Why great leadership practices remain constant in a changing world

by | Jul 28, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

In the spotlight: Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Authors, “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations”

What do leaders do when they are performing at their best? It’s an interesting question. And here’s a more compelling one: Do the practices that made a leader exemplary in the (pre-Internet, pre-globalization) 1980s produce the same effect here in 2017? The answer, according to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner—who have researched the foundations of exemplary leadership for more than three decades—is a resounding yes.

“When you look at the business environment in 1987 compared to today, well, it looks like a different universe,” says Jim, coauthor along with Barry of the sixth edition of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint; May 2017). “Yet what we’ve found is that while the context of leadership has changed dramatically over the years, the content of leadership has not changed much at all.”

“The fundamental behaviors and actions of leaders have remained essentially the same, and they are as relevant today as they were when we began our study of exemplary leadership,” says Barry. “Leadership is about tapping into the traits and motivators that come with being human, and those hold firm—even when the way we get work done changes completely.”

Jim and Barry first asked ordinary people in the early 1980s to tell them what they did when they were at their “personal best” in leading others. They found that despite differences in culture, gender, age, and other demographic variables, the stories leaders came back with revealed similar patterns of behavior. They then published their findings in 1987 in the debut of The Leadership Challenge.

“After analyzing thousands of these leadership experiences, we discovered, and continue to find, that regardless of the times or settings, individuals who guide others along pioneering journeys follow surprisingly similar paths,” says Jim.

Barry adds, “Though each experience was unique in its expression, there were clearly identifiable behaviors and actions that made a difference.”

When leaders are at their personal best, there are five core practices common to all: They Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. Together, these comprise The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model—and Jim and Barry find that leaders who more frequently demonstrate these practices create higher performing workplaces and have significantly more engaged employees than leaders who demonstrate the practices less frequently.

Researchers examined the financial performance of organizations over a five-year period and compared those in which constituents rated senior leaders as actively using The Five Practices with organizations whose leaders were significantly less engaged in The Five Practices. The bottom line: Net income growth was nearly eighteen times higher, and stock price growth was nearly three times greater, for those publicly traded organizations whose leaders strongly engaged in The Five Practices than their counterparts who weakly engaged in them.

Here, excerpted from The Leadership Challenge, is a quick overview of The Five Practices:

Model the way

Titles are granted, but it’s your behavior that wins you respect. Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others.

To effectively model the behavior they expect of others, leaders must first be clear about guiding principles. They must clarify values. Leaders must find their own voice, and then they must clearly and distinctively give voice to their values.

Eloquent speeches about common values, however, aren’t nearly enough. Leaders’ deeds are far more important than their words when one wants to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say. Words and deeds must be consistent. Exemplary leaders set the example through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their beliefs.

Inspire a shared vision

People talked about their personal-best leadership experiences as times when they imagined an exciting, highly attractive future for their organization. They had visions and dreams of what could be. They had absolute and total personal belief in those dreams, and they were confident in their abilities to make extraordinary things happen. Every organization, every social movement, begins with a dream. The dream or vision is the force that invents the future.

To enlist in a shared vision, people must believe that leaders understand their needs and have their interests at heart. Leaders breathe life into the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others and enable them to see the exciting possibilities that the future holds. Leaders forge a unity of purpose by showing constituents how the dream is for the common good.

Challenge the process

Challenge is the crucible for greatness. Every single personal-best leadership case involved a change from the status quo. Not one person claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same.

Leaders venture out. None of the individuals in the study sat idly by waiting for fate to smile upon them. Leaders are pioneers. They are willing to step out into the unknown. They search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve.

Exemplary leaders also know that innovation and change involve experimenting and taking risks. One way of dealing with the potential risks and failures of experimentation is to approach change through incremental steps and small wins. Life is the leader’s laboratory, and exemplary leaders use it to conduct as many experiments as possible. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn. That’s the leader’s mantra.

Enable others to act

Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of a single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability.

Leaders foster collaboration and build trust. The more people trust their leaders, and each other, the more they take risks, make changes, and keep moving ahead. This sense of teamwork goes far beyond a few direct reports or close confidants. They engage all those who must make the project work—and in some way, all who must live with the results.

Leaders make it possible for others to do good work. They work to make people feel strong, capable, and committed. Exemplary leaders strengthen everyone’s capacity to deliver on the promises they make. When leaders enable people to feel strong and capable—as if they can do more than they ever thought possible—they’ll give it their all and exceed their own expectations.

Encourage the heart

The climb to the top is arduous and steep. People become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted. They’re often tempted to give up. Genuine acts of caring uplift the spirits and draw people forward.

Recognizing contributions can be one-to-one or with many people. It can come from dramatic gestures or simple actions. It’s part of the leader’s job to show appreciation for people’s contributions and to create a culture of celebrating values and victories.

Recognition and celebration aren’t about fun and games, though there is a lot of fun and there are a lot of games when people encourage the hearts of their constituents. Encouragement is, curiously, serious business. It’s how leaders visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance. When striving to raise quality, recover from disaster, start up a new service, or make dramatic change of any kind, leaders make sure people see the benefit of behavior that’s aligned with cherished values.

Throughout the book, Jim and Barry tell stories of ordinary people who’ve made extraordinary things happen. These leaders are from all over the globe, from all age groups and walks of life. They represent a wide variety of organizations, public and private, government and nongovernmental, high-tech and low-tech, small and large, educational and professional services.

Jim and Barry focus on everyday leaders because, as they write, “Leadership is not about position or title. It’s not about organizational power or authority. It’s not about celebrity or wealth. It’s not about the family you’re born into. It’s not about being at the organization’s apex, as CEO, president, general, or prime minister. And it’s definitely not about being some sort of hero. Leadership is about relationships, about credibility, about passion and conviction, and ultimately about what you do. You don’t have to look up for leadership. You don’t have to look out for leadership. You only have to look inward. You have the potential to lead others to places they have never been.”

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been working together for more than thirty years, studying leaders, researching leadership, conducting leadership development seminars, and serving as leaders themselves in various capacities.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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