Top 10 Leadership Lessons by Jim Kouzes (A Question-and-Answer Follow-Up)

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QuestionsAndAnswersOnTheTop10LeadershipLessons

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by author Jim Kouzes. 

Jim is co-author of the award-winning and best selling book, The Leadership Challenge. 

This post is a follow up to Jim’s previous guest post, The Top 10 Leadership Lessons, which generated a lot of feedback and some great questions.  Jim’s responses were long enough for another post. 

Here it is …

Questions and Answers About the 10 Top Leadership Lessons

I want to thank all who commented on my post.  I greatly appreciate your graciousness and your questions.  I have tried to respond to several of the questions that have been sent to me, and I will do my best to respond to others very soon.

Questions
Here’s a summary of the questions addressed in this post:

  • Question: How is the information assembled, is it based on compiling and analyzing information about successful leaders? Or, is the assumption that people in specific roles are leaders? The question originates from a belief that “modeling the best” is a successful approach.
  • Question: How do leaders incorporate the learning aspect at different levels of the organization? For me this is at the core of a successful organization: set a goal/do/learn/adjust. Is there any correlation with the reward system?
  • Question: How do leaders expose their professional value system? How do they ensure alignment and/or influence and/or adjust to the organizational value system?
  • Question: Do leaders have value systems that balance the rational and the emotional? How do they address it? How do they communicate this?
  • Question: Challenges can come to you, knock, knock, or you can seek them out. Is there a difference in the leader capability and approach?

Question: How is the information assembled, is it based on compiling and analyzing information about successful leaders? Or, is the assumption that people in specific roles are leaders? The question originates from a belief that “modeling the best” is a successful approach.

Answer: Barry Posner and I have been gathering data since 1983 using the Personal Best Leadership Questionnaire, in-depth interviews, and The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). These multiple methods, and 25 years of analysis, have produced the insights I shared in my recent blog. There was not a priori assumption about who was an effective leader. We let the data tell us. Because leading is not at all about position, but about behaviors, we haven’t limited ourselves to gathering data only from people in managerial positions.  While many corporate managers are among those we’ve surveyed, we’ve also studied students, teachers, nurses, and many others in the act of leading.

I encourage everyone to visit our Website, www.leadershipchallenge.com , and read several of the free reports under the “Research” tab. In the section on  “Research by the Authors” you’ll find a paper entitled “Theory and Evidence Behind the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” which is also lots of research by others, including over 350 doctoral dissertations written using our framework.  You’ll find summaries of all of them on the Website.

My statement that “Model the Way is the practice that has more impact on constituents’ performance…” is based on our most recent analysis of responses from our Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). Using a subset of 66,395 observers—out the nearly 950,000 respondents—my coauthor, Barry Posner, and I compared below average, average, and above average scores on the LPI with a 10-item measure of impact on constituents.  An analysis of variance showed that while all Five Practices made a difference, Model the Way accounted for more of the explanation of impact than any of the other four practices.

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter if you are a parent, teacher, athletic coach, student leader, political leader, military officer, business manager, or next-door neighbor. If you do what you say you will do, put your money where your mouth is, follow through on your commitments, and keep your promises you will have a positive impact on the performance of others.

Question: How do leaders incorporate the learning aspect at different levels of the organization? For me this is at the core of a successful organization: set a goal/do/learn/adjust. Is there any correlation with the reward system?

Answer: The best leaders are the best learners.  I didn’t include this lesson to my top ten, although I was tempted.

A few years back Barry and I did some research with Lillas Brown of the University of Saskatchewan on learning and leadership. We were looking at whether there was a relationship between how leaders learned and how effective they were at leading. What we found was most intriguing. We discovered that it didn’t really matter what the learning style was. Someone could be an active experimenter, an observer of others, a person who engages in emotional dialogues, or someone who loves to read or be in the classroom. The style is not the thing. What did matter was the extent to which individuals engaged in whatever style worked for them. The more they engaged in learning the more successful they were as leaders.

