Kouzes and Posner: The Leadership Challenge

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What is Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge about? What are the five principles of exemplary leadership?

The Leadership Challenge is a field guide for becoming the kind of leader that other people want to follow. International bestselling authors and longtime research partners James Kouzes and Barry Posner have compiled thousands of case studies and millions of responses to surveys over the course of decades and used them to distill leadership into five overall principles.

Below is a brief overview of the book.

The Leadership Challenge

The five principles of Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge are based on two primary understandings: 

  1. Leadership is a relationship.
  2. Leadership is a skill—one that can be learned, practiced, and mastered by anyone willing to put in the effort. 

To explore these concepts more fully, we’ll start with an overview of what leadership is, and then we’ll discuss each of the five principles in detail. 

Four Characteristics of a Great Leader

Consistently, over time and around the globe, people most often name four specific characteristics. People want leaders who are:

  1. Honest: Honesty is considered a personal quality more than a professional one, and its importance illustrates that people want to follow leaders they can personally respect and identify with. 
  2. Competent: People want their leader to be capable, effective, and experienced; no one wants to follow someone who may lead them into failure. 
  3. Inspiring: The emotional energy that a leader puts forward will infect her whole team. A leader must be able to communicate her vision in such a way that other people understand her passion and believe that it will improve lives.   
  4. Forward-thinking: People want their leaders to have a clear idea of where they are headed. They want them to envision a better future and work toward it, rather than merely living with the current status quo.

In general, people want to feel their leaders are truthful, know what they’re doing, have a positive attitude, and have a sense of direction. 

Five Principles of Outstanding Leadership

This brings us to the Five Principles of Outstanding Leadership, which will enable you to develop the qualities of leadership that lead to success. The five principles of outstanding leadership are:

  1. Set an example: Take personal responsibility and set an example of the behavior you expect of others.
  2. Be inspirational: Provide an inspiring vision and see that your vision is shared among your team so that everyone is on board and motivated.
  3. Challenge the status quo: Challenge the way things are done, meet adversity head on, and take advantage of opportunities to lead your organization to new places. 
  4. Empower others to act: Engage other people to join you on your quest. Foster collaboration and trust. 
  5. Lead with heart: Genuinely care about your team, and let them know it. 

Principle 1: Set an Example

The first principle of outstanding leadership is to set an example by establishing strong values and then demonstrating how your values can increase the success of your organization and the overall happiness of your team.

Guideline 1: Establish Your Values

Effective teams are built on shared values, so as a leader, your first job is to establish a set of values that will guide you and your team. 

Clear values help guide your behaviors and choices so that you stay on the path toward your goal. Your values are the enduring beliefs underpinning your actions; the principles that will guide your decisions. Take time to think carefully about what you stand for and what priorities will drive your actions, because having a solid understanding of your own core principles will give you and your team confidence when making decisions. 

Affirm Your Shared Values

Once you’ve properly communicated your values, you must help your team members align their values with the values of your organization. Strong teams are built on shared values. If team members have differing values and priorities, they often stop coordinating their efforts and instead work separately toward individual goals. 

To affirm your values with your team, proactively engage in conversations that talk about these values. There are many ways you can spark conversations. For example, you might:

  • Meet with people individually and then discuss the team’s opinions at a group meeting. 
  • Relate a personal story at a staff meeting, that illustrates how you used your values in either your personal or professional life, and allow your team to respond and share similar experiences. 
  • Have your team fill out a questionnaire about their background, their hobbies, what kind of work they like, what role they hope to play on the team, and what they respect in coworkers, and then have everyone share at a staff meeting. 

Guideline 2: Model Your Values

Once you’ve established and clearly articulated your values, you must model them in your behavior. When you live out your values, others will know that you’re serious about expecting them to live them, too. Further, when you model your values, you educate your constituents; you guide, teach, and coach them on how to align their values with those of your organization. People learn better by seeing an example in action than by merely hearing the words. 

You broadcast your values in many ways, some of which are:

  • Where you devote your time and attention: Schedule your calendar and structure your agenda to match your stated values. For example, if you say you value your clients, patients, students, and so on, make yourself available to them.
  • How you use words and phrases: Your language reflects how you think about roles and relationships. Avoid words and phrases that focus on hierarchy (such as boss, employee, top-down, and rank-and-file), and instead use words that focus on relationships (like associates, colleagues, and team members).
  • How you pose questions: Ask purposeful questions designed to inform, guide, and emphasize your values. For example, ask, “What do you need that we can provide so you can finish the project?” to emphasize collaboration, rather than, “Why haven’t you finished the project?” which emphasizes blame.
  • Your openness to feedback and how you handle criticism: You broadcast how you feel about others’ opinions with whether or not you’re open to feedback.

Principle 2: Be Inspirational

When you inspire people, you ignite their passion, which motivates and excites them. People are naturally drawn to leaders who have a vision of a better world because they want to feel like they are a part of something important. 

