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.