This probably doesn’t come as any surprise, but here’s the rub.  Organizations these days seem to want us to develop leaders in two days or less.   It’s all part of the trend to instant success.  Well, guess what? It isn’t going to happen. There’s no such thing as instant leadership – or instant expertise of any kind. Those who are the very best at anything got to be that way because they spent MORE time learning and practicing, not less.

Becoming the best we can become at leadership, or anything, requires “deliberate practice,” as researchers on expertise have come to call it.  And, as the questioner points out, it involves an iterative process similar to this:

  1. Set a purposeful stretch goal.
  2. Design or select a method for improvement.
  3. Stay focused during practice.
  4. Get immediate feedback.
  5. Get support from a coach, teacher, trainer or colleague.

Ideally, to become highly proficient we need to practice daily for about two to three hours.  (I get a lot of resistance on this when I talk with leaders, but we need to accept the fact that sustaining high levels of performance doesn’t happen at a weekend course once a year. It happens when we commit to a daily practice routine.)

Does it help if the organizational reward system recognizes those who learn? Are you and I going to work to achieve something that is rewarded by the organization? Yes and yes.  That said, we are all far more likely to sustain learning over a long period of time if we are intrinsically motivated by the challenge of the task at hand.  If I love leading I’ll be a lot more inclined to invest the time and energy in learning to lead than if I do it because someone offers me a tangible incentive for doing it. You might want to check out a very provocative book on this subject, Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. It talks about, as he says, “the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes.”

Question: How do leaders expose their professional value system? How do they ensure alignment and/or influence and/or adjust to the organizational value system?

Answer: The very first step on the journey to credible leadership is clarifying your values—discovering those fundamental beliefs that will guide your decisions and actions along the path to success and significance. That journey involves an exploration of the inner territory where your true voice resides. It’s essential that you take yourself on this voyage because it’s the only route to authenticity and because your personal values drive your commitment to the organization and to the cause.

One of the exercises that we use to help leaders clarify their professional values is to ask them to write a “Credo Memo.”  The process goes something like this (adapt it to fit your situation):

Imagine that your organization has afforded you the chance to take a six-month sabbatical, all expenses paid. (I know this sounds fantastical in this climate, but play along with me here!) As a condition of your sabbatical, you will not be permitted to communicate to anyone in your organization. Not by letter, phone, fax, e-mail, instant message, mobile phone, or any other means.

Before you depart you must communicate to your team the values that you think guide everyone’s decisions and actions in your absence.  Remember, you have to return after six months, and you want to return to a place that’s still a good fit for you.

Get a single sheet of paper and write that memo. It usually takes about five to ten minutes.

We don’t pretend that this exercise is a substitute for more in-depth self-discovery, but it does provide a useful starting place for articulating your guiding principles. You can accomplish the same thing with a values card sort or other similar exercise. The important point is that if someone came up to you right now and asked you, “What are the values that you believe should guide your decisions and actions at work?” you’d better be able to answer that question without hesitation.

Although personal values clarity is essential, it’s insufficient. That’s because leaders don’t just speak for themselves; they speak for their constituents as well. There must be agreement on the shared values that everyone will commit to upholding. A common understanding of those values emerges from a process, not a pronouncement. Unity comes about through dialogue and debate.

One thing you might try is to ask everyone on your team to write his or her own Credo Memo. Then have a conversation about what each person has written. What are the common values that emerge? Where is there consensus? Where are the conflicts and tensions? If there is a published statement of organizational values, how aligned are the team’s values with the organization’s values? A rich and deep dialogue can be extremely useful. Our data is quite clear about this: When individuals share the values of their organization, they are much more likely to be engaged and productive. It’s beneficial to both the individual and the organization.

Alignment comes through a variety of leader actions. The single best way for leaders to gain alignment with shared values is to live those values themselves. It’s all about setting an example. Your values should guide:

  • How you allocate your time
  • How you confront critical incidents
  • The questions you ask
  • The stories you tell
  • What you measure
  • What you reward and recognize

Each of your choices sends a strong signal about what’s important to you, and by your example, what should be important to others.

