James Kouzes: An interview by Bob Morris

Jim Kouzes

A former president, then CEO and chairman of the Tom Peters Company, Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Professor of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Along with co-author Barry Posner they have written over a dozen books, including the bestselling and award-winning The Leadership Challenge, now in its fourth edition with over 1.5 millions copies sold, and A Leader’s Legacy. To date nearly three million leaders have used their assessment instrument, The Leadership Practices Inventory. They began their joint research over twenty-five years ago, and continue it with surveys, written case studies, and in-depth interviews to obtain evidence of how leaders energize others to produce exceptional results.

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Morris: During the decades in which you and Barry have worked together, what have been the most significant changes in how effective leadership has been defined? Why?

Kouzes: The first change is that there’s no change in what people expect of leaders.  In 1982 people wanted leaders who were honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring. In 2007 we found these same four qualities are at the top of the list worldwide.

Second, in spite of the Internet boom and the pervasiveness of virtual connections, relationship skills have proven to be the most critical variable in leadership effectiveness. Third, while the content of leadership has not changed much, the context sure has. The most important shift is to a global economy. With outsourcing, the explosion of the Indian and Chinese economies, and the connectedness of people around the globe, aspiring leaders have to learn to work with people from a variety of countries and cultures.

The other major contributor to contextual change is technology. The Internet has dramatically altered the “ownership” of information. Power is shifting from the organization to the individual.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what have been some of the most significant consequences of those changes?

Kouzes: The two most significant changes in context—the global economy and technological connectivity—have resulted in a curious dichotomy. While we are more connected, we are also more distant.  That distance is both physical and emotional.

The physical distance is obvious, but the emotional distance is more subtle. It’s just human nature to trust people more like ourselves, so when leaders and constituents are culturally different, the emotional connection is not as strong. Cultural diversity brings with it different perspectives on the same issue. Exemplary global leaders must be more broad-minded, open to others, and keenly interested in others.

Morris: One of the key points that you have always stressed is that leadership must be developed at all levels and in all areas of an enterprise. In your opinion, how can that best be accomplished?

Kouzes: The most important and influential leader role models in our lives are family members. For college students and young professionals, next on the list are teachers and coaches followed by community leaders. Only after we’ve been working for a while do business leaders become significant leader role models, and those leader role models are much more likely to be an immediate manager than the CEO. All this underscores how important it is that we understand that leadership is everyone’s business, not just the domain of those at the top of the pyramid.

All work organizations should offer leadership development programs to prospective leaders on the frontline before they are selected to be supervisors.  Schools need to make it part of the curriculum. But it’s not just about formal programs. We learn a whole lot from observation, so leaders at all levels must model the appropriate behavior.

Morris: Now please focus on The Leadership Challenge. How does the fourth edition differ from those that preceded it?

Kouzes: The primary difference in the fourth edition is a direct result of the globalization of the economy. Barry and I include many more cases from outside the United States. Today there is nearly universal acceptance of the notion that the world really is “flat” as Thomas Friedman so aptly describes it.  The newest edition of The Leadership Challenge reflects this shift.

Morris: For those who have not as yet the book, what are the nature and the extent of the “challenge” to which the title refers?

Kouzes: In essence, it’s “how to get extraordinary things done in organizations.” In fact, when we released the first two editions of The Leadership Challengethat was the book’s subtitle.

From the very beginning every single one of the cases we’ve collected involved change from the status quo. What’s significant about this finding is that we didn’t specifically ask people to tell us about how they dealt with a leadership challenge.  Rather, we asked them to tell about their personal best leadership experiences.  And when they were writing and talking about their personal bests, challenge was integral part of doing their best.

Morris: Why is credibility “the foundation of leadership”?

Kouzes: Because people will not willingly follow someone in whom they do not believe. For the past twenty-five years we’ve asked over seventy-five thousand people worldwide to select the leader characteristics that “you most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow.”

