What Leaders Do When They're At Their Best

For 30 years, Jim Kouzes has asked leaders about their peak performances for "Leadership Challenge"—the book he and Barry Posner coauthored that has been called the best ever written on the subject. Fast Company talks to Kouzes about the essentials of leadership.

When Jim Kouzes met Barry Posner in 1981, they were both young scholars at Santa Clara University. It goes by fast: for more than 30 years, the coauthors have investigated the components of exemplary leadership. Their research turned into The Leadership Challenge, which has sold more than 2 million copies in 20 languages and is now in its fifth edition. Fast Company talked with Kouzes about what makes leaders different from normal people, the dangers of disingenuous celebration, and how to create a workplace that is primed to flourish.

FAST COMPANY: In your decades of research, what has emerged as the greatest challenge of leadership?

JIM KOUZES: The subtitle of our book in the first edition expressed it all: the challenge is always to make extraordinary things happen, whether you’re in healthcare or tech. Everyone is always trying to improve, to emerge from the competition, and so the perpetual challenge is getting extraordinary things done.

What do you mean by perpetual?

It’s never-ending. One of the things we found out is one of the characteristics of people performing at their best is that they’re always challenging themselves and challenging their teams.

People want to feel like every day they’re making meaningful progress toward some meaningful course. Leaders have to be mindful of always addressing a challenge in a way that creates that meaning and purpose.

So one of the roles of the leader is to create for his or her team a satisfaction in meeting a daily challenge ?

Absolutely. If I’m going to motivate anyone, I’m going to need to make sure that I keep that challenge at a high enough level so that people are feeling stretched but not so high that they feel frightened.

What are the five practices you employ to find that sweet spot?

The five practices emerged from asking people a question, starting back in 1983: 'What do you do as a leader when you’re performing at your personal best?' Tell us a story about that. That was the initial question we asked—what emerged were these five practices. Each of those has a corresponding a set of behaviors that enables people to effectively deal with these challenges that people are facing.

Can you unpack those practices? What does it mean to "model the way?"

We have to be clear as leaders about what we fundamentally believe in, what’s important to us, and then we have to make sure, because people believe our actions more than our words, that we set an example by aligning our actions with our values.

When I’m a leader of a team, it’s our shared values. I’m not imposing values on others, but I am being clear on what mine are and what the organization’s are.

When individuals are clear about their values and the organization’s values, their level of commitment is at the highest.

The next is "inspire a shared vision": what’s vision here?

Being forward looking, being able to see beyond the horizon.

Leaders who are forward-looking are much more likely to have engaged employees. Being forward-looking is a quality that differentiates leaders from other credible people, yet this is still the one leaders have the most difficult time with.

Is it a matter of observing current trends or is it something that happens at a gut level?

It’s both of those things. As individuals move into more senior leadership roles, one of the things we know is they need to be focused further down the road than the currently are. If you aspire to move up in the organization and manage larger parts of the organization, the expectation is that you’re going to have a vision that has a longer-term horizon than those that report to you.

OK, so how do you share a vision?

In order for people to want to follow any leader, they need to know something about that person beyond the résumé. Something more about who that person is, what that person cares about, and why they ought to be following that person.

The second half is that people are most committed when they’re clear about their own values. The implication for a leader is that I need to sit down and have conversations with people about what they value, what they believe in. It’s about appreciating all of your constituents and building consensus.

That’s a matter of the culture—and it leads into your third practice, "challenge the status quo."

Challenge often gets misinterpreted, because a lot of people think we’re just being disagreeable. It’s really about stretching ourselves to excel.

It’s knowing that we’re only going to be great if we continue to search for new and different ways to do things. Customers want the next big thing. They want us to delight them, not just satisfy them. We’ve got to find continuous ways to make that happen.

We have to search outside the boundaries of the organization to make that happen as well as not just depend on the R&D department to come up with new innovations.

Anything new is risky, so we have to have a culture that doesn’t punish people for taking risks and making mistakes, but treats them as learning opportunities.

And to do that, you need to "enable others to act," the fourth practice. Is that cultural?

A culture gets built over time as behaviors get repeated. If I’m going to create a culture in which people feel as if they’re working collectively as a team, I have to foster collaboration, rather than creating one where we impress upon people the importance of individual competition internally, in which people are constantly at war with each other.

The other thing we know about human behavior is people will be more willing to experiment and search outside the organization when they feel risk-taking is safe to do. This is sort of a contradiction, isn’t it?—I’ll take more risks when I feel safe.

That sense of safety is based on trust. As we like to say, trust rules. Trust is the single most important cultural attribute that needs to be present for people to feel enabled to act and to feel like they can collaborate and work together.

Because I know that if you have my back, if I need help, I can ask you. If you have information that will help me, you’ll share it. If I am feeling to stretched and I don’t feel like I have the competencies to do something, the organization will provide me with training and development to get that, and won’t let me just hang out there on my own.

It’s about creating an environment where people can flourish, then.

Yes, absolutely. Flourish is a great word.

And that’s the last principle, a great part of that flourishing must come from inside, from the heart.

Encouraging the heart, interestingly enough, is the practice we see least frequently mentioned when we talk to people about internal competency models, but it is absolutely essential to getting extraordinary things done.

When you’re challenging the process and dealing with all these things that businesses have to deal with, it’s arduous, it’s difficult, the work is hard. People need to know that their efforts are being recognized.

When someone does something that’s aligned with the organizations values and beliefs and reaches for greatness, you celebrate that. You celebrate those values and victories so that people are encouraged to continue that quest and given the heart to do it.

It has to come from the heart, it has to be genuine, or people will look at it like, "Well, we’re going to have a corporate celebration in 15 minutes and everybody come." It’s disingenuous.

That makes perfect sense. To inspire heartfelt effort as a leader, one needs to be genuine in one’s own effort. It’s a reciprocal relationship.

Leadership is a relationship.

How?

If I’m going to build a great company, I have to be exemplary at building relationships with other people. People have to want to follow me. They have to want to work with me.

[Image: Flickr user Tico]

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1 Comments

  • Ara ohanian

    Thanks for a great overview of a seminal work in the field of leadership! In contrast
    to one-off books by individual leaders I think Kouzes and Posners’ work is
    underpinned by great research and stands the test of time. My own experiences
    as leader of a fast growing tech company is that all five practices ring true
     - the most difficult for someone who has started and built their own
    company is the fourth. Enabling others to act means more than simply
    delegating, it means providing an environment where people are challenged,
    supported and trusted. They must feel they have the right to fail as well as a
    burning desire to succeed.