Exemplary Leadership with Jim Kouzes

Exclusive Interview with:

Cited by the Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the USA, Jim Kouzes brings his expertise in employee relations, leadership and management to his keynote speeches. Dean’s Executive Professor of Leadership at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, he is also co-author of the award-winning book, The Leadership Challenge.

I’ve had a lifelong interest in leadership, and I think that was influenced a lot by the fact that I grew up in the Washington DC suburbs.

SPEAKING.COM: Your book, The Leadership Challenge, is widely read and highly regarded. Why has it resonated with so many people?

KOUZES: We have had such a wonderful response to our book over the years, and we’re very blessed that after 28 years and the fifth edition, (now working on the sixth edition),we feel really honored that we are still talking about the book with you and with our readers.

We hear from our readers that one of the major reasons why they have continued to use our book and why new readers pick it up is because it’s evidence-based. We have done research from the very beginning. The book was based on conversations with everyday leaders who managed businesses, non-profits and governmental agencies and military organizations. We even spoke with young people who led community-based organizations.

Our research resulted in the development of the model. So the model emerged from the readers and people like the readers. The leaders we researched aren’t famous people, although some of them have become well known. They are everyday leaders like the readers of our book; therefore, people can relate to them. We also get the feedback that our model is easy to understand, yet it’s in a language that people can easily grasp and use in their everyday work. I think that’s the answer to question one.

SPEAKING.COM: What interests you about leadership and how it can help improve our organizations and communities?

KOUZES: I’ve had a lifelong interest in leadership, and I think that was influenced a lot by the fact that I grew up in the Washington DC suburbs. My father, after World War II, served as a civil servant working for the United States government. We used to visit the city at least once a week – the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the home of George Washington.

All of those museums and monuments influenced me to have a great interest in the founding of the country, the history of the country, and I became very interested in the individual leaders who played a role. I grew up in the Vietnam War era. There was the Civil Rights Movement. There was a lot of social action taking place.

I became very interested in how it was that individuals influenced other people to make extraordinary things happen. I got very serious about doing research and writing about that when I met Barry Posner at Santa Clara University. In 1981, the two of us found we had a common interest initially in managerial values and organizational culture, and then that grew into an interest in leader behavior. In particular, we wanted to investigate what it was that individual leaders did to make extraordinary things happen.

At the time that we started to write, there was a movement to look into organizational excellence. In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, for example, was one of the most popular books on the subject, when we started our research.

We wanted to talk about individual leaders and what they did to contribute. “Wasn’t it possible,” we said, “to have individual leaders in organizations that weren’t necessarily so excellent?” We started to look at the topic of what it is that leaders do when they’re at their personal best. We also learned that leaders have more influence on their day-to-day performance than any other factor in an organization.

We knew that if we could help people to understand which behaviors enable them to grow, to develop other leaders and to engage people more in increasing performance levels and improving profitability or customer care, that we would be able to make a contribution to the field. I think that’s the answer to the question.

Everyone is leading to some extent, just some more frequently than others. We want to send a message that people – everyone – has the capacity to lead, and I think that’s one of the most important and significant findings and contributions that we’ve made.

SPEAKING.COM: You and your collaborator, Barry Posner, have conducted a lot of groundbreaking research on leadership. What result surprised you the most?

KOUZES: I think the one thing that has been most consistent in our findings is that everyone has a story to tell. We started doing this research over 30 years ago, and we asked people to tell us a story about a time when they did their personal best as leaders.

We continue to ask that question of new interviewees as we write new editions, and everyone has a story to tell. That’s important because we often hear that leadership is a talent, that it’s something that only a few people are equipped to do. We often create this mythology that leadership starts with a capital L, not a lower-case L. That is, that every day managers aren’t capable of leading because it’s only what CEOs or senior executives do.

We have found that the opposite is true. In fact, we did a little research not too long ago where we looked at two and a half million responses to our leadership practices inventory, our assessment that measures leader behavior, and we found that only .0001% of people in the survey did no leading.

So everyone is leading to some extent, just some more frequently than others. We want to send a message that people – everyone – has the capacity to lead, and I think that’s one of the most important and significant findings and contributions that we’ve made.

