What Kouzes and Posner learned about what leadership is and does after three decades of rigorous study
I have read and reviewed most of the books on which Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have collaborated and consider this one, their latest, the most valuable contribution they have made thus far to our understanding of what leadership is and does. The title is clever in that it tees up a major misconception that a complicated subject such as leadership offers only one “truth” when in fact it offers dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of truths. Kouzes and Posner focus on ten that they consider most important, devoting a separate chapter to each.
They also provide what they characterize as “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.” There are no head-snapping revelations among them, nor among the ten “truths,” and Kouzes and Posner would be among the first to point that out. Anyone can easily formulate a list of leadership attributes, defining characteristics, core competencies, etc. The challenge is to demonstrate them with one’s behavior.
Kouzes and Posner’s purpose in the book to identify and examine several basic truths about great leadership that have endured throughout human history. After I read the first three chapters, I paused to compile a list of those I consider to be the greatest leaders. When the totals reached 25, I reviewed the Kouzes-Posner list of ten truths. However different the leaders on my list are in most respects, all of them
1. Made a positive difference both during and beyond their lives
2. Were credible
4. Focused on what could, indeed should be done
5. Attracted followers who shared their vision
6. Were trusted
7. Were strengthened by severe challenges
8, Led by example
9. Were voracious learners with insatiable curiosity, and
10. Cared deeply, passionately
Compile your own list and I’ll bet that these ten also describe them. With regard to other attributes of great leaders, I would include storytelling skills, grace under duress, and what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking.”
All human communities (including companies, yes, but also cities and even countries) need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. That is to say, people who are passionately committed to principled, collaborative, results-driven initiatives…people who say “Yes!” amidst negativity, who say “Yes we can!” amidst doubt and despair. To me, the single most compelling point that Kouzes and Posner reaffirm in this book is their belief that literally anyone can embrace and serve the same truths in all areas of their lives.
Let me state the obvious. We have a lot to learn. And when we learn one thing, there are three more new things to learn.
And, by the way, much of what we need to learn is not new at all. But, the newer books say these things in new ways, ways that connect to the real world business challenges of this era.
This is why we provide the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas. At our gatherings we have great food, wonderful conversations, (networking), and content from two business books – content that can help make you more knowledgeable, and be more effective, more “successful” in your business efforts. For each book, you receive a comprehensive handout, with key quotes from the book, and a summary of the most useful transferable principles.
For the February 3 First Friday Book Synopsis, I will present a synopsis of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Anyone Else, by George Anders. The search for talent; the best use of talent; these are needs for every business organization. This book will help you understand this, and do this, more effectively
Karl Krayer will present a synopsis of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, by Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom also wrote the earlier book, Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy, and Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy.
This really is a terrific monthly learning event, content-filled, and genuinely useful. If you are in the DFW area on February 3, come check it out. (At the Park City Club, near the Tollway and Northwest Highway. We begin at 7:00 am, and we end at 8:05 am).
(You’ll be able to register soon from the home page of this web site).
Here’s a flier with all the details:
You receive useful, comprehensive handouts…
Our book selections for February:
We have a great buffet breakfast, and wonderful table conversations…
And we give away the two books each month…
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Nancy F. Koehn that was featured in The New York Times (December 24, 2011).
To read the complete article, please click here.
Photo Credit: Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute
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A HUNDRED years ago this month, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and four teammates became the first men to reach the South Pole, arriving in triumph five weeks ahead of Robert Falcon Scott. The Amundsen crew would return safely to its base, but, heartbreakingly, Scott and his four British companions died on the return journey.
The race to the pole has long attracted leadership experts, who like to contrast the Amundsen focus on efficiency and innovation with Scott’s more deliberate dedication to scientific pursuit.
But another polar explorer — Ernest Shackleton — faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to our time. The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again.
Consider just a handful of recent events: the financial crisis of 2008; the gulf oil spill of 2010; and the Japanese nuclear disaster, the debt-ceiling debacle and euro crisis this year. Constant turbulence seems to be the new normal, and effective leadership is crucial in containing it.
Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
Shackleton exemplified this kind of leadership for almost two years on the ice. What can we learn from his actions?
As a historian at the Harvard Business School, I wrote a case study about him that has drawn more interest from executives than any other I have taught.
As some talented research assistants and I worked on the study, I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival.
This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.
SHACKLETON can serve as a role model even though his expedition, judged by its initial objectives, was a colossal failure. His ship, the Endurance, never reached Antarctica. None of its 28 crew members set foot on the continent. The journey strained Shackleton’s finances to the breaking point, and at the end of it, in late 1916, its fame-seeking protagonist found his accomplishments eclipsed by the horrors of World War I.
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Nancy F. Koehn is a historian and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. She is a regular contributor to the “Off the Shelf” book review column in the Times’s SundayBusiness.