Jim Kouzes: What Makes A Good Leader?

Jim Kouzes, co-author of the ‘The Leadership Challenge’, gives his insight into what makes a good buisness leader.

What are some of the main challenges for modern day leaders?

Challenge is the defining context for leadership. For over three decades Barry Posner and I having been asking people to tell us about their personal-best leadership experiences, and the stories are consistently about dealing with adversity and hardship, or doing something no one had ever done before, or turning around a losing operation, or starting something from scratch, or breaking away from tradition, or installing untested processes, or struggling with poorly performing units. They were not about maintaining the status quo, but rather about changing the business-as-usual environment. This is a critical lesson to keep in mind, because no on ever got anything extraordinary done without initiating and accepting a challenge. Challenge, it turns out, is the crucible for greatness. Exemplary leaders view challenge as opportunities to excel.

With that perspective in mind, leaders today will be dealing with a variety of challenges that include the rise of emerging markets that are shifting the centres of commerce, rapid technological advancements that are enabling connectivity globally, aging populations that are putting pressure on social support systems in some countries, and the large number of unemployed or underemployed young people in other countries. In the work that I do in leadership development, there is a huge concern about the lack of a sufficient number of trained leaders to move into more senior roles. They can’t keep up with the demand for more and better leaders, and young people don’t have enough opportunities to learn to lead. For example, in one study I read 90 per cent of employers want to see leadership development opportunities as part of every student’s educational experience, but fewer than 6 per cent of universities have formal leadership development programmes.

Another issue is the low levels of trust in leaders globally, in both the private and public sectors. Trust started falling precipitously during the recession that began in 2008, and while it has started to improve, trust in leaders is still at a very low level in many countries around the world. That is a major challenge to leaders because without people’s trust one cannot lead effectively.

What benefits can a good leader bring to a company?

We’ve been tracking the impact leaders have on their constituents and the organisation for many years. As we’ve already mentioned, we’ve analysed data from well over a million respondents and hundreds of other researchers have used our model and the Leadership Practices Inventory to gather data from thousands more. The findings from all these studies point to one very clear conclusion: Managers, volunteers, pastors, government administrators, military officers, teachers, school principals, students, and other leaders who use the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership more frequently are seen by others as better leaders.

For example, they

• More successfully meet job-related demands
• More effectively represent their units to upper management
• Create higher-performing teams
• Increase sales and customer satisfaction levels
• Foster renewed loyalty and greater organisational commitment
• Increase motivation and the willingness to work hard
• Facilitate high patient satisfaction scores and meet family member needs
• Promote high degrees of involvement and engagement in schools
• Enlarge the size of their congregations
• Expand fundraising results and gift-giving levels
• Extend the range of their agency’s services
• Reduce absenteeism, turnover, and dropout rates
• Positively influence recruitment rates
• Earn higher scores on measures of leader credibility

Additionally, people working with leaders who demonstrate the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are significantly more satisfied with the actions and strategies of their leaders; they feel more committed, excited, energised, influential, and powerful; and they are more productive. In other words, the more you engage in the practices of exemplary leadership, the more likely it is that you’ll have a positive influence on others in the organisation.

What traits make the best leader?

The truth is that credibility is the foundation of leadership. This is the inescapable conclusion we’ve come to after thirty years of asking people around the world what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. The key word here is “willingly.” It’s one thing to follow someone because you think you have to “or else,” and it’s another when you follow a leader because you want to. What does it take to be the kind of person, the kind of leader, whom others want to follow, doing so enthusiastically and voluntarily? It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity, and support. Only credible leaders earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organisations and communities.

