Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner (Book Review #50 of 2016)


The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition by Kouzes and Posner
Goodreads' algorithm had this on my "recommended" list for a long time, so I knocked it out. All leadership books overlap or draw from each other; occasionally one, like this one, cites a particular survey. The survey in this book identifies "characteristics of admired leaders" and was done internationally, but the majority of responses were from the US. It was updated in each edition from 1987-2007, without much significant change between the initial survey and the latest. This book reminded me the most of Jim Collins' Good to Great or Built to Last; much of what they advise leaders and managers to do jives with the stories in those. I'd recommend this book to any leader from middle-manager with any goal-setting authority to pastors, parents, etc.

The authors identified a culture of trust as the key to having motivated employees "authentic leadership is founded on trust." Credibility is the foundation- the First Law. 89% of survey respondents identified "honesty" as a characteristic of admired leaders. (No wonder in 2016 we have the two must unpopular presidential candidates of all time, both score low on surveys measuring their perceived trustworthiness.) The leader must be trustworthy and know where the group is going, he or she must have a direction they're taking the team. Around the time of writing this, I heard someone else say that "trust is the intersection of integrity and competency," and that hit the nail on the head. Reading The Leadership Challenge solidified my decision to leave my previous job because the organization lacked trust, a clearly stated values, consistent competency, and a clearly stated vision. The job I moved to has the vision and values hung up on posters in highly-visible areas.

In the book, those rated as good leaders are those who make the vision clear-- everyone should know the mission statement and what's expected. Expressing the vision is the "most difficult" of all the leadership skills, but leaders have to also state their values clearly and then live by them. Team members should be expected to maintain the values or be shown the door. Shared values make a difference in work ethic, quality, pride, teamwork, etc. Companies with shared values perform "measurably better," (again reminiscent of Good to Great and probably every John Maxwell book).

There are five practices:
1. Model the Way
2. Inspire a Shared Vision
3. Challenge the Process
4. Enable Others to Act
5. Encourage the Heart

Besides the top quality of honesty, the next characteristics were being "forward-looking, inspiring, and competent." Competence was cited by 68% of respondents, whereas the next highest quality--intelligence-- showed up in less than half (48%) of the responses. You don't have to be the smartest, but you do have to be competent.

Leaders try, fail, learn, then repeat. They grow. They use "we" instead of "I." They know what they want and why. "They do what they say they will do." The most admired qualities in the surveys were honesty, competency, and inspiration. The authors suggest leaders communicate with stories to better illustrate their vision. The vision/mission statement should be a slogan for easy transmission and memorization. Goals should be stated clearly and be measurable. True leaders have to tap into a system of intrinsic rewards by creating an environment where people take pride in their work and are passionate about the work itself. One way to foster pride is to give ownership to employees for their work. Leaders have to show trust by delegation, "those who cannot trust cannot lead because they cannot delegate." You need goals and standards to release employees' creative energy and focus the values into real application.

Another way to release followers' creativity is for the leader to listen to them. "Devote 25 percent of your staff meeting to listening to new, outside ideas." This requires dreaming-- dream big but start small. Leaders should start small and then celebrate the wins along the way. Employees should be knowledgeable about the entire organization, how everyone fits into the mission. The authors don't mention but ISO standards essentially require this. Their example was one I was knowledgeable about, and was once featured on PBS Newshour-- Springfield, Missouri's SRC Holdings owned by Jack Stack. At SRC, all employees have a stake, are trained an included in meetings on the basic financials of the business, know everyone's task and where they fit in-- they have ownership from the janitor to the managers.

How a leader spends his or her time signals importance. To borrow from Colin Powell (not the authors), that doesn't mean being a "busy bastard" trying to work weekends or longer hours than your employees, but your values should rather be shown in how you spend your time on task. Your employees see what you do and chalk that up as an expectation for their own behavior. If family and social life are important to the organization, it should be demonstrated by what the boss does. Leaders use the word "love" frequently, they have a passion for the values they espouse, for their work, the organization, and employees.

Leaders need to avoid favoritism, and I don't think the authors stressed this point. They write that leaders should celebrate employees who fulfilled values the best, this can sometimes be subjective. The authors encourage developing friendships and trust in the workplace, but in my experience and listening to other managers, it's best the environment allow employees to foster those friendships with each other rather than their boss (though they should always be comfortable with and trust the boss).

Leadership is learnable. Leaders should always remember their humble beginnings to avoid the "curse of hubris." (There is much psychology that the authors neglect.) One remarkable trait the authors point out is that teams which have been together longest communicate the least, and look for outside ideas the least, becoming less innovative. (I was reminded of how Steve Ballmer forbid Microsoft salespeople from using an iPhone, even though they found it helped them do their jobs better). In the organization I left, the team I was a part of was pretty isolated both from the larger office and other outside ideas. This failure to seek the "outside view" leads to stagnation and other dangerous problems for the organization. We have to learn from each other but also other divisions and organizations.

Accountability, adherence to vision and values, is crucial. The authors mention the FAA which has a self-reporting system for mistakes that gets published. People may be shocked to see the sheer number of mistakes that get reported, but few of the mistakes are actually consequential, it's the system that's important. Leaders should strive to create an environment where stakeholders admit mistakes so that they become part of the learning process; systemic and habitual problems can be identified and fixed.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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