Learning Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Learning LeadershipLearning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
John Wiley & Sons (May 2016)

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

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, 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 Toffler refers.

Worse yet, the global marketplace today is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than any prior time that I can remember. This is both a principal cause and a major result of the shortage to which Kouzes and Posner refer. “After more than 30 years of research, we know that you are fully capable of leading. You may not realize it or fully believe it, but it’s true. It’s also true for 99.9999 percent of people in the world…The larger purpose of this book is to share with you what we’ve learned about how you can create the conditions, inside yourself and in the context in which you live and work, to become a much better leader than you are today.”

Those who read this book should expect to be challenged as well as enlightened. I urge them – I urge you – to embrace this challenge fully and eagerly. Keep Helen Keller’s brilliant insight in mind: “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” That’s a bit of an overstatement but essentially true. In fact, Kouzes and Posner focus on the five fundamentals of becoming an exemplary leader:

1. Believe you can.
2. Aspire to excellence.
3. Challenge yourself.
4. Engage support.
5. Practice deliberately.

They are separate but interdependent fundamentals. You must be committed to all five. Without exception, the greatest teachers I was associated with in school, college, and graduate school were also great students. They exemplified commitment, discipline, self-sacrifice, and insatiable curiosity as well as a passionate delight in learning, in exploring, in challenging the status quo (especially their own assumptions and premises), and became almost radioactive with excitement during class discussions. Whenever I watch one of the videos of Richard Feynman in a classroom or at a lectern in an auditorium, I immediately recall my own magical adventures in learning.

As in the forests of academe, great thought leaders in business are great teachers if (HUGE “if”) those with whom they are associated – directly or indirectly – absorb, digest, and then apply what can be learned from them. Jim Kouzes, Barry Posner, and their latest book offer an excellent case in point.

There is also a shortage of exemplary learners and they respond brilliantly and generously to that need.

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