The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
Jossey-Bass, 5th edition 2012
Reviewed by Johny Van Aerde,
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Because Barry Posner was one of the keynote speakers at the recent 2016 Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership, this book review focuses on some of the work he has published with his business and research partner, James Kouzes. Their most famous work, The Leadership Challenge, is based on more than 30 years of research and data from thousands of personal best-leadership experiences throughout the world.
At the outset of their research, the authors administered a questionnaire to more than 75 000 people throughout the world, asking what qualities in a leader would inspire them to follow willingly. The results were striking in their consistency and have been confirmed recently in another analysis, 30 years later, for the 5th edition of The Leadership Challenge, and in follow-up books, such as Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It 1 and The Truth about Leadership: the No-fads, Heart-of-the-matter Facts You Need to Know.2
Among characteristics of a leader people are willingly to follow, four rose to the top of the list, each receiving more than 60% of the votes: honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking. These attributes, particularly the first three, make a leader credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership, because constituents must be able to believe in their leaders.
In a separate survey, Kouzes and Posner found that people who perceive their managers as having high credibility are more likely to:
Based on the remarkably similar patterns they discovered across different cultures, the authors developed a model of leadership and came up with essential practices for exemplary leaders to achieve success: model the way; inspire a shared vision; challenge the process; enable others to act; and encourage the heart.
Model the way — This refers to the most fundamental way in which leaders earn and sustain credibility: they do what they say they will do. There are two parts to this practice. To model behaviour effectively, you must first clarify your values: find your own voice and then clearly and distinctly express your values to everyone in the organization. You must believe in the values you express, but those values must not be merely your own personal principles, they must also represent what the organization stands for. However eloquent your speech, you must then follow it with actions that reflect your expressed values. That is where the second part comes in: set an example. Your words and deeds must be consistent. Effective leaders set an example through daily actions demonstrating that they are deeply committed to their beliefs. If you’re not willing to do a given task, why should others be willing? Top
Inspire a shared vision — This is also a two-part practice. First, you must envision the future by imagining and believing in an exciting, highly attractive outlook for the organization. Be confident that you can make that extraordinary future come true. An exemplary leader is exceptionally good at imagining a future that does not yet exist. But the vision in his or her imagination is not enough to create an organized movement or to forge significant change in an organization. The second part of this action is to enlist others in a common vision. To do this, you must convince people that you understand their needs and have their interests at heart. Leadership is a dialogue, not a monologue. You must have intimate knowledge of people’s dreams, hopes, aspirations, visions, and values. You will breathe life into these hopes and dreams and create a unity of purpose by showing constituents how the dream promotes the common good. You must make your own enthusiasm contagious. Top
Challenge the process — Most leadership challenges involve a change in the status quo. In fact, not one of the leaders interviewed by Kouzes and Posner claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same. All leaders must challenge the current process. The first step in doing this is to search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve. These opportunities come from listening and constantly looking outside yourself and your organization for new products, processes, and services. The second part of challenging the existing process is to experiment and take risks, despite the possibility of failure. Good leaders look for small victories, as each small win builds confidence in long-term success. Failure is also a valuable learning experience. Top
Enable others to act — Success requires a team effort. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability. Enabling others to act entails two things. First, foster collaboration and build trust. Engage all who must make the project work, including peers, managers, customers, clients, and suppliers. Trust is a central issue in human interactions. People who are trusting are more likely to feel happy and well-adjusted than those who view the world with suspicion, and they are more satisfied with their organization. By creating a climate of trust, a leader takes away the controls and gives people the freedom to innovate and contribute. Second, strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence. Make it possible for others to do good work. Good leaders do not hoard power, they give it away.
Encourage the heart — This refers to genuine acts of caring to uplift the spirits of the people on the team. First, recognize contributions. Show appreciation for individual excellence by both expecting the best and personalizing recognition. Second, celebrate values and victories by creating a spirit of community. This serves to align behaviour with the cherished values expressed at the outset. Top
In summary, we are not born leaders; we become leaders by learning skills and abilities that can be strengthened, honed, and enhanced. The five practices of exemplary leaders form such a set of skills. Leaders who adopt these practices create higher-performing teams, increase customer satisfaction levels, and foster loyalty and greater organizational commitment. People who work with leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent are significantly more satisfied, committed, energized, and productive.
The Leadership Challenge is a classic in the world of leadership and deserves a spot on your bookshelf. The other books by Kouzes and Posner1,2 further expand on some aspects of the main book and don’t deserve the additional investment. Top
The leadership challenge in the Canadian health care system
Why are the five practices of exemplary leaders not visible throughout our health care system? How can they be introduced into it? How can each of us apply and practise them in our own smaller component of the larger health system?
1.Kouzes JM, Posner BZ. Credibility: how leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2011.
2.Kouzes JM, Posner BZ. The truth about leadership: the no-fads, heart-of-the-matter facts you need to know. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2010.
Johny Van Aerde, MD, MA, PhD, FRCPC, is past president of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders and editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership.
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