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Truths About Leadership
Evidence Shows It’s About Character, Values and Actions
A few years ago, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, leadership faculty at Santa Clara University, were presenting a seminar with Ken Blanchard, author of The One-Minute Manager. As Posner recalls it, they were telling Blanchard about their extensive, data-based research on leadership, and how it had consistently yielded the same results over a quarter of a century. They asked him how he would characterize that.
"A common theme: the leader can’t do it alone"
“I’d call it the truth,” Blanchard replied.
That remark, Posner says, suggested the title for their latest book, The Truth About Leadership: The No-Fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know, published last year by Jossey-Bass. A timely and completely revised version of their book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It comes out this summer, and they are also collaborating on the silver anniversary edition of their book The Leadership Challenge, due out next year.
Over the years the Kouzes-Posner books have stood out from the competition because of their emphasis on personal values, character and keeping promises, as well as the extensive research they have done across many cultures and with several generations of business people. Their Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), with more than 3.5 million responses, is one of the most widely used leadership assessments in the world.
“The fact that our viewpoint is evidence-based and appeals to the thinking person has had a lot to do with the longevity of our books,” Posner says. “We’ve identified five key practices used by exemplary leaders, and while there’s room for individual interpretation, these principles have come to have universal application.” Those five leadership practices are:
"We find that organizations that consistently utilize The Five Practices have fewer problems and better results, from higher return on equity to lower employee turnover," Posner says.In questionnaires, seminars, and in the classroom, Kouzes and Posner often begin the leadership evaluation process with a simple question: Can you tell us about a time when you’ve been at your personal best as a leader?
“No one we’ve asked has ever been unable to come up with an answer,” Posner says. “Everybody’s done this stuff and knows it at some intuitive level; we’re trying to help people do it more frequently, comfortably and successfully.” A common theme in the responses, and a key point in The Truth About Leadership, is that the leader can’t do it alone. Posner still remembers after more than a quarter century one of the earliest answers to the question, from a Silicon Valley executive who said, “It wasn’t my personal best; it was really our personal best.” Is it possible for a leader to excel in every area? “It’s kind of like being an athlete in the pentathlon, where you have to compete in five different events,” Posner says. “Nobody does them all equally skillfully, but in order to win, you have to reach a certain threshold of competence in each one of them.” Another key point they make is that credibility is the foundation of leadership. In 30 years of research, survey respondents have consistently said that leaders they would willingly follow are people who are honest, competent and inspiring. Other research has defined three key elements of credibility as trustworthiness, expertise and dynamism, which are synonyms for these leadership qualities.
A fourth element of leadership, as cited in responses, is that a leader is forward- looking. That makes sense, Posner says, because, “The difference between a credible person and a leader is that the leader has a point of view.” The Truth About Leadership was, Posner says, in some ways an attempt to define leadership qualities for Millenials, persons born roughly between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s, including Posner and Kouzes’ current students at Santa Clara University. This group gives similar answers to those of previous generations when presented with the questionnaires, which further validates the overall findings of their research.
The book’s first truth, which draws a positive response in Posner’s classes is, “You make a difference. Before you lead, you have to believe you can have a positive impact on others. You have to believe in yourself.” Posner says students want to believe they matter and can find their calling, and appreciate hearing that from an authority in the field of leadership and that he, in turn, wants to help young people develop self-confidence and skills necessary “to lead people to places they have never been before.” “Our mission is to increase the quality and quantity of leaders in the world,” he says. “There’s no shortage of opportunities to lead, but there is a shortage of people who are ready to step up to the challenge.”