I think another is that we continuously find that leadership is universal. There isn’t a country or a function or an age category where leadership doesn’t exist. It’s everywhere, and there’s much more leading going on than people might assume. We also find that when leaders demonstrate exemplary leadership behaviors more frequently, their constituents are more engaged.

Now this is not a surprise to us, but I think it’s one of the most consistent findings we have. It reinforces the importance of everyone being a leader, that everyone has the capacity. Everything you need you already have. You just have to use it more frequently.

One other finding that we’re not necessarily surprised about, but find consistently over time is that the context of leadership changes dramatically. Each edition we do, there’s something new. When Barry and I first started working on the Leadership Challenge, for example, there was no social media or Internet. The Internet has revolutionized communication and commerce since that time. And that’s a contextual change, but the content of leadership (i.e. what leaders do to make extraordinary things happen) has not changed at all during that period of time.

That’s important because that means we don’t have to adopt a new leadership practice or a new set of practices over time. We can rely upon things that have been true, for at least as long as we’ve been doing our research, and probably for much, much longer than that, and will continue to be true into the future.

Leaders foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships, and they strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence.

SPEAKING.COM: What are the Five Practices Of Exemplary Leadership and why are they essential to becoming a great leader?

KOUZES: In analyzing the responses we received to our question about personal best leadership experiences, the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership emerged. The first is Model the Way. Model the Way is about clarifying values by finding your voice and affirming shared values, and also about setting the example by aligning your actions with those shared values.

The second practice is Inspire a Shared Vision. Inspire a Shared Vision requires a leader to envision the future by imagining and enabling exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.

The third practice is Challenge the Process. Challenge the Process is about searching for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve. It also involves experimenting, taking risks, constantly generating small wins and learning from experience.

The fourth practice is Enable Others to Act. Leaders foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships, and they strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence.

The fifth and last (but by no means the least important) practice that emerged from the personal best leadership experiences is Encourage the Heart. Exemplary leaders recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence, and then they celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community. Those are our Five Practices Of Exemplary Leadership.

SPEAKING.COM: In your training program titled ‘Leadership is in the Eye of the Beholder’, you say it is most critical to consider the perspective of one’s constituents. What do leaders most commonly take for granted with respect to their constituents?

KOUZES: A portion of our program leadership challenge workshop is about the constituents’ perspectives; so “Leadership is in the Eye of the Beholder” was one segment of our longer workshop, the Leadership Challenge Workshop.

One of the things that Barry and I did very early on in our research was not only to ask leaders, “What do you do when you’re at your best as a leader? Tell us a story about that.” We also ask constituents the question, “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?”

We wanted to know what constituents looked for and admired in their leaders. One of the often unappreciated things is the role of the constituents, or their relationship to leadership. Leadership is a relationship. You cannot lead unless you’re the kind of leader that constituents want to follow. An important result from our research is discovering what people look for and admire, what they typically want from their leaders, which is, I think a nice segue to the sixth question.

SPEAKING.COM: What are a few of the things that constituents typically want from their leaders?

KOUZES: When we asked the question, “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?” (emphasis on ‘willingly follow’) people selected, from a list of 20 possibilities, seven traits that they most look for. Of those seven, four qualities stand out over time and across contexts.

The first of those is honest. Worldwide, honest is the most important leader quality that people look for and admire. They want a leader who tells the truth. They want a leader who is trustworthy, and they want a leader whom they can believe in. So, honest is the number one quality that people look for.

Secondly, they look for a leader who is forward-looking, someone who has a vision of the future, someone who has a sense of direction, someone who knows where they want the group, the organization, the mission to be five, ten, even 25 years down the road.

The third quality is competent. People want a leader that is confident and knows what s/he is doing. They want to feel their leader is capable and can get the job done.

The fourth of those qualities is people want a leader to be inspiring, upbeat, energetic, and enthusiastic. Those are the top four qualities. Each of those is desired by over 50% of the constituents. In the case of honest, it’s 88%, on average. For forward-looking, it’s 72%, similarly with competence. Inspiring is about 68% or so. They vary year to year, but around 65%.