Guideline 3: Envision a Positive Future

A forward-thinking leader has a positive vision of the future—one that engages people’s imaginations and emotions—and then works to make it happen. You must have a specific, purposeful vision of where you’re going in order to move forward: You can’t judge what path to take if you don’t know your destination.  

Often, visionary leaders have difficulty pinpointing where their visionary thinking comes from, chalking it up to intuition or a gut feeling. While these sources of inspiration are vague and hard to quantify, fortunately, there are specific steps you can take to prompt visionary thinking:

  • Examine your past: When you reflect on your history, you better understand how you arrived at where you are now, and that in turn can inform your future decisions.
  • Mind the present: Be fully aware of your present—of trends, patterns, strengths and weaknesses in your organization, and challenges and conditions outside your organization. When you pay attention to your current world, you can better anticipate what’s to come.
  • Scout the future: Be on the lookout for developments in either your workplace, industry, or the wider world around you. Changes in technology, economics, arts, demographics, and politics, as well as changes within your organization, can affect the vision of the future you have.
  • Connect with your passion: Your passion will drive your vision because it will point you in the direction of where you want to go, and influence what vision you’re willing to work for, suffer for, and sacrifice for.

Guideline 4: Get Others on Board

Once you’ve created a solid, specific, and inspiring vision, engage your teammates to get them equally excited. To do this:

  1. Seek input: Make your team members feel they’re building their vision as well as yours.
  2. Be unique: No one gets excited about an organization that does the same thing as everyone else.
  3. Emphasize meaningfulness: Focus on the greater cause behind your vision. People want to feel a sense of purpose and for their lives to have meaning.
  4. Illustrate your vision: Use tangible, actionable, visual, and specific terms that your team can readily recognize in order to increase their excitement.
  5. Appeal to emotions: Use stories to illustrate your vision, as these engage people emotionally more than a simple outline of a strategy. 
  6. Be energetic: Leaders need to radiate vast amounts of energy in order to inspire energy in their team. Be animated, speak clearly and loudly, and smile. 
  7. Be positive: As a leader, you’ll need to bring your constituents through difficult times with optimism—to inspire hope when your team faces obstacles or setbacks.

Principle 3: Challenge the Status Quo

Outstanding leaders don’t merely manage the day-to-day tasks of keeping an organization on track; they chart new tracks for their organizations to follow. They recognize things that can be improved and find ways to make them better. They seek out challenges rather than waiting for challenges to find them.

Guideline 5: Search for Opportunities

Envisioning opportunities is a foundational part of leadership: Leaders think about possibilities and then lead other people toward them. Every venture starts with an idea of how life might be different. 

Sometimes opportunities arrive at a leader’s feet, but most often, a leader proactively looks for them. Two rules can guide you in this:

  1. Take initiative: People in organizations grow used to doing things a certain way and are often reluctant to change their habits, defaulting to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Critically examine the processes and procedures you’ve grown to rely on, and take the initiative to implement changes.
  2. Look outward: Innovations can come from anywhere. Stay informed about events, happenings, conversations, and trends. Keep up with headlines, stop by colleagues’ desks to say hello, join your peers at lunch, and attend conferences and training programs. Seek second and third opinions, even if the first opinion seems good.

Guideline 6: Experiment and Learn

As a leader, when you challenge the status quo, you have to convince others to challenge it with you. However, other people may be reluctant to embark on an unproven path. 

You can alleviate some of these concerns by demonstrating through small experiments how your vision might work. In doing so, you’ll not only be learning how to improve your strategy through trial and error, but you’ll also be providing proof of concept for your constituents and others in your organization. 

When you work on small pieces of your project, you can experiment and test your vision or strategy in ways that reduce the risks of failure. For example, implementing a new procedure within one department can show you what works and what doesn’t before you roll out the program to the wider organization. 

Experiments also allow you to learn through failure, which research shows is a very effective teaching tool. To get the most out of failure:

  • Cultivate a growth mindset: a belief that you can improve your skills through hard work and practice. 
  • Create a culture of learning: Provide a variety of opportunities to learn, such as online classes, outside seminars, and coaching programs. Also, rotate job assignments or responsibilities for special projects, to get people to develop in different ways and gain deeper understandings of others’ roles.

Principle 4: Empower Others to Act

Your job as a leader is to encourage, enable, and empower others to act. To do this, foster a sense of collaboration among your team members, and build their sense of self-determination by strengthening their competence and confidence. 

Guideline 7: Foster Collaboration

The success of your project and your leadership depends on a sense of shared creation and shared responsibility. To foster collaboration among your team, follow these principles:

  1. Build a climate of trust: Trust is contagious, so once you demonstrate that you trust your team members, they are likely to reciprocate and trust you back. Allow your team to do the work you assigned them without close oversight. Encourage them to solve problems on their own. Empower them to make decisions and to use their expertise in the way they feel best.
  2. Promote relationships: Promote and foster healthy, trusting relationships among your team members. Help them develop common goals. Encourage them to help each other in reciprocal fashion. Reward joint efforts. Encourage face-to-face meetings when possible, as this helps people feel more comfortable with each other and more ready to express their ideas. 

