Today, I spoke to Jim Kouzes, who is the one million copy bestselling author of The Leadership Challenge, and author of his latest book The Truth about Leadership: The No-fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know. In this interview, Jim talks about the myths of leadership, proven leadership practices, and more.
What are some myths about leadership that you hear all the time?
As technologically advanced as our world is, there still persists an insidious myth that leadership is reserved for only a lucky few who genetically inherit the trait. We are confronted with it nearly every time we give a speech or conduct a workshop when someone asks, “Are leaders born or made?” Let’s get something straight. Leadership is not preordained. It is not a gene, and it is not a trait. There’s no hard evidence to support the assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that the rest of us missed out and are doomed to be clueless.
Too often images of who’s a leader and who’s not are all mixed up in preconceived notions about what leadership is and is not. Conventional wisdom portrays leadership as something found mostly at the top. Myth and legend treat leadership as if it were the private reserve of a very few charismatic men and women. Nothing is further from the truth. Leadership is much more broadly distributed in the population, and it’s accessible to anyone who has passion and purpose to change the way things are.
Over the last couple of years, we analyzed data from over a million people around the globe to assess the practices of leaders. The numbers reveal that the behavior of leaders explains more about why they feel engaged and positive about their workplaces than any particular individual or organizational characteristic. Factors like age, gender, ethnicity, function, position, nationality, organizational size, and the like together account for less than 1 percent of the reason that people feel productive, motivated, energized, and the like in their workplaces. The leaders’ behaviors, on the other hand, explain nearly 25 percent of the reason.
“Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do.”
What are three real and proven leadership tactics that work in the world today?
In our research examining Personal Best Leadership Experiences, we’ve identified Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership that are shared across the vast majority of those cases. When performing at their best leaders:
- Model the Way—they clarify values and set an example based on a set of shared values.
- Inspire a Shared Vision—they envision an uplifting future and they enlist others in a common vision.
- Challenge the Process—they search for opportunities and experiment and take risks, learning from the accompanying mistakes.
- Enable Others to Act—they foster collaboration and strengthen others.
- Encourage the Heart—they recognize contributions and celebrate the values and the victories.
For each of these practices there are many specific behaviors and methods that leaders can use to genuinely enact each of them. Here are three that you might try.
- In our research we find that personal values drive commitment. You just won’t devote the time and energy to giving it your best if it’s inconsistent with your values and beliefs. Therefore, it’s critical that you take time to clarify what you stand for. Try writing you Credo Memo—a short one-page statement that clearly and succinctly communicates the principles that you firmly believe should guide decisions and actions. And, as important as your values are to you, your team members’ values are to them. Equally significant is that shared values also make a difference in team performance. So, ask each of your team members to write their own Credo Memos. Use these statements as the agenda for a team meeting. Have a dialogue, and continually ask, “Why is that important to you?” until everyone has a clear understanding of what is important to each person. Then, look for those common values that people seem to share. I assure you that this kind of dialogue will go a long way to increasing trust among team members and will also give them guidance on the short list of values that should guide everyone’s behavior.
- Being forward-looking is the quality that differentiates leaders from other credible people. It’s the characteristic that distinguishes leaders from individual contributors. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competence of leaders. You have to take the long-term perspective. As a leader, you have to bring this perspective to your team. Once each month, devote a team meeting to a discussion of the future. Ask each person to bring a magazine article, blog, Twitter post, video clip, or notes from a conversation they had about a social, political, economic, or technological development that will have an impact on their part of the business in the future. Just having this conversation will extend people’s time horizon, and it will also produce innovative ideas about new services and products that can be developed to address future needs.
- The truth is that you can’t do it alone. No leader ever got anything extraordinary done without the talent and support of others. What strengthens and sustains the relationship between leader and constituent is that leaders are obsessed with what is best for others, not what is best for themselves. Your job as a leader is to increase other people’s capacity to perform their jobs and not to diminish their capacity. Your reason for being, as my friend and former president of Levis Strauss & Company USA, has said, “Really believe in your heart of hearts that your fundamental purpose, the reason for being, is to enlarge the lives of others. Your life will be enlarged also.” So, here’s a question you should ask yourself prior to every interaction you have with one of your constituents, no matter how brief it might be: “What can I do right now so that by the end of our interaction this person will feel more capable and powerful than he or she did when we started?”
Can you name some leadership advice that was given years ago that doesn’t work today?
Leadership may have once been a right conferred by rank and privilege. It may have once been something that was characterized by a command-and-control, top-down, and do-as-I-say style. But no more. Those days are long gone. Today, leadership is only an aspiration. It is something you have to earn every day, because daily people choose whether or not they’re going to follow you willingly. (Willingly is the key word in this sentence!) Like product and service quality, it’s something you keep striving to achieve and never assume you’ve fully attained it.