What is most striking and most evident is that only four qualities have continuously received over sixty percent of the votes: honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.  Three of these four key characteristics—honest, competent, and inspiring—are synonymous with what communications experts refer to as “source credibility.” Serendipitously, what we discovered in asking people about admired leaders was that what they most want is a person in whom they can believe. Simply put, credibility is the foundation of leadership.

Morris: For those who aspire to lead others, how can they establish such a foundation? And, what can an organization do to support those efforts?

To help answer that question, we asked people “What is credibility behaviorally? How do you know it when you see it?” The common phrases people use to describe behavioral credibility include “Their actions are consistent with their words” and “They put their money where their mouth is.” A judgment of “credible” is handed down when words and deeds are consonant.

This realization leads to a straightforward prescription for leaders and for organizations on how to establish credibility: DWYSYWD. That is, “Do What You Say You Will Do.” First, leaders and organizations must clarify their values and beliefs. Second, they must put what they say into practice—back up their words by devoting time, attention, energy and resources to the core values they espouse.

Morris: Change initiatives inevitably encounter resistance, often the result of what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What advice do you have with regard to overcoming such resistance?

Kouzes: The more dramatic the change, the stronger the resistance is likely to be. Even when the evidence for change is overwhelming, it doesn’t come quickly or easily. Exemplary leaders meet resistance with persistence.  They don’t give up, they don’t quit, and they don’t submit. One need only look to those leaders in history who have fostered positive yet radical change—Mahatma Gandhi, for example—to realize that it takes courage to lead a life of significance.  The willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the greater good is a requirement for overcoming the nay-sayers, skeptics, cynics, and others who resist positive change.

Second, people embrace change only when they can see how it benefits them. The best leaders know what motivates their constituents. They understand their constituents’ hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They are able to paint an image of the future in a way that people will say, “I can see myself in that picture.”

Morris: Much has been said and written about “empowerment” in the workplace. Your own thoughts?

Long before empowerment was written into the popular vocabulary, exemplary leaders understood how important it was for their constituents to feel strong, capable, and efficacious. Constituents who feel weak, incompetent, and insignificant are consistent underperformers. They want to flee the organization, and they’re ripe for disenchantment, even revolution.

Feeling powerful—literally feeling “able”—comes from a deep sense of being in control of one’s own life. When people feel able—have both the skill and the will—to determine their own destinies, then they persist in their efforts to achieve. Any leadership practice that increases another’s sense of self-determination, self-confidence, and personal effectiveness makes that person more powerful and greatly enhances the possibility of success.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of the book title, A Leader’s Legacy.

Kouzes: In our leadership classes for our first-year business school students, we pose these questions: “Are you on this planet to do something, or are you here just for something to do? If you’re on this planet to do something, then what is it? What difference will you make? What will be your legacy?” This is pretty heady stuff for eighteen-year-olds barely three months out of high school. Most adults haven’t thought seriously enough about these questions.

“What will be your legacy?” is the fundamental question we want the readers of A Leader’s Legacy to wrestle with. We know there is no single answer, or a right answer, to the question. It’s not like a math problem with a formula we can offer. But asking the question opens everyone to the notion that along life’s journey they’re going to be struggling with the difference they want to make, and with doing what matters most. They’re going to be making choices at school, at work, at home, and in the community, and every choice they make will be part of the legacy they leave.

Morris: Jean Lipman-Blumen is among those who have much of value to say about “toxic” leaders. Based on what your research has revealed, what are the dominant characteristics of such a leader in the business world?

Kouzes: Our research has focused on what leaders do when they are operating at their best.  The toxic behaviors that Jean writes about just aren’t present during those times.  Which is not to say that even the best leaders don’t have their moments, but these are just not dominant patterns among exemplary leaders. I think this is a critical point, because it suggests that when we lead with our best selves we don’t display a desire to dominate others or use our influence in a destructive manner. When we lead with our best selves we are considerate of others and put their needs ahead of out own.

Morris: In both The Leadership Challenge and in A Leader’s Legacy, you and Barry Posner stress the importance of what Bill George characterizes as “authentic” leadership: being true to one’s self and helping others to do so. Why are so many in leadership positions unwilling and/or unable to do that?

