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The Leadership Challenge: Interview with Jim Kouzes

Posted on March 6, 2016

Jim Kouzes is the co-author of the global best-seller, The Leadership Challenge, which has sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 20 languages and remains a must-read for anyone serious about being an exemplary leader. The book and its decades of research is the basis for The Leadership Challenge workshop, which is popular internationally as a practical approach to improving leadership and offered locally by Focus.

When Jim Kouzes was recently in the UAE, Focus General Manager, David Brennan, sat down with him to hear his insights and wisdom from over 35 years of researching leadership. An edited version of the interview also appears in Capital Letter, the official publication of the British Business Group, UAE.

In preparing for this interview, I Googled “Leadership” and got back 621 million responses in less than one second. With so much written on this topic, what makes your leadership thinking with Barry Posner stand apart?

JK: Barry Posner and I began researching, writing, teaching and training about leadership nearly 35 years ago when we were colleagues at Santa Clara University. So, we’re not newcomers to this conversation. We’ve dedicated our careers to advancing the knowledge and practice of leadership. 

When we first began our exploration, we wanted to know what leaders did when they were performing at their best. To explore this question, we asked people to tell us a story about their “personal-best leadership experiences.” We’ve collected thousands of these stories over the last three decades, and one of the things that distinguishes our research from others is that we talked to leaders at all levels. Much of leadership thinking and writing is about top executives or famous historical leaders, but our work has been about ordinary leaders who make extraordinary things happen. We see leadership as everyone’s business, and because of that we’ve gathered cases and conducted quantitative research on leaders in almost every organizational function, across most industries, in 70 different countries, spanning ages from as young as seven years old through 80 years old.

Because our research and writing has been about a broad spectrum of leaders, another important feature of our work is that people can easily relate to it. They can see themselves doing what we write about because we share examples of people just like them engaging in the practices of exemplary leadership. They can imagine themselves doing the things we describe. The word leadership in the dictionary doesn’t start with a capital “L,” but rather it begins with a lower case “l.” We write about exemplary leadership that is applicable at home, in schools, in the community, in religious organizations, in the workplace, and elsewhere.

A third way our work stands out is that it’s evidence-based. We have applied the rigor of science to the art of leadership, and everything that we write, teach, and speak about is supported by quantitative research. Just recently, for example, we analysed over 2 million responses to our Leadership Practices Inventory— our assessment tool. With this data we’re able to look at the impact of leader behaviour on engagement, how leaders perform across various regions of the world, the differences between men and women, and other relevant issues.  Additionally, other researchers have used our model in over 600 different studies, making it one of the most-used frameworks in leadership research.

Finally, it’s practical. While we have been rigorous in our research, we’ve also been disciplined in making sure that leaders can apply The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® to their everyday work as leaders. It’s not a theory. It’s an applied approach to making extraordinary things happen in organizations.

You mention there are The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. Could you share a little more?

JK: When we examined the actions leaders took in their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences we observed a common pattern in what they did. Across these cases leaders engaged in what we came to call The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. When performing at their best, leaders:

  • Model the Way—Exemplary leaders clarify values and set an example based on a set of shared values.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision— Exemplary leaders envision an uplifting future and enlist others in a common vision.
  • Challenge the Process— Exemplary leaders search for opportunities and experiment and take risks, learning from the accompanying mistakes.
  • Enable Others to Act— Exemplary leaders foster collaboration and strengthen others.
  • Encourage the Heart— Exemplary leaders recognise contributions and celebrate the values and the victories.

Is it as simple as a leader using these Five Practices or is there more to it?

JK: The Five Practices are the fundamentals that leaders demonstrate to make extraordinary things happen. But within each practice there are commitments and behaviours that bring each practice to life. For example, the Leadership Practices Inventory has 30 specific behaviours that we measure, and it’s these behaviours that inform The Five Practices and their application to work.

Think about it as similar to the operating system (OS) and apps on your smart phone. The OS is what enables the device to function and the apps to work, but the apps are what enable you to do specific things. And just as it is with the apps for our mobile devices, there are thousands of different applications of The Five Practices that leaders can employ to Model, Inspire, Challenge, Enable, and Encourage. The what of leadership—the operating system and The Five Practices—are similar across different platforms, but the how of leadership—the specific applications of each practice can vary from leader to leader and organisation to organisation.

While there is no model of leadership that accounts for one hundred per cent of why constituents are engaged and perform effectively, we know that The Five Practices explain more of the variance than any other single variable.

So how will a leader know if they are being successful in using the Practices and behaviours?

JK: The best way to know if you are being successful in using The Five Practices is to get feedback from your constituents—from the people who are most impacted by your leadership behaviour. In our programmes we use the Leadership Practices Inventory for that purpose. It’s a 30-item questionnaire that asks leaders and their mangers, peers, direct reports, and other observers to rate the leader on the frequency with which they demonstrate those behaviours. We also ask open-ended questions about what the leader is doing well, what the leader can do more of or less of, and what the leader can do to improve. In addition to the LPI, we often will interview the leaders and a few key constituents to get some qualitative information about the setting and the leaders behaviour.

Feedback is absolutely vital to growth and development. Leaders can’t improve if they don’t know how they are doing and the ways in which they can improve. Unfortunately, in our research we find that asking for feedback is the most difficult of all of the behaviours for leaders to execute. “How am I doing?” seems to be a very challenging question for leaders to ask.

