The leadership challenge, 25 years later

August 8, 2012

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner began researching and quantifying the study of leadership in 1982, and the first edition of The Leadership Challenge arrived in 1987. Since then, through their ongoing studies and thousands of conversations with leaders of all types, they’ve accumulated decades of knowledge about the practice and refined the application of their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. With the release of the 5th edition of The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner sat down to share 25 years of observations and wisdom since their book’s first publication. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

Why do you think The Leadership Challenge has achieved such longevity?

Barry Posner: Leadership is not a fad. It never goes out of fashion. There’s not a sense that somehow there’s a year for leadership, and then we focus on something else. Leadership always has been and will be, because we know that leaders make the difference—for better and worse. So there’s always been this interest in trying to figure out what makes effective leaders. And what we’ve found in the 1980s is the same as in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010 and so on. And the answer has been the same whether we’ve asked the questions in the United States or Europe or Asia, or we’ve asked it to millennials or to senior citizens.

Jim Kouzes: That’s one of the more surprising things, despite all the changes. There’s nothing new, magical, that’s emerged that we’ve said, “Wow, this is the silver bullet.”

What is it about the fifth edition that’s new and different from the previous four?

Barry Posner: It’s much more prescriptive than descriptive. After writing five editions, we’ve gotten more and more confident about what we think the truth is and the important levers are. So in this book, we write directly to the reader—you are reading this book because you want to be a better leader and here’s what you need to do to accomplish that.

Jim Kouzes: And what has been different, of course, is context. And context changes all the time.

You bring up context, and social media has drastically altered the context. How has technology changed the way we lead?

Jim Kouzes: To use an analogy, while technology has improved the game of tennis—there are better rackets, better strings, new polymers they use can whip the ball faster—the fundamentals of playing a good game of tennis have been around since the beginning of tennis. You have got to be able to serve it, have a ground stroke, have a backhand. You have to be able to do some basics.

Barry Posner: Yet I do think that the technology today requires even greater transparency on the part of leaders. And that transparency at the individual level requires greater clarity on the part of the individual. Who am I? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What do I want people to know about what I do?  We used to ask people, “Do you want what you’re doing to be reported on the front page of the New York Times?”  It’s faster today. Would you want people to tweet what you just did? Because that’s the new reality.

Why do you think the leadership industry has grown so much?

Barry Posner: The cynical side of me says it’s because we’ve seen more bad leadership. Leaders make a difference, and it’s not always positive. And my personal feeling is one of the people who has done the most to fuel that criticism is Scott Adams, author of the comic strip Dilbert. The leadership column that’s read by more people in the world every single day is Dilbert. And it’s all about the disconnect between what people say and what they do, particularly managers. Every single day, you get delivered a Dilbert story. They tricked us again. There’s fraud. There’s missed promises. They blew expectations out of proportion. You don’t have to read the headlines. That’s your daily reminder in the comic strip.

And there’s no comic super hero that we read about every single day that’s doing what leaders need to do. Being intentional, being clear, following through, being trustworthy, being appreciative, being optimistic. So we, the industry, are mainly responding to that.

Jim Kouzes: Organizations are realizing, also, that they don’t have the bench strength that they need to fill the leadership pipeline. They look down the road a few years—baby boomers are going to retire eventually, and that’s going to leave a big hole. Unless those slots are filled by competent, well-trained and experienced leaders, it’s going to create a problem.

People are getting the message that exemplary leadership is a competitive advantage. There is no other variable—not pay, not industry, not the type of degree you have, not even your organizational strategy—that has the type of impact on employee engagement that leadership does.

In which areas or industries do you think leadership training needs to be more employed?

Jim Kouzes: In the public sector we’re not seeing a reinvestment in leadership development. And in education it’s even worse. Education is now falling behind, which is a really sad situation. They need exceptional leaders just like the rest of organizations. And if they’re not investing in developing their leaders, they’re not going to see the same type of improvement, employee engagement, employee performance, that private organizations will.

Across the board, where do you see the most room for improvement as it pertains to leadership behaviors?

Jim Kouzes: First is the practice of inspiring a shared vision. If you compare all five practices to each other, that’s the one that leaders don’t engage in as frequently. And yet we know that when leaders are better able to articulate a vision of the future, people are more likely to be higher performers. So improving that capacity is going to improve performance across the board.

And that also applies to the behavior of asking for feedback. Leaders, historically, as we look at our data, haven’t asked for feedback on a regular basis. And you can’t learn if you don’t ask for feedback. And so one thing we encourage a lot of people to do is increase the frequency with which they ask two simple questions. How am I doing? And what can I do to improve?

One other thing that we have been finding consistently over the past 30 years is that personal credibility is the foundation of leadership. The most important aspects for your credibility are honesty, trustworthiness and competence. But sadly, as we’ve seen with scandals in business, government and universities, there are too many leaders who don’t live up to the highest standards we expect. And it’s important that we hold this standard up. Otherwise the very foundation of leadership, personal credibility, is gone and we increase public cynicism and the likelihood that organizations will cause harm in the future.

Joe Frontiera is the coauthor of Team Turnarounds, released in July 2012 by Jossey-Bass. He is also a managing partner at Meno Consulting.

More from On Leadership:

Getting to guru: Jim Kouzes on writing, branding and the leadership industry

VIDEO | Jim Kouzes on leadership and zebras

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