So you want to make a leadership difference? Lift where you stand.
As you’ve no doubt heard countless times, effective leadership is not about title or the location of your box on the organization chart. It’s not about the authority you wield. Or your family pedigree. Or the school you attended. Or any other demographic data point.
Effective leadership—especially extraordinary leadership—is all about strategic influence. Strategic influence on self-development and strategic influence with the people around you.
Nobody understands this better than James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, probably best-known as the authors of The Leadership Challenge and other classics in the leadership genre.
In addition to their sterling academic credentials (Jim is a Fellow of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, Barry is an Endowed Professor of Leadership and department chair at Santa Clara University), both are seasoned (and much in demand) facilitators of leadership workshops around the world.
Jim and Barry offer a succinct movie trailer for their new book: Leadership is learnable. “It’s about transforming values into actions, visions into realities, obstacles into innovations, division into unity, and risks into rewards. It’s about creating an environment in which people can work together to turn perplexing problems and challenging opportunities into remarkable success.”
This content-rich book shares insights based on original research and case studies. For example, in explaining the role of relationships in leadership, Jim and Barry cite a global study involving more than 35,000 people. Participants were asked about individuals in their lives whom they regard as leadership role models. Only 16% of respondents cited a business leader, political leader, celebrity, or other professional. The majority considered their leadership role models to be family members and the other everyday people closest to them.
The not-so-secret formula for extraordinary leadership? Don’t wait for title or position. Lift where you stand.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You point out that the best leaders are the best learners. What three or four first steps do you recommend for someone who wants to begin the journey of self-development?
Jim Kouzes: The people who are most frequently engaged in learning demonstrate exemplary leadership most frequently. There are five fundamentals to learning to become an exemplary leader.
First, you have to Believe You Can. If you don’t believe you can become a better leader than you are right now, it’s unlikely you will make any effort at all to grow and develop.
Second, you need to Aspire to Excel. You must have an ideal image of the kind of leader you want to become. How do you want to be remembered? What is the legacy you passionately desire to leave?
Third, to become the best leader you can be, you must step outside your comfort zone. Building on your strengths is necessary, but insufficient. You must Challenge Yourself to grow and learn continuously.
Fourth, you must Engage Support. You can’t become the best leader you can be all by yourself. All the top performers in every endeavor seek the support, advice, coaching, and counsel of others.
Fifth, you must Practice Deliberately. You can’t get any better at leadership—or anything—without practice. Leaders who invest more time and effort in disciplined learning activities are more engaged, purposeful, and skilled than those who invest less.
Duncan: What role can purposeful questions play in a person’s own leadership development?
Barry Posner: In the course of daily life, everyone asks a lot of questions—questions to gather information, get clarification, or reach a greater understanding. But the best leaders go a step further. They ask questions that help teach and reinforce the shared values and norms of the organization.
The key to asking good leadership questions is first to think about the “quest” in your question: Where do you want to take this person (or group, unit, organization) with your question? What values, beliefs, perspectives, and principles do you want people to be thinking about?
You need to come up with a set of questions that will get people to reflect on the core values and what they have done and can do each day to act on those values. In one way or another, the questions you ask are all a variation on a single theme: What are we doing to live out our values?
There are additional benefits to asking questions. For one, they facilitate the development of the people you interact with. They can broaden perspectives, expand response options, and promote taking responsibility for one’s own viewpoints.
Duncan: Your research shows that leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. What can an aspiring leader do to nurture such a relationship?
Kouzes: Yes, this is the most foundational truth about leaders. Over the long term, the quality of the leader-constituent relationship will determine whether others will follow your lead and remain engaged with you. Strategies, tactics, skills, and techniques are empty without an understanding of the essential human aspirations that connect people and their leaders.
Trust is the central issue in these relationships. Without trust, you cannot lead. The most effective leadership situations are those in which each member of the team trusts the leader, as well as one another. Building trust is the place to start in any relationship.
The first step is to get to know your constituents and help them to get to know you. Facilitate processes by which team members can get to know each other. Listen deeply, and listen to diverse points of view.
Here’s one simple technique that can help you build trust in every interaction. Before engaging with others, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: “What can I do in this interaction so that when it comes to an end others feel more capable, powerful, respected, and trusted than they did before the interaction began?”
Duncan: What are the personal values or traits that people most commonly look for in their leaders?
Posner: We have been conducting surveys over the past 40 years about the personal values, traits, and characteristics that people indicate are most important to them in an individual they would willingly follow.
Over time, across continents, demographic and organizational differences, we have found that for people to follow someone willingly, they seek someone whom they believe is honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking. There is profound implication revealed by this. These results have a solid foundation in what social psychologists call “source credibility.” Researchers find people typically use three criteria to evaluate the believability of sources of information—perceived trustworthiness, expertise, and dynamism. Notice how remarkably similar these three characteristics are to three of the essential qualities people want from leaders––honesty, competence, and inspiration.
Bottom line: Credibility is the foundation of leadership. Above all else, people must believe that their leaders’ words can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work or cause, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.
Duncan: How can aspiring leaders clarify their own values?
Kouzes: Earning and sustaining personal credibility requires every leader to be able to authentically answer the question, “What do I believe in?” What are my most important values? What are the principles that guide my decisions and actions?
One way to access your values is to imagine that you’re going to be absent from your team for an extended period of time—perhaps on a sabbatical—and the only communication you can have with them is a one-page memo. What would you write on this one-page note? What would tell your team are the values that they should use to guide their decisions and actions during your absence?
Keep something else in mind, though. While clarifying personal values is absolutely an essential step on your leadership journey, leaders do not just stand for their own personal set of values. Authentic leaders also stand for the shared values of their constituents. In becoming an exemplary leader, you must cross the chasm from “what I believe” to “what we believe.”
Duncan: You say that crossing the chasm from individual contributor to leader requires “fully embracing the need to develop the capacity to envision the future.” How can a person develop the capacity to be forward-looking?
Posner: We discovered in our research that people expect leaders to be forward-looking. They want leaders to talk about the desired future—what can be, not just what is.
How does a new leader develop the capacity to be forward-looking? The answer is deceptively simple: spend more time in the future. You have to carve out more time each week to peering into the distance and imagining what might be out there. Regardless of your position or level, spend time reflecting on—and talking to others about—trends in society, technology, the economy, politics, arts and literature that could impact what you and your organization do in the future.
In aiming for the future, you also need to look back into your past. Understanding your personal history can help you identify themes, patterns, and beliefs that have been important to you for a long time and may also be in the future.
Additionally, immerse yourself in the present. Stop, look, and listen to what is going on around you right now. What are the issues and challenges that you and others are facing?