Do you think the challenges faced by leaders today are different from when you first started researching almost 40 years ago?

JK: There’s nothing in the research to suggest that the practices of leadership are radically different from what they were 40 years ago, and we don’t think they’ll be radically different 40 years from now. The content of leadership has not changed much at all since we started our work, but the context has changed—and in some cases it’s changed dramatically.

We live in what many refer to as a VUCA world—a time when there is high degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The rapid pace of change, the disruption of many traditional industries, and the increase in worries of global terrorism have clearly contributed to this. Another major shift is how connected the world is. Technology has connected us into a global electronic village. The Internet and wireless technology have shrunk the globe to the size of a mobile phone.

The economy is also much more global than when we first started writing. From an economic perspective the world is boundaryless—and the implications for leadership extend beyond pure economics. The implica­tions are cultural as well. With global economics comes a global workforce, a fact of life to which all leaders will have to adjust.

There’s also a changing workforce. Ethnic, gen­der, generational, and lifestyle diversity is on the rise. There’s no going back to the days of a stable, homogeneous workforce. A diverse society brings a diverse workforce. And with a more diverse work­force comes a demand for a more customized approach to work.

These are just some of the contextual changes that we have experienced, and each generation has to adapt leadership to its own historical context while accepting that there are fundamentals of leadership practice and human behaviour that remain steady and constant. This is not to say that we never learn new methods and techniques or discover new “truths” about ourselves; we’re just saying that people shouldn’t be reinventing the leadership wheel every few years.

How does The Leadership Challenge equip a leader to deal with a dynamic, global marketplace?

JK: For over three decades we’ve been asking people to tell us about their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences. And when people tell us their stories of leadership bests, they tell us about dealing with challenge, with difficulty, with adversity, and with hardship. We did not ask people to tell us about challenge; we asked them to tell us about their personal-best leadership experiences. We asked them to tell us about an event or series of events that they believed to be their individual standard of excellence. The fact that people chose to talk about challenging and adverse times caught our attention and peaked our interest.

From the very beginning of our research we learned that no one ever got anything extraordinary done without initiating or accepting a challenge. Challenge, it turns out, is the crucible for greatness. Adversity is opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a change for the better. When leaders are focused on how they can find meaning in adversity they can make extraordinary things happen.

Change is the domain in which leaders can be most effective. In fact our data prove that engaging more frequently in each of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership produces higher levels of engagement, especially in a dynamic and global marketplace and a VUCA world. 

This is your second visit to the Middle East in twelve months. What are your reflections on how being an exemplary leader differs in the Middle East versus the rest of the world (if at all)? 

It has been a great joy to work with colleagues in the Middle East. The reception to our work has been wonderfully rewarding and the people have been exceedingly gracious. We are grateful for the opportunity to share our research and writing with leaders in this region, and many people have expressed to me how much they appreciate the validity and usefulness of The Five Practices. There seems to be a good fit between the values and practices of The Leadership Challenge and the culture in the Middle East.

There is great similarity between the Middle East and other regions of the world when we look at the impact of The Five Practices on engagement and performance. Our research shows unequivocally that those leaders who more frequently use The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® are considerably more effective than their counterparts who use them infrequently.

Statistical analyses reveal that a leader’s behaviour explains on average 37 per cent of direct reports’ workplace engagement. In the Middle East, a leader’s behaviour explains 48 per cent of the variance, the second highest of any region we’ve studied. That tells us that in the Middle East there’s potential for exemplary leaders to have even more of a positive impact on engagement and performance than in other regions. Of course, the opposite can also be true, so it’s really important for people in the region to develop their leadership skills and abilities. 

While The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership don’t explain 100 per cent of why leaders and their organizations are successful, it’s very clear that engaging in them makes a significant and meaningful difference no matter who the leaders are or where they are located. How you behave as a leader matters, and it matters a lot.  

Finally Jim, if you could give one piece of advice to a leader, what would it be?

JK: When I asked Don Bennett, the first amputee to climb Mt. Rainier, to tell me the most important lesson he learned from his historic ascent, he replied, "You can't do it alone." Now here's a guy who just hopped 14,410 feet on one leg and two poles, who had done something no one else had ever done, and he attributes his success to teamwork. 

All too often when people talk about leadership they describe it as a solo performance. Nothing is further from the truth. Grand dreams never become significant realities through the actions of a single person. Making extraordinary things happen requires team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships. It requires collective competence and group collaboration. Leadership is relationship. Only when you can build the kind of relationship that allows people to do their best—and for you to do your best—will you succeed as a leader. 

This is serious stuff. People can graduate at the top of the class from the best universities in the world, reason circles around their brightest peers, solve technical problems with wizard-like powers, have the relevant situational, functional, and industry experience, and still be more likely to fail than succeed—unless they can also work well with others. When thinking about what it will take to succeed as a leader, just keep that advice from Don Bennett front of mind: You can’t do it alone.

Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. An experienced speaker, he lectures on leadership around the world to corporations, governments and non-profits. Most recently he provided a keynote at the 2015 HR Summit and Expo in Dubai.  

Jim has co-authored over 30 extensively-researched books, a foundation of knowledge that now informs The Leadership Challenge, a training program known worldwide as one of the most practical models of leadership development (published by Wiley).

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