The old organizational hierarchy is hollow. It just can’t generate the kind of commitment that’s required in our global society. (It can’t generate commitment in any kind of organization, really, but that’s another story.) Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. Any discussion of leadership must attend to the dynamics of this kind of relationship. Strategies, tactics, skills, and practices are empty unless the fundamental human aspirations that connect leaders and their constituents are understood and appreciated.
Perhaps the most significant shift in leadership has been away from the notion of leadership as command-and-control to one of serve-and-support. Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and one of the world’s foremost experts on social media, in referring to the late Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive turned management scholar, commented that he “…turned leadership on its head, positioning executives as humble stewards of the corporation, not the almighty heads of them.” Then she offered this: “What’s changed today is that the new technologies allow us to let go of control and still be in command…The result of these new relationships is open leadership, which I define as: having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.” In the last quarter-century the world has seen the creation of tools that make servant leadership more than a theory; they make it a necessity. Only when leaders turn leadership on its head and truly understand that they do not have the same top-down authority that they once did—and that a more open approach to leadership is the new normal—will they fully realize the potential of a more open society and the powerful social media technologies that enable it.
People need to feel that they are in control of their own lives. They have a powerful innate need for personal autonomy and self-determination. Everyone wants to believe that they can influence other people and influence life’s events. It gives them a sense of order and stability in their own lives.
And even in what might be thought of as traditional command-and-control organizations, such as the military, top-down authority doesn’t work like many think it does. Studies involving soldiers in combat in Iraq found that the more the soldiers trusted their platoon leaders, the more willing they were to accept their leader’s influence concerning their motivation to become better group members, strive for excellence, and improve as a person. Even in a traditionally command-and-control environment, trust comes first, following comes second; not the other way around. Trust motivates people to go beyond mere compliance with authority. It motivates them to reach for the best in themselves, their team, and their organization. There’s a very powerful message here, and all leaders need to pay attention.
I grew up in Washington D.C., and I had the good fortune of being exposed to some very influential leaders early in my life. I was also an Eagle Scout, and, as a result, was selected to serve in John Kennedy’s Honor Guard. The words he spoke in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” — have stayed with me throughout my life. His words influenced me to join the Peace Corps after I graduated and later to be part of the war on poverty. The Peace Corps was a major turning point in my life. Not only was I able to serve and to experience another country and culture, I was also introduced to teaching and training as a career option.
Through a couple of serendipitous encounters, I ended up at Santa Clara University in 1981 as the director of the Executive Development Center in the business school. There I met Barry Posner. Barry stopped by my office on my first day of work and said, “Jim, if there’s anything I can do to help you, just let me know.” Little did he realize I would take his offer very seriously. We soon discovered that we had a common interest in corporate culture and managerial values. That shared interest led to writing a paper together. A year later, we were writing our first book, The Leadership Challenge.
I’m inspired daily by the everyday leaders who step up to the leadership challenge. These aren’t the folks who are well known or who make the headlines or the covers of magazines. They’re the line managers, principals, coaches, community leaders, local officials, youth leaders, and others, who are taking the initiative to turn around a losing operation, or renew a decaying neighborhood, or create a winning team, or start a new business, or organize young people to plant trees. These are the leaders we mostly write about in our books, and they are the ones who give us hope and uplift our spirits. It’s these leaders who will restore our confidence and our economy.
Who are some leaders that have used the advice in your book to their advantage?
Just the other day I got an email from a woman telling me about her own leadership journey. She wrote — and she prefers to be anonymous, so I’ve left out her name — that she’s studying for her master’s degree and has been working for many years in government. She said, “I have had a lot of textbooks to read and review. But, I enjoy yours the most. Because, I am no big CEO, never will be, nobody rich or famous….I do have two B.S. degrees, but I do not use large words or try to appear to be anything other than I am: a mother, grandmother and coal miner’s daughter. Your book seems to have been written for people like myself. Not for Donald Trump…. But, your book has opened my eyes that maybe someone like myself does have possibility of being a leader.”
Of all the emails I have received, this one has moved me the most. I couldn’t have hoped for more affirming feedback. We hope that our books can move people to believe that they, too, can learn to lead and that they are capable of making a difference. Leadership begins with a belief in yourself, and when you have that belief then you can begin to say yes to lots of opportunities.
Jim Kouzes is the co-author with Barry Posner of the award-winning and best selling book, The Leadership Challenge, with over one million copies sold. He’s also the Dean’s Executive Professor of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. The Leadership Challenge, available in fifteen languages including Chinese, was the winner of the James A. Hamilton Hospital Administrators’ Book, the Critics’ Choice Award, and was a BusinessWeek bestseller for three years. Not only is James Kouzes a highly regarded leadership scholar and experienced executive, The Wall Street Journal has cited him as one of the “twelve best executive educators in the U.S.” In 2006 Jim Kouzes was presented with the Golden Gavel, the highest honor awarded by Toastmasters International. A popular leadership speaker, Jim Kouzes‘ clients include: Accenture, Applied Materials, AT&T, Boeing, Charles Schwab, and Cisco Systems. His latest book is called The Truth about Leadership: The No-fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know.