Great leaders don’t set out to be leaders. They set out to make a difference.
Yes, I know. That sounds like one of those high testosterone posters in the employee cafeteria.
But it’s absolutely true. And it could serve as a guide for anyone who’s less interested in personal plaudits than in exercising influence for good.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner understand this better than most. They are esteemed academics (Jim at Rice University, Barry at Santa Clara University), but as leadership consultants and coaches they’ve also earned high praise in the real world of real work.
Their latest book is Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority.
In the first part of this conversation (see “So, You Want To Lead? Lift Where You Stand”), Jim and Barry discussed the role of learning in the development of effective leaders, and explained how strategic questions and lived values can help a person earn the trust of others.
In this follow up, they discuss such leadership ingredients as listening, vision, trust, and accountability.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Focused listening is important in any relationship. How does that practice help someone inspire others to embrace a particular vision?
Jim Kouzes: Creating a common vision is about developing a shared sense of destiny. It’s about enlisting others so that they can see how their own interests and aspirations are aligned with a larger vision. This requires understanding people at a much deeper level than you may normally find comfortable. It requires exploring their strongest yearnings and their deepest fears. It means developing a profound awareness of their joys and sorrows.
Focus on what they say they need and want. What do they most want to accomplish in their lives? What do they most want to contribute? What is their image of an ideal and unique future for the common good? When you listen intently to others and focus on their needs, you are much more likely to discover how their needs and interests align with your own and with others around them. Whether the future you foresee resonates with others is when they can say, “Oh yes. I can see myself in that picture.”
Duncan: What did you find in your research that highlights challenging the process as a critical ingredient in effective leadership?
Barry Posner: When describing their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences people invariably talk about times of significant challenge, adversity, and change. No one ever told us they did their personal-best by keeping things the exactly same.
The pandemic in 2020-2021 clearly demonstrates the role challenge plays in effective leadership and in innovation, experimentation, and learning. Almost overnight, we all had to adapt to or invent new ways of living our lives, getting our work done, meeting with each other, and finding solutions to previously unforeseen problems. Not every innovation worked out as planned or desired, but the pandemic does illustrate how challenge catalyzes change, and how succeeding at change requires exemplary leadership.
Our data supports how important it is for leaders rise to the occasion and turn adversity into opportunity. Using our Leadership Practices Inventory, leaders were given feedback by colleagues on the extent to which they engaged in the behaviors associated with Challenge the Process. The statistical analysis showed that a leader’s effectiveness evaluations increased systematically as peers indicated this individual engaged more and more frequently in Challenge the Process behaviors.
Duncan: How can someone without title or authority most effectively challenge the status quo without coming across as presumptuous or disrespectful of people who do have title or authority?
Kouzes: From our analyses of Personal-Best Leadership Experiences, Challenging the Process was not about challenge for the sake of challenge. Challenging the Process is about searching for opportunities, looking outward for innovative ways to improve, and about seizing the initiative in order to make things better. It’s also about experimenting, taking risks, and learning from mistakes.
None of these actions are disrespectful when presented as ways that help the team and organization more proactively and effectively realize its vision and live out its values. So, Challenge the Process can actually be a way to show respect for larger purpose of the organization. It can help to create a climate in which everyone is committed to doing whatever they can to improve the ways in which the organization serves its constituents.
One way you can heighten the respect you show when challenging the process is to ask your colleagues to tell you what gets in their way of doing the best job possible. Find out what needs to be improved so they can do their best. Then when you challenge the process, you’ll be speaking not just for yourself; you’ll also be speaking for others.
Duncan: What are some best practices for building trust that encourages collaboration?
Posner: People tend to trust more those whom they know than those they don’t know. Step one in every trusting relationship is getting to know each other. As a leader, you go first. Be the first to reach out and learn about people’s backgrounds, their strengths, what they most enjoy about their work or other pursuits, where they think things could be better, and what you can do to help them accomplish their goals and dreams. Share similar information about yourself.
