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Book Review: The Leadership Challenge

In my first semester in graduate school at Colorado State University, I had to take a business leadership class as part of the MBA curriculum.  “The Leadership Challenge”, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, was the book we read and studied as part of this class.  Within the book, Kouzes and Posner identify five principles (along with ten leadership commitments) that make an individual a great leader.

1.  Challenge the Process

Leaders need to challenge the status quo.  Simply because a process has been in place for a long while, does not mean it is the best method.  Those who simply accept things the way they are will never be able to rise above average, and as an organization, will never challenge industry leaders.  Leaders are simply willing to try different things to make the process better.  A leader does not necessarily mean they have to directly innovate, but they need to be able to identify new trends and ideas, and to promote them.  Kouzes and Ponser argue that exemplary leaders are early adopters of ideas, which will be of significant benefit to an organization.

Leadership Commitment #1:  Seek challenging opportunities to grow, change, innovate, and improve.

2.  Inspire a Shared Vision

A leader needs to believe they can make extraordinary things happen.  The ability to share this vision with others and convince them to support it is quite difficult.  Through clear and concise communications, a leader can articulate their vision to enable others to not only see it, but act on it.  This book makes it clear that this process is not a leader monologue, but a dialogue with everyone.  If a leader simply states a vision, but does not include others into the discussion, selling an idea or persuading others will be more challenging.  Through a dialogue, a leader can bring about a vision, and others will be able to help define the path.  This shared vision needs to be communicated over and over for all to hear.  How many organizations have all sorts of mission, vision, or goal statements, but very few of the employees know what they are?  Simple statements, driven home on a repetitive basis, will ingrain this into all employees.

Leadership Commitment #2:  Experiment and take risks, and learn from mistakes.
Leadership Commitment #3:  Envision a future that is uplifting and ennobling.

3.  Enable Others to Act

Is the environment at the work place one of timid employees who need to clear all decisions with the supervisors, who in turn need to approve decisions up the organization chart conducive for developing future leaders?  The answer for this question is a definite ‘no’, and there are two problems that arise.  First, a single individual involved for the entire process can work themselves into the abyss if they do not delegate and allow others to monitor a project, design a product, or deliver a service.  A lack of trust will lower morale, and diminish quality across the board.  Secondly, a workforce will not develop enough to be able to make independent decisions.  If these workers face a problem or dilemma, the process will essentially come to a halt as employees will wait for further instructions and information.  However, an empowered workforce will be better able to deal with problems and disruptions, make informed decisions, and move on.  Allow people to grow more beyond their job descriptions, and these individuals will enhance any organization.  Let them own the process or problem, and a majority of the time they will take greater pride and work all the harder to improve quality of products or service.  Even if mistakes are made, treat them as a learning experience, not as an act worthy of punitive measures.

Leadership Commitment #4:  Appeal to people’s values, dreams, and hopes to share a common vision.
Leadership Commitment #5:  Foster collaboration by promoting cooperative goals and building trust.

4.  Set an Example

Setting an example for all others to follow is perhaps the single most important aspect to a leadership quality.  Someone who creates a new vision, comes up with new innovative ideas, or sets a direction will only go as far as their supporters and workers allow.  Do they set benchmarks or deadlines for projects, and disappear into endless, non-essential meetings?  Do they skip out early on Fridays to play golf or tennis?  The leader needs to set the example for all to follow.  Employees will look to the leader and either emulates their proper work ethic and example, or they will simply shun them because they are not there or do not set the tone.  These individuals may have power written into their job description or in the organizational chart, but they will not have power over the mind and spirit of the employees.  Power derived from a position or job description will cause people to follow orders and directives, however, power derived from respect and admiration will cause people to follow visions and do whatever is necessary to achieve the goals of the organization.  That can be the difference between mediocrity and greatness.  Great companies are that way not because of a single dictator-like individual in power, but as a collective team of leaders, managers, and employees.

Leadership Commitment #6:  Strengthen others, give away power, assign critical tasks, and offer support.
Leadership Commitment #7:  Behave consistently with shared values.
Leadership Commitment #8:  Achieve small wins that promote consistent progress and build commitment.

5.  Encourage the Heart

Restoring the heart of the organization and encouragement of the workforce is a primary responsibility of a leader.  In a sense, the leaders will rally the troops, and breed a positive attitude for the organization as an entity and the direction it needs to go.  Kouzes and Posner argue that methods for achieving this include meetings, effective use of symbolism, or can be just simply gestures to show appreciation.  In a sense, the love of product, service, employees, and customers will go a long way in keeping the organization heading in the right direction.

Leadership Commitment #9:  Recognize individual contributions that lead to success.
Leadership Commitment #10:  Celebrate the achievements of a team, not just individual ones.

Overall, this book should be on the bookshelf of anyone in a supervisory or higher position, and contains invaluable information for all things pertaining to leadership.  Leadership is very challenging for all people as it is not something that can be written on paper or easily measured through any tangible means.  However, through focus, attention, and essentially common sense practices, any individual can become an effective leader through conscious efforts and adherence to the information contained within this great book.

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