The Leadership Challenge

Oct. 4, 2007
The content of leadership has remained the same, but the context has changed.

In the recently released fourth edition of their bestselling and award-winning book, The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, update their findings on what exemplary leaders do to get extraordinary things done in organizations.

Q. Are the challenges of leadership the same today as they were when THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE was first published twenty years ago? Have they become even more demanding?

A. The challenges that leaders experienced in 1987 felt as demanding to them as they feel to leaders in 2007. When we asked people twenty-five years ago -- and when we ask them today -- to describe to us the conditions for performing at their best as leaders, every single case is about dealing with adversity and change. People have told us how they led turnarounds of losing operations, started up new plants, developed new products or services, installed untested procedures, renewed operations threatened with closure, or reinvigorated a tired bureaucratic system. We only become the best when we change something, try something new, or stretch ourselves beyond conventional norms.

That said, the two most demanding challenges that confront today's leaders are a result of the tectonic shifts in technology and the global economy. The strategic and tactical implications are enormous. But even more significant are the new demands on human relationships.

Titus Lokananta, plant manager, Grupo Industrial Bimbo SA, remarked to a Wall Street Journal reporter not too long ago, "I'm an Indonesian Cantonese with a German passport who works for Mexicans in the Czech Republic." This guy represents five cultures all by himself! He's clearly has had to adapt to a variety of cultures and countries in order to be successful. More and more leaders will be facing the kinds of leadership challenges that Titus does -- the challenges of leading diverse groups of people who are culturally different and who are physically distant from them. The development of a global leadership mindset is likely to be the most vexing challenge leaders will face in the next several years, even decades.

Leaders of culturally diverse teams will have to be extremely flexible, realizing that there are going to be different perspectives on many issues. Broadmindedness and open-mindedness are crucial to success in a global environment. You have to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. You have to be superb at reading the emotions of others, and you have to be able adjust to the environment.

Q. Do people look for the same qualities in their leaders, across cultures and national boundaries? What is the most critical of these qualities?

We can all take comfort in knowing that around the world there are a few critical qualities that people look for in their leaders. These characteristics have remained constant over time, and our research documents this consistent pattern across countries, cultures, ethnicities, organizational functions and hierarchies, gender, educational, and age groups. The majority of constituents believe the leader must be:

  • Honest
  • Forward-looking
  • Inspiring
  • Competent

Three of these four key characteristics -- honest, competent, and inspiring -- make up what communications experts refer to as "source credibility." More than anything, people want to follow leaders who are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. Put another way, if you don't believe in the messenger, you won't believe the message.

The fourth universal quality of being forward-looking is the attribute that differentiates leaders from other credible people. People expect their leaders to have a point of view about the future. They want to be confident that their leaders know where they're going.

There are, of course, cultural nuances and differences in how people interpret each of these attributes, and there are differences in the extent to which each is important. This is where cultural adaptation is essential. Leaders have to understand these differences in the meaning of qualities and not assume that they are all expressed in exactly the same way.

Q. Despite the changes in the economy and the marketplace over the past twenty years, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership you identified more than two decades ago remain as relevant today as ever. What are these Practices?

Whether it's Canada, China, Singapore, Australia, the Netherlands, England, India, Mexico, the United States, or any of the other countries from which we've gathered cases, we find that when leaders are performing at their best they exhibit Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. Exemplary leaders:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

When mobilizing others to want to get extraordinary things done, leaders Model the Way by clarifying values and then setting the example based on a set of shared values. They Inspire a Shared Vision by envisioning the future and enlisting others in a common vision. Leaders Challenge the Process by searching for opportunities and experimenting and taking risks. They Enable Others to Act by fostering collaboration and strengthening individuals. Finally, leaders Encourage the Heart by recognizing individual contributions and celebrating the values and the victories.

These Five Practices have stood the test of time and our most recent research confirms that they're just as relevant today as they were when we first began our research.

Q. Several of the Five Practices connect to building strong teams - whether it's inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to do good work by fostering collaboration, or recognizing and celebrating accomplishments. Is leadership today more about directing teams than individuals?

I will always remember Bill Flanagan's initial response when we asked him to tell us his personal best leadership experience. At the time he was VP ofoperations for Amdahl and later became their Group President of the Amdahl Technology Group. Bill said he couldn't do it. Startled we asked him why. Bill replied, "Because it wasn't my personal best. It was our personal best. It wasn't me. It was us."

In the thousands of cases we have collected over the years we have not encountered a single example of an extraordinary achievement in which one leader did it all by himself or herself. When talking about their personal bests, people speak passionately about teamwork and cooperation as the interpersonal route to success, particularly when conditions are extremely challenging and urgent.

The emphasis on networks, business-to-business and peer-to-peer e-commerce, strategic acquisitions, and knowledge work, along with the surging number of global alliances and local partnerships, is testimony to the fact that in an ever more complex, wired world, the winning strategies will be based on the "we not I" philosophy. Collaboration is a social imperative -- without it you can't get extraordinary things done in organizations.

Jim Kouzes is the dean's executive professor of leadership and Barry Posner is the dean, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. They are an award-winning and bestselling team who have coauthored more than a dozen books on leadership, as well as the highly acclaimed assessment instrument, The Leadership Practices Inventory. You can learn more about their work and the research behind it by visiting

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