Now if you take a look at what those qualities mean, you may think, “So what? So, people look for those qualities. Does that mean anything?” And it does. Three of those four qualities – honest, competent and inspiring – make up what researchers call ‘source credibility’; meaning, if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.

If you don’t believe in the leader, you won’t willingly want to follow that person. Credibility, we found, is the foundation of leadership. We had to say, “Was there one word that constituents most expected and looked for in their leaders, leaders that they would admire and willingly follow? It would be that they were credible.”

Finding your authentic voice is the first step in the process of becoming credible.

SPEAKING.COM: Why is an authentic voice integral to effective leadership?

KOUZES: When we ask people, tell us what credibility is behaviorally? How do you know someone is credible, behaviorally, when you watch his or her actions? And the answer was consistently, “They practice what they preach. They put their money where their mouth is.” So, do what you say you will do, is the behavioral definition of credibility, or D-W-Y-S-Y-W-D, for short.

If leaders aren’t perceived to do what they say they will do, then they aren’t considered credible. So there are two parts to that. The first of those is the say part. You have to be clear about what it is that you stand for and believe in, what your vision and values are in order to be considered credible. More importantly, you have to set the example; you have to walk the talk, and lead by those values. You have to follow through.

Finding your authentic voice is the first step in the process of becoming credible. You have to earn credibility by looking inward to understand the values that guide your decisions and actions. You can’t lead out of someone else’s experience. You can only lead out of your own. And if it’s not your voice that’s speaking, you will not be considered authentic. So part of the process of becoming an authentic leader is to find your authentic voice.

SPEAKING.COM: How can a leader discover his or her authentic true voice?

KOUZES: One of the activities we use in our workshops, and in our coaching and consulting work is to ask people to use a values card sort. We have 50 values on a card sort. We ask people to sort through the cards and come up with their top five. So that’s one process that we use in the work that we do.

You can also help people find their voice by simply asking them to imagine that they’re going on a sabbatical for six months, and they’re going to be away from people. They’ll be off somewhere on a remote island where there’s no email, no text, no mobile phone service, no landline, no FedEx, and they can’t communicate with the outside world.

You then ask them, “If you’re going to be gone on a six-month sabbatical and all you could do is leave behind a one-page memorandum for your employees, what would you write down?” We call the one-page memo the ‘credo memo.’

On this memo, they don’t provide their employees with detailed instructions about things to do; that list would be much longer than one page. But what they do provide is a set of guidelines, a set of values and beliefs that should guide people’s decisions and actions while you’re absent.

That’s another process we use for helping people to discover their own authentic voice. There are others, but those are two common ones that we use.

SPEAKING.COM: If you could give someone who aspires to become the best leader they can be only one piece of advice based on your extensive research, what would it be?

KOUZES: Even after 30 years of research and five editions of The Leadership Challenge and other books on leadership, that’s a really tough question to answer. I would answer it simply by saying, “You can’t do it alone.”

Leadership is not a solo act. Leadership involves other people. And if we’ve learned one really important lesson for anyone wanting to become the best leader they can be, it’s to appreciate that you cannot do all of this by yourself. While we are about developing individual leaders, there is no individual leader who in his or her personal best leadership experience told us that they did everything by themselves. You can’t do it alone.

There are a few other things that I would tell people just starting out in developing themselves as leaders, and the first of those is “Believe you can.” Leadership begins when you believe you can lead. Don’t ever believe when anyone tells you, “You don’t have the talent for leading.” You do. You may not be using it frequently enough, but you do have the capacity to lead.

The most frequently asked question that Barry and I get is “Is leadership born or made?” And we say, “We’ve never met a leader who was not born.” All human beings are born. All architects are born. All engineers are born. All artists are born. All physicians are born. All tennis players are born. All of us are born. The more important question is, “What are you going to do with what you have before you die? How are you going to utilize the capacity you have before you leave this earth?” Believe you can lead and aspire to be great.


To bring Jim Kouzes to your organization to inspire exemplary leadership in your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com.

© SPEAKING.com, published on June 17, 2018

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