The next important question is, What are the practices that leaders demonstrate that earn credibility and create a climate extraordinary performance? We have been research personal-best leadership practices for over 30 years, and we find that there are Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership that account for most of what leaders do to engage constitutes and improve performance. These practices are:

• Model the Way—they clarify values and set an example based on a set of shared values.
• Inspire a Shared Vision—they envision an uplifting future and they enlist others in a common vision.
• Challenge the Process—they search for opportunities and experiment and take risks, learning from the accompanying mistakes.
• Enable Others to Act—they foster collaboration and strengthen others.
• Encourage the Heart—they recognise contributions and celebrate the values and the victories.

Do you think these vary depending on the country/region?

In our research we find that The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are universally applicable. Using our assessment tool, the Leadership Practices Inventory, we’ve examined the behaviours of leaders from over 70 countries, and we’ve discovered that while the specific scores can vary from individual to individual, the pattern of responses is exactly the same. That is, no matter what country a leader is from, the more frequently a leader demonstrates each of these practices the more engaged constituents are. Constituents are more committed, feel their work is meaningful, have greater trust in leaders, have a greater sense of teamwork, and so on, when they experience their leaders behaving in ways that are consistent with the practices of Model, Inspire, Challenge, Enable, and Encourage.

In fact, our research shows that when you combine nine demographic variables including gender, age, tenure, level, country, education, etc., together these variables account for less than one per cent of the variance in why people are engaged in their work. In other words, it makes almost no difference where you are from, how old you are, what type of organisation you work in, whether you are male or female, or any of the other demographic variables. What matters are the actions leaders take, and those actions are applicable globally.

None of this is to say that people Model, Inspire, Challenge, Enable, and Encourage exactly the same from organisation to organisation or country to country. Context does matter, and leaders have to adapt to the context. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where I was recently, there are customs that make it necessary for leaders to adapt, for example, how they might recognise someone for a job well done; however, the universal truth is that all individuals respond positively to being recognised for their contributions.

What CEOs would you list as being prime examples of good leadership?

I think it’s important to say that there are many CEOs who exemplify good leadership. For example, Rachel Argaman, CEO of TFE Hotels in Australia,Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, or Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup, are three examples that immediately come to mind. And in his book, Flashes of Thought, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum articulates many of the principles that we find in exemplary leaders everywhere. But it’s important to point out that leadership is set of skills and abilities that are learnable by anyone. In my and Barry Posner’s research, the vast majority of leaders are not CEOs and are more likely to be middle level managers or non-managers.

Throughout our work we tell stories of ordinary people who’ve gotten extraordinary things done. They are from all over the globe, from all age groups and walks of life. They represent a wide variety of organisations, public and private, government and NGOs, high-tech and low-tech, small and large, schools and professional services. Chances are you haven’t heard of most of them. They’re not public figures, famous people, or mega-stars. They’re people who might live next door or work in the next cubicle over.

We’ve focused on everyday leaders because leadership is not about position or title. It’s not about organisational power or authority. It’s not about celebrity or wealth. It’s not about the family you are born into. It’s not about being a CEO, president, general, or prime minister. And it’s definitely not about being a hero. Leadership is about relationships, about credibility, and about what you do.

You don’t have to look up for leadership. You don’t have to look out for leadership. You only have to look inward. You have the potential to lead others to places they have never been before.

How are technology and other advancements changing the role of leadership?

Technological advancements are making leadership at once easier and more challenging. Communications technology, for example, makes leading easier because leaders can now connect with more of their constituents faster and more effectively than ever before. With the tools of social media leaders can have virtual town hall meetings, they call do instant polls to take the pulse of their constituents, they can gather suggestions and creative ideas more broadly, and they can engage others in more meaningful ways.

But for these same reasons technological advances mean that it’s much easier for constituents to voice their opinions, offer customer suggestions, complain about the kinds of service they are receiving, and recruit people to their causes. And this is exactly why trust and credibility are so important. When people see their leaders as credible and worthy of their trust, these tools can truly enhance the work of leaders. But, when there is little trust and credibility, then the results can be very disruptive for leaders.

Jim Kouzes is the co-author of the bestselling ‘The Leadership Challenge’ and the Dean’s executive fellow of leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University