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The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner.
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1-Page Summary1-Page Book Summary of The Leadership Challenge

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. Each principle is supported by two guidelines (for 10 guidelines in total) that offer concrete steps for how to achieve outstanding leadership.

The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines 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...

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Introduction to 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 decades and used them to distill leadership into five overall principles. Each principle is supported by two guidelines (for 10 guidelines in total) that offer concrete steps for how to achieve outstanding leadership.

The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines are based on two primary understandings:

1. Leadership is a relationship between those who lead and those who follow. A leader isn't a leader without a team, and even the greatest leaders don’t achieve their goals by themselves, but instead must enlist the help of a team. Therefore, when you work to develop your leadership, focus primarily on developing your relationships with your team members.

A relationship between a leader and a constituent must be a positive, respectful, and mutually beneficial one. You can’t force people to follow you; they must do so willingly. An employee who doesn’t believe in your...

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Principle 1: Set an Example

The first principle of outstanding leadership is to set an example. Do this by ensuring that your team members understand what you stand for and believe, and then by demonstrating how your values can increase the success of your organization and the overall happiness of your team.

These two guidelines will help you effectively set an example:

  • Guideline 1: Establish your values.
  • Guideline 2: Model your values.

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. As your team’s leader, it’s important that when you say, “This is what I believe in,” you're really saying, “This is what we believe in.”

Establishing your values is a two-part process:

  • Figuring out your values
  • Affirming shared values

Figure Out Your Values

Your values are the enduring beliefs underpinning your actions—the principles that will guide your decisions. Clear values help guide your behaviors and choices so that you stay on the path toward your goal. Your values:

  • Influence your moral judgments, your goals, and how you interact with...

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Shortform Exercise: Define Your Values

Clear values help guide your behaviors and choices so that you stay on the path toward your goal. Your values must be a sincere expression of your own heart.


Write down what values you hold that set you apart from other leaders. What priorities define who you are? What beliefs drive your decisions?

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Shortform Exercise: Model Your Values

Once you’ve established and clearly articulated your values, model them in your behavior so that others will know that you’re serious about what you expect of them.


What can you do on an everyday basis that demonstrates your values? (Think small: What are some ways you can interact with other people that show your values? Are there things you can say, actions you can take, or habits you can form?

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Principle 2: Be Inspirational

The second principle of outstanding leadership is to 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.

These two guidelines will help you inspire your team:

  • Guideline 3: Envision a positive version of the future that includes exciting and bold possibilities.
  • Guideline 4: Get others on board. Help them see the possibilities and opportunities of your vision.

Guideline 3: Envision a Positive Future

As we mentioned earlier, people expect a leader to be forward-thinking. A forward-thinking leader creates a positive vision—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.

See the Potential of the Future

Envisioning a positive future starts by seeing the potential of the future. A specific vision of the future gives you a theme for your career or life: a...

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Shortform Exercise: Mind the Present

In order to envision a better future, you must be fully aware of your present—of trends, patterns, strengths and weaknesses in your organization, and challenges and conditions outside your organization. Pay attention to your current world so you can anticipate what’s to come.


Look around your workplace and make a conscious note of the things people are doing and the things they’re using. What do your colleagues and team members use to complete their tasks? What processes and procedures do they work under? How do they structure their days?

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Principle 3: Challenge the Status Quo

Now that you’ve explored your values, vision, and purpose, and examined how you can engage your team to pursue these things with you, we’ll shift our discussion to another aspect of leadership: a willingness to 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.

The next two guidelines outline specific ways in which you can proactively drive your organization or team forward:

  • Guideline 5: Search for opportunities.
  • Guideline 6: Experiment and take risks.

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.
  2. Look outward.

1. Take...

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Shortform Exercise: Produce Small Wins

While your dreams and goals may be big, think small when working toward them. You’ll have more success achieving a goal little by little than trying to accomplish the whole thing at once. Aim to accumulate small wins—measurable accomplishments of moderate importance—as you progress.


Think of a project you're working on or a goal you're working toward. Write down the ultimate outcome you're hoping to achieve.

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Principle 4: Empower Others to Act

Now that we’ve discussed how to challenge the status quo, we’ll move on to how to encourage, enable, and empower others to act as well. There are two overall guidelines to achieve this:

  • Guideline 7: Foster collaboration.
  • Guideline 8: Strengthen others’ sense of self-determination and competence.

Guideline 7: Foster Collaboration

The success of your project and your leadership depends on a sense of shared creation and shared responsibility. Consistently, research shows that leaders who cultivate cooperative relationships in their team are viewed as highly effective and inspire the highest levels of engagement.

To foster collaboration among your team:

  1. Build a climate of trust.
  2. Promote relationships.

1. Build a Climate of Trust

Trust is integral to human relationships and to leadership. Trust is needed in every type of relationship within a team:

  • From leader to team: You must trust the efforts of other people or you’ll end up as merely a manager or supervisor, micromanaging everyone’s work, instead of a leader.
  • From team to leader: If your team doesn’t trust you, they won’t follow you. They won’t believe in your vision or put...

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Shortform Exercise: Empower Others

People do their best work when their task is slightly more challenging than their skill level. That’s when they feel neither overwhelmed nor bored. This is also when they report feeling “in the flow,” which is the sense that they’re performing expertly even if the challenge is difficult.


Think about some tasks for which you're currently the primary (or only) decision-maker. In which of these might you be able to involve other people in the decision-making process?

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The Leadership Challenge Summary Principle 5: Lead With Heart

To encourage lasting commitment, engage your team’s hearts as well as their minds. This means connecting with them personally.

To engage your team members hearts in a way that increases their motivation and commitment to your project and your leadership, follow these guidelines:

  • Guideline 9: Recognize contributions.
  • Guideline 10: Celebrate 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.

There are two parts to properly recognizing contributions:

  1. Expect the best
  2. Personalize your recognition

1. Expect the Best

Your expectations of your team affect how they perform: When you expect people to do well, they tend to. Conversely, when you expect people to fail, they probably will. Your expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy; how you...

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Shortform Exercise: Get Creative With Incentives

One of the best ways to personalize your recognition of someone’s efforts is to get creative with it. Informal, spontaneous rewards can often be more meaningful than formal ones.


Think of one or two people on your team who have done a good job and who you’d like to reward. List some characteristics that make them unique: not just work habits, but personal preferences, hobbies, interests, or personality quirks.

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The Leadership Challenge Summary 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 Leadership Matters

Leadership has an outsized influence on people’s motivation, effort levels, and willingness to take personal initiative. Employees who work for effective leaders often say those leaders prompted them to achieve more than they thought they were capable of achieving. Studies show that great leaders bring out more than three times the talent and motivation from their teams as do lesser leaders.

Good leaders who use the principles we’ve explored have been shown to:

  • Create higher-performing teams
  • Generate increased sales
  • Earn higher customer satisfaction
  • More effectively expand operations
  • Reduce absenteeism and turnover rates
  • More easily recruit...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction to Leadership
  • Principle 1: Set an Example
  • Exercise: Define Your Values
  • Exercise: Model Your Values
  • Principle 2: Be Inspirational
  • Exercise: Mind the Present
  • Principle 3: Challenge the Status Quo
  • Exercise: Produce Small Wins
  • Principle 4: Empower Others to Act
  • Exercise: Empower Others
  • Principle 5: Lead With Heart
  • Exercise: Get Creative With Incentives
  • Conclusion: Everyone Can Be a Leader