The Truth About Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

The Truth About Leadership: The No-Fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
Jossey-Bass (2010)

What Kouzes and Posner learned about what leadership is and does after three decades of rigorous study

I have read and reviewed most of the books on which Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have collaborated and consider this one, their latest, the most valuable contribution they have made thus far to our understanding of what leadership is and does. The title is clever in that it tees up a major misconception that a complicated subject such as leadership offers only one “truth” when in fact it offers dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of truths. Kouzes and Posner focus on ten that they consider most important, devoting a separate chapter to each.

They also provide what they characterize as “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.” There are no head-snapping revelations among them, nor among the ten “truths,” and Kouzes and Posner would be among the first to point that out. Anyone can easily formulate a list of leadership attributes, defining characteristics, core competencies, etc. The challenge is to demonstrate them with one’s behavior.

Kouzes and Posner’s purpose in the book to identify and examine several basic truths about great leadership that have endured throughout human history.  After I read the first three chapters, I paused to compile a list of those I consider to be the greatest leaders. When the totals reached 25, I reviewed the Kouzes-Posner list of ten truths. However different the leaders on my list are in most respects, all of them

1. Made a positive difference both during and beyond their lives
2. Were credible
3. Values-driven
4. Focused on what could, indeed should be done
5. Attracted followers who shared their vision
6. Were trusted
7. Were strengthened by severe challenges
8, Led by example
9. Were voracious learners with insatiable curiosity, and
10. Cared deeply, passionately

Compile your own list and I’ll bet that these ten also describe them. With regard to other attributes of great leaders, I would include storytelling skills, grace under duress, and what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking.”

All human communities (including companies, yes, but also cities and even countries) need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. That is to say, people who are passionately committed to principled, collaborative, results-driven initiatