating parts of publishing a book is watching what they see as their fresh, unique voice get homogenized throughout the process. Any advice?
All I can say is that, as writers, you’re going to have to fight for your point of view and for your perspective. If you feel strongly that what the publisher’s doing is not something that you can stand up and speak with conviction about, then you have to tell them that. Not least because they’re going to depend on you to sell it.
Tell me a little bit about building a brand—both around yourself and your work.
We did not start out to build a brand. We listened to the market and what it was telling us. We actually did a brand survey of our material—this was the third edition of The Leadership Challenge. We asked people who were business-book buyers why they bought the books they bought; and we asked people who were both business-book buyers and also bought our book why they bought our book. We found that the common link was, because people want to get better. People buy business books because they want to improve.
That helped us to understand that our audience’s main interest was to learn how to be more effective. And that then enabled us to say, what else can we do to help them be more effective? So I think as long as you stay oriented toward your customer and your constituent, the brand builds itself in a sense—because you are responding to the needs and interests of the marketplace.
Tom Peters once said to me, “Jim, I just admire what you do.” And I said, “Tom, why?” And he said, “Because I couldn’t have written a second edition of In Search of Excellence, or a third edition. I had to go on and do other stuff.” And I think one of the reasons we’ve been able to build the brand we have is that we’ve stuck with it and been consistent. We’ve stayed with it all this time.
Lillian Cunningham is the editor of the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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