One other thing. It’s takes courage to make a life. The challenges that confront us in these troubled times aren’t going to evaporate like fog on a summer morning. They demand a lot of us if we’re going to overcome them. They demand that we make tough choices. They demand that we make sure we’re clear about what we value and believe in. They demand that we take personal initiative when those values are challenged. They demand that we focus on the little things we do each day to be true to ourselves. They demand resilience and determination.

Question: Do leaders have value systems that balance the rational and the emotional? How do they address it? How do they communicate this?

Answer: We can find some guidance from the research on central themes in the values of highly successful, strong-culture organizations. There are three central themes in the values of these organizations:

  • High performance standards
  • A caring attitude about people
  • A sense of uniqueness and pride

High-performance values stress the commitment to excellence, caring values communicate how others are to be treated, and uniqueness values tell people inside and outside how the organization is different from all the others.

Another study by RoseAnn Stevenson also suggests that there’s a balance of the rational and emotional in the composition of leaders’ values. Of nine values that Stevenson found were mentioned over fifty percent of the time, five had to do with the more emotional side—values such as fairness and respect—and four were about the more rational—achievement and quality, for example.  Leadership is about the strategic and tactical, but it also very much about relationships, and their values reflect that.

Leaders communicate these kinds of values in a variety of ways.  From speeches to large groups—President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address contained explicit references to values—to one-on-one meetings, leaders find ways to weave values into their conversations. I’ve seen values posters, values cards, values videos, and even a display of values hanging over the salad bar in the company café.  There is really no limit to the ways in which leaders can make clear to others the values that should guide the decisions and actions of others.

However, even the most creative of communication campaigns will breed nothing but cynicism and late night jokes if the leader’s actions are inconsistent with the published values.

Question: Challenges can come to you, knock, knock, or you can seek them out. Is there a difference in the leader capability and approach?

Answer: You’re absolutely right. Stuff happens in organizations and in people’s lives. Sometimes we choose it; sometimes it chooses us. People who become leaders don’t always seek the challenges they face. Challenges also seek leaders. It’s not so important whether you find the challenges or they find you. What’s important is what you do with the choices you have.

Consider what we found when we asked people to tell us who initiated the projects that they selected as their personal best leadership experiences. We assumed that the majority of people would name themselves, but, surprisingly, that’s not what we found. Someone other than the leader—often the person’s immediate manager in an organizational context—initiated more than half the cases.

So, if leaders seize the initiative, how can we call people leaders when they’re often assigned the tasks they undertake? Doesn’t this finding fly in the face of the notion of the leader as someone who initiates change? Not at all. It’d be nice we got to decide every project we took. It’d be nice, I suppose, if we were always the head honcho who got to pick all the initiatives. But that’s not real life. The reality is that much of what people do is assigned; few of us get to start everything from scratch.

Within the context of those projects that were assigned, the exemplary leaders found ways to innovate and create change. They found ways to turn things around, open up new opportunities, or alter the status quo.  As we see it, the fact that over half the cases were not self-initiated should be a relief to everyone who thinks that you have to initiate all the changes in order to be called a leader, and it should be encouragement to everyone in the organization that responsibility for innovation and improvement is everyone’s business.

Whether you seek the challenges or they come knocking makes no difference in the fundamental practices of leadership. You still have to do the same things as a leader in order to mobilize others to struggle for shared aspirations.

Additional Resources

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating research on leadership! I especially agree with the idea that leaders are good learners. It’s been my experience that the best way to lead is to do so by example and by asking questions.

  2. That is awesome stuff.
    Being a consultant I am exposed to quite a lot of leaders…. i can tell you that “It’s all about setting an example” is not most popular practice. That is to sad. How a leader can lead without setting an example by herself? It is still common place perception that position dictates leadership…. hmmm what a nonsense….

  3. “Within the context of those projects that were assigned, the exemplary leaders found ways to innovate and create change.” That’s definitely refreshing to hear–that leadership is as much about making the most of opportunities that present themselves as creating opportunities.

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