The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner was first written in 1987. The original version was grounded in research. The current edition (Sixth) continues with insights garnered from analyzing over 3 million responses to their Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). The LPI is a 30 question survey tool, designed to be utilized as a 360-degree analysis of an individual in the five scales of the leadership qualities subscribed by the authors. Those five scales include the leader’s ability to:

  • Challenge the Process
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Enabling Others to Act
  • Modeling the Way, and
  • Encouraging the Heart

Kouzes and Posner’s premise is that leaders, when they are at their best, “mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done in organizations.” The text is a field guide to allow these leaders the pathway to recognize what it takes to be at their best. In fact, the book challenges individuals from all levels within an organization to take on leadership roles, accept the responsibility, become accountable for their actions, dig deep in reflection, with humility and make a difference in their world.

The authors have written several other books based on their research associated at Santa Clara University, where they are distinguished professors at the Leavy School of Business. In addition to his many academic awards, Jim Kouzes worked for the Tom Peters Company for 12 years as its President, CEO, and Chairman. Barry Posner, received his doctorate in organizational behavior and administrative theory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, before entering into his academic career. Both men have worked extensively with outside organizations both in the private and non-profit sectors, and possess a wealth of experience to go with their academic accomplishments.

To become a leader, one must first establish credibility. It is credibility the book claims that influences employees, customers, and investors. Establishing credibility, their research suggests, comes down to a simple concept described in the book as DWYSYWD (Do what you said you would do). I found the use of the long acronym interesting, as Tom Peters also uses such acronyms in his books, including a personal favorite, The Little Big Things (Harper Business, 2010). I have long been a fan of Peters when I first read Thriving on Chaos as a young up and coming executive in 1988. What I like about the style of Kouzes, Posner, and Peters, is that they are all direct to the point with a no-nonsense and easy to understand style. The Leadership Challenge continues with this style with simple points, laid out in a style that begs one to stop and look inward at their own actions and behaviors.

I believe most leaders and their followers would not argue with at least three of the concepts. Every leadership book and article I have ever read calls on leadership to inspire a shared vision, empowering their employees, and lead by example. Challenging the process and allowing others to challenge the process has been at the heart of recent leadership theory. There are clear benefits to allowing others to have a voice and to speak truth to power. These benefits not only allow foster more loyalty, through trust and respect for the leader, challenging the process potentially leads to better outcomes for the organization. The theory being that no matter how smart the leader is, two heads are better than one, divergent ideas an opinions almost always will either reinforce an idea, make it better or lead to an entirely new decision.

The section that has the most impact on business today is the section entitled Encourage the Heart. These two simple chapters consist of the life lesson we had all learned by the time we were in kindergarten. Recognizing the contribution of others and celebrating the values and victories. Recognizing the contributions of others, according to the authors, begins with the leader having and expressing the belief their employees are capable of the task at hand. The leader should also have high expectations for the work but must be clear in communicating what those expectations are and the rules that govern the work. This communication is not just a top-down description of what needs to be done. What is needed is dialogue providing the employee the space to provide feedback to the leader as well. When things are going well, it is essential to recognize the employee in the way each of them will appreciate; it may not be a one size fits all public display of affection. The key is for the leader to get to know what makes the individuals on his/her team tick and their preferences on recognition. The authors do suggest one universal recognition technique that leaders should employ, say thank you, and mean it.

The Leadership Challenge is one of my go-to books when I am coaching with executives. This book provides insight into the soft skills required by today’s leaders. In an era of fast-paced and ever-changing work, In a society of me first, transitory employees, these soft leadership skills can have a fantastic impact on employee engagement, happiness, and retention. Remembering that employees don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses; The Leadership Challenge is a must-read for all current and emerging leaders.