Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner on how and why “challenge characterizes every single personal-best leadership experience.”


I cannot recall a prior time when there was a greater need for exemplary leadership at all levels and in all areas of each human community, whatever its size and nature may be. In all fields: in the business world, of course, but also others such as government, education, the military services, not-for-profit organizations, the military services, the legal system, and law enforcement.

“Are leaders born or made?” My answer is yes. I’ve stopped counting the number of books co-authored by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner on the subject of leadership that I have read, reviewed, and then re-read. They have helped to develop hundreds of thousands of effective leaders.

In their latest collaboration, Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader (2016), they identify a widely recognized but underserved need, then respond to it. They assert: “There’s a leadership shortage in the world. It’s not a shortage of potential talent. The people are out there. The eagerness is out there. The resources are out there. The capability is out there. The shortage is the result of three primary factors: demographic shifts, insufficient training and experiences, and the prevailing mindsets that discourage people from learning to learn.” This is the situation to which Alvin Toffler refers: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Here is what Jim and Barry have to say about “the challenge of leadership.”

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From the ancient literature on leadership that searched for the individual “kissed by the gods” (charisma) to historical “great man” approaches (already limited by gender biases), people have been searching for the magic elixir that explains leadership success.

The current fascination is the concept of strengths.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion that people are more proficient at or prefer to engage in some activities than others. But the strengths approach has been misapplied to mean that you should take on only tasks in which you are strong, not waste your time attending to your weakness, and in areas where you aren’t strong and don’t have natural talent, you or the organization should assign those tasks to other people.

That’s also not to say that people shouldn’t attend to their strengths or that they aren’t generally happier if they’re using them at work, but the emphasis on strengths has fundamentally discouraged people from becoming better leaders.

To become an exemplary leader you have to challenge yourself.

Over the 35 years we’ve been researching leadership, we’ve consistently found that challenge characterizes every single personal-best leadership experience. And when you confront situations that test you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have to develop new skills and overcome existing weaknesses. You simply can’t do your best without searching for new opportunities, doing things you’ve never done, making mistakes, and learning from them.

The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.

Whether it’s enhancing your existing strengths or overcoming your weaknesses, learning is the master skill. Becoming the best leader you can be is not about settling for what you can do today, it’s about stretching yourself and learning continually. It’s about stepping out to the edge of your capabilities and asking a bit more of yourself.

How might leaders challenge themselves?

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Jim is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership and Barry is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. This blog is adapted from their new book, Learning Leadership.

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