When people recall their personal-best leadership experiences, they always think about some kind of challenge. Why? Because personal and business hardships have a way of making people come face-to-face with who they really are and what they’re capable of becoming. They test people, and they require inventive ways of dealing with new situations. They tend to bring out the best in people.
When times are stable and secure, however, people are not severely tested. They may perform well, get promoted, and even achieve fame and fortune. But certainty and routine breed complacency.
Challenge With Purpose
Leaders challenge for meaning’s sake. They challenge, often with great passion, because they want people to live life on purpose and with purpose. What gets people through the tough times, the scary times–the times when they don’t think they can even get up in the morning or take another step–is a sense of meaning and purpose. The motivation to deal with the challenges and uncertainties of life and work comes from the inside, not from something that others hold out in front of you as some kind of carrot. The challenges that leaders raise are always accompanied by a drive to do something themselves to resolve and improve the situation, not simply complain.
Why concern yourself with purpose and meaning? After all, people in the workplace aren’t volunteers; they’re getting paid. However, it’s precisely because people are getting paid–precisely because they are eligible for bonuses and other awards–that you ought to be concerned. If work is seen solely as a source of money and never as a source of fulfillment, organizations will totally ignore other human needs at work–needs involving such intangibles as learning, self-worth, pride, competence, and serving others. Employers will come to see people’s enjoyment of their tasks as totally irrelevant, and they will structure work in a strictly utilitarian fashion. The results will be–and already have been–disastrous. Just take a look at the costs of recruitment and retention these days. Have big stock option plans or huge signing bonuses really done much to make organizations successful? There’s very convincing evidence that reliance on extrinsic motivators can actually lower performance and create a culture of divisiveness and selfishness, precisely because it diminishes an inner sense of purpose.
Encourage Initiative In Others
Change requires leadership, and every person, down to the most junior member of a team, can drive innovation and improvements in a team’s processes. Leaders seize the initiative themselves and encourage initiative in others. They want people to speak up, offer suggestions for improvement, and be straightforward about their constructive criticism. Yet when it comes to situations that involve high uncertainty, high risk, and high challenge, many people feel reluctant to act, afraid they might make matters worse.
There are a number of ways you can create conditions so that your constituents will be ready and willing to seize the initiative in tumultuous as well as tranquil times. First, create a can-do attitude by providing opportunities for people to gain mastery of a task one step at a time. Training is crucial to building people’s ability and their confidence that they can effectively respond to and improve the difficult situations they face. During periods of rapid change, it may seem as though there’s no time to stop for training, but this short-term thinking is sure to doom the organization. The best leaders know that the investment in training will pay off in the long term. People can’t deliver on what they don’t know how to do, so you have to upgrade capabilities continuously.
Another form of preparation is mental simulation. Playing a scenario through in your mind until you can picture it frame by frame is a terrific way to encourage and support initiative. Asking people to imagine the steps they will take before they enact them is a powerful heuristic strategy for giving people the confidence that they can act when the real situation requires it. It’s much the same as practicing fire drills, except that you run them in your head.
In addition, find ways for people to stretch themselves. Set the bar incrementally higher, but at a level at which people feel they can succeed. Raise it too high, and people will fail; if they fail too often, they’ll quit trying. Raise the bar a bit at a time, and eventually more and more people master the situation and build the self-confidence to continue moving the bar upward. You can also foster initiative by providing visibility and access to role models, especially among peers, who are successful at meeting the new challenges. Seeing one of their own succeed in doing something new and different is an effective way to encourage others to do it too.
Make Something Happen
And don’t stop at what you can find on your own. Ask your colleagues and direct reports about what really bugs them about the organization. Ask what gets in the way of doing the best job possible. Promise to look into everything they bring up and get back to them with answers in ten days. Wander around the plant, the store, the branch, the halls, or the office. Look for things that don’t seem right. Ask questions. Probe.
The study of leadership is the study of how men and women guide others through adversity, uncertainty, hardship, disruption, transformation, transition, recovery, and new beginnings.
Meeting new challenges always requires things to be different than they currently are. You can’t respond with the same old solutions. You have to change the status quo. And that’s exactly what people did in their personal-best leadership experiences. They met challenge with change.
This is an adapted excerpt from The Leadership Challenge: How To Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, reprinted with permission by the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright (c) 2012.
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