Guideline 8: Strengthen Your Team Members

When you go beyond leading and show people how to lead themselves, you become more than a leader—you become a coach, helping others to help themselves. To empower your team:

  1. Build a sense of self-determination: Encourage your team members to participate and give input to projects in a meaningful way, contributing ideas and strategy. Allow them to make choices about how to solve problems. Give them responsibilities that encourage them to feel a psychological sense of ownership toward their job. This will enhance their feelings of accountability and will get them more personally invested in your project’s success. 
  2. Develop competence and confidence: Ensure everyone has the knowledge, skills, and resources to do their jobs. Challenge your team members’ skills so they feel they are building competence. Share with them critical information about your organization and the challenges it faces so they feel empowered to make important decisions. Coach your team members by showing them not what to do, but how to figure out what to do. 

Principle 5: Lead With Heart

To encourage lasting commitment from your constituents, you must engage their hearts as well as their minds. This means connecting with them on a personal level. Do this by recognizing their contributions and by celebrating your shared values and victories. 

Guideline 9: Recognize Contributions

When you recognize the contributions of your team members, you help them feel appreciated for both what they do and who they are. Encouragement helps people function at their highest level, and helps people endure when hours are long, work is difficult or problematic, and the challenge seems daunting. At times like this, people need emotional replenishment—encouragement—to fuel their commitment. 

The best way to recognize a team member is with personalized recognition that lets them know that you’ve noticed them in particular for a specific accomplishment. This runs counter to many existing incentive systems, which are routine, bureaucratic, and one-size-fits-all. But people consistently report that the most meaningful recognition they’ve received is a personal one, rather than a financial one. To effectively personalize recognition: 

  1. Get to know your team on a personal level: Go out of your way to speak to them outside of your respective roles. Walk the halls, visit your factories, and regularly meet in small groups with colleagues, suppliers, and clients.
  2. Get creative with incentives:  Informal, spontaneous rewards can often be more meaningful than formal ones, and a personalized reward that shows you know the other person is far more meaningful than a generic reward. Don’t be afraid to get silly. Adding humor lifts morale. 
  3. Say “Thank you”: The simple act of saying “thank you” is perhaps the easiest and yet most frequently overlooked way to make your team members feel personally recognized. The phrase can have an outsized effect on employee morale because people desire to feel that what they do makes a difference and is noticed. 

Guideline 10: Celebrate Values and Victories 

You can engage the hearts of your team members by bringing an attitude of celebration to your workplace. In doing so, celebrate not only accomplishments but also the shared values that define your team. To cultivate a celebratory workspace:

  1. Foster community spirit through celebrations: Humans are social creatures, and when people bond with their colleagues, they become more motivated to do their best, because their identity becomes linked to the group, making them more invested in the group’s success. Publicly celebrate accomplishments, promote friendships, and encourage your group to have fun with each other. 
  2. Become personally involved: To build a culture that celebrates its values and accomplishments, be personally involved in those celebrations. When you’re personally present to cheer your team members, you send a stronger message than you could through any formal corporate communication. Being personally involved earns a leader respect, trust, credibility, and loyalty from their team. 

Conclusion: Everyone Can Be a Leader

Leadership isn’t created by a fancy title, a famous name, or organizational authority. It comes from fostering and maintaining strong relationships. Ordinary people show outstanding leadership every day, and everyone has the potential to be an effective leader. 

Further, leadership isn’t an innate quality that a few people have and others don’t. Though many people ask, “Are leaders born or made?” the better question is, “How can I become a better leader tomorrow than I am today?”

Good leaders have an outsized influence on their team’s motivation, effort levels, and willingness to take personal initiative. As you continue to develop your leadership skills, keep these things in mind:

  • Leadership role models are local—and this means you: When people are asked to name the person who represents true leadership to them, they most often name someone close to them: a family member, a teacher, a religious leader, or a manager, not a celebrity or well-known corporate star. As a manager, parent, teacher, or coach, you’re setting an example, and others are paying attention. 
  • Leadership takes practice: Good leadership is a specific set of skills that can be learned and strengthened through practice. The biggest obstacle to becoming a better leader is an unwillingness to learn these skills. But as with any skill, mastering it requires training and effort, and more than anything, learning to be a good leader means going above and beyond what’s required of you.
  • Leadership can have setbacks: Being an outstanding leader won’t protect you entirely from the vagaries of economic cycles. It’s possible that despite your good leadership, you’ll encounter setbacks, such as losing your job. But effective leadership will make such setbacks less likely, and it will help you navigate them better so that you emerge from them.
  • You must lead yourself first: Before you can effectively lead others, you must have a clear understanding of yourself. Leadership growth is essentially a process of self-development. 
Kouzes and Posner: The Leadership Challenge

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Leadership Challenge summary:

  • A field guide for becoming the kind of leader that other people want to follow
  • The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines
  • Why before you can lead others, you must have a clear understanding of yourself

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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