You also build trust by showing concern for others. When others know you will put their interests ahead of your own, they won’t hesitate to trust you. You need to see the world through others’ eyes. Showing interest in others, being sensitive to their problems, and conveying compassion increases peoples’ capacities to trust in you.
What’s true for leaders is true for teams in the workplace. The more team members trust each other, the more engaged and effective they are. You need to create a climate in which team members come to trust one another.
Duncan: How can someone with no title- or role-based authority hold others accountable on performance issues?
Kouzes: Accountability is a critical element in every collaborative effort. When people take personal responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their actions, their colleagues will be considerably more inclined to work with them and be more cooperative. The secret to accountability in peer-to-peer leadership, then, is to continuously stress how important each individual’s work is to their colleagues and to reinforce how everyone needs to hold themselves accountable to everyone else.
Knowing that your peers are expecting you to be prepared and to do your job is a powerful force in motivating each person to do well. The feeling of not wanting to let the rest of the group down strengthens each individual’s resolve to do his or her best. Additionally, the more people believe that everyone else is competent and taking responsibility for their own part of the job, the more trusting and cooperative they will be.
Duncan: How can after-action reviews help people assess what’s working and what’s not working in their leadership efforts?
Posner: In our research we find that people who were most actively involved in learning are also the ones who engage most often in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. The more you are engaged in learning the more successful you are at leading—and just about anything else.
After-action reviews (AARs) are designed to help people learn by assessing performance during a project, program, or event. They elicit observations about what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, what worked and why, what didn’t work and why, and what can be done to improve. As such, AARs are organized ways in which leaders create learning opportunities for their teams and are a chance for leaders to model how they are open to learning as well. This kind of openness and transparency fosters a learning climate throughout an organization, and it also serves to further develop trust between leaders and constituents.
Duncan: What kinds of behaviors enable one to “encourage the heart” of others?
Kouzes: Making extraordinary things happen is hard work that often requires sacrifice and going above and beyond what is normally expected. It’s incumbent on leaders to let people know that their dedicated efforts are worthwhile and that they are making a difference. Toward that end, exemplary leaders recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence, and they celebrate the values and the victories by creating a spirit of community.
Exemplary leaders Encourage the Heart when they let others know they truly believe in them. They demonstrate confidence in others’ abilities and have genuinely positive expectations about what their constituents can achieve. Leaders are out and about paying attention to the difference people are making, and they provide positive feedback on how others’ contributions matter. Exemplary leaders personalize recognition, and they tell public stories that showcase individual excellence. They also provide social support, reinforcing how “we’re all in this together,” and they get personally involved in joyful celebrations when milestones are reached.
These behaviors, and others that recognize individuals and celebrate together, demonstrate that at the end of the day leadership is an affair of the heart.
Duncan: In what ways has the Covid pandemic changed people’s perceptions of what constitutes leadership?
Posner: We’ve been researching leadership for four decades, and we’ve learned over and over again that the content of leadership has changed very little, but the context has changed a great deal. Meaning, the behaviors that leaders demonstrate to make extraordinary things happen have remained constant and that they continue to explain high levels of engagement and performance across the globe, in every economic sector, and with every kind of demographic group. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most dramatic changes we have experienced over these years—largely because it’s affected the entire globe and required the most significant collective changes in human behavior—but it only highlights how leadership matters, especially in times of adversity.
The pandemic has—like the most extreme contextual changes do—how leaders need to be even more mindful of how leadership is a relationship and how much more effort leaders need to put into connecting with their constituents, especially when those connections are remote and virtual. It also has shown us that, metaphorically speaking, exemplary leadership can spread but so can toxic leadership. Leaders have to be even more mindful during adverse times that their actions matter and that positive actions are the only ones that produce positive outcomes.
Duncan: At some level, is leadership really within the grasp of most people?
Kouzes: Yes. The data we collected for Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership provide anecdotal and empirical evidence that everyone has the capacity to lead. Our data tell us that 99.9% of people are currently leading, but most are not leading frequently enough. The key to more extraordinary leadership is not discovering those few existing “stars,” but rather for everyone to shine brighter by engaging more frequently in exemplary leadership behavior. That’s a choice we can all make.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.