Kouzes: The percentage of leaders who don’t want to be authentic and of the highest integrity is very small. I just don’t hear people saying, “I’m going to go to work today and be untrue to my principles and the principles of human decency.”  The majority of leaders try hard to behave consistently with their values. They try hard to raise the moral and motivational level of those they lead. If this weren’t true, we’d be reading about Enron-like actions every day of the week. The fact that Enron—and other organizations that violated basic standards and lacked integrity—collapsed and that people were up in arms about it is a testimony to how important authenticity and integrity are to the vast majority of us.

Morris: Presumably this is a question you are frequently asked: “How can I make a difference where I work and in my personal life?” What is your response?

Kouzes: To make a difference in the world, the first, and most important, question, you have to ask yourself is: What is the difference that I want to make? There are lots of other related questions: What do I care about most deeply?  What mission in life most obsesses me? What do I find absorbing, involving and enthralling? What’s my burning passion?  When you can answer these questions without hesitation and with great enthusiasm, the rest will follow.

Morris: Vince Lombardi once asserted that leaders are made, not born. “And they are made just like anything else that has ever been made in this country — by hard effort and that’s the price we all have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” What do you think?

Kouzes: A few years back Barry, Lillas Brown, and I did some research on learning and leadership. We were looking at whether or not there was a relationship between how leaders learned and how effective they were at leading. What we found was most intriguing: it really didn’t matter what the learning style was. Someone could be an active experimenter, an observer of others, a person who engages in emotional dialogues, or someone who loves to read or be in the classroom. The style was not the thing. What did matter was the extent to which individuals engaged in whatever style worked for them. The more they engaged in learning the more successful they were as leaders.

Vince Lombardi was spot on. There’s no such thing as instant leadership—or instant expertise of any kind. Those who are the very best at anything get to be that way because they spend more time learning and practicing, not less.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, which do you admire most? Why?

Kouzes: Martin Luther King, Jr.  I replay his “I Have a Dream” speech several times a year, and I still get chills. But, it’s not his moving oratory that I admire most. It’s his complete dedication to personally suffering for the cause. Whatever he asked of others, he gave of himself. He spoke out, sat in, marched, went to jail, and paid the ultimate price for his beliefs. At the end of every day he could point to something that he had done to demonstrate to others that he was committed to his beliefs. And those beliefs were ones that raised others’ motivations and morality.  At the same time, he was not perfect. He was a flawed character, and like all of us, he had weaknesses that made him very human.

I have to add that there is one leader I personally admire even more—someone who is not a famous or a great historical leader, but someone who is the most significant leader in my life.  That leader is my father. Even though he is no longer with us, he continues to be my role model for the ordinary extraordinary leader. The best leadership lessons I have ever learned I learned from him.

Morris: Don Bennett is among those you and Barry interviewed. He was the first amputee to climb Mt. Rainier (elevation 14,410 feet) and got to the top on one leg and two crutches. You asked him how he did it. His reply, “One hop at a time.” That seems like excellent advice for anyone preparing for or already embarked on becoming an exemplary leader for others to follow.

I absolutely love Don’s response. When he told me that, he also added, “I imagined myself on top of that mountain one thousand times a day in my mind, but when I started to climb it, I just said to myself ‘anyone can hop from here to there.’ And I would.  And when the going got roughest, and I was really exhausted, that’s when I would look down at the path ahead and say to myself, ‘You just have to take one more step, and anybody can do that.’ And I would.”

Leaders face similar challenges when trying to accomplish the extraordinary—the “mountain” looks too steep and too dangerous to even think about climbing. Getting ourselves and others to change old mindsets and habits and substitute new ones is daunting. Even with the best of intentions, people tend to revert to old and familiar patterns. Working out for a year to get in shape to climb a mountain requires discipline. Staying with it for five days in the freezing cold requires stamina and determination. Getting commitment to new behaviors, like solving big problems, is often overwhelming. So how do leaders do it? How do they get people to want to change the way they are currently operating, to break out of existing behaviors, to tackle big problems, and to attempt extraordinary performance? The answer: One hop at a time!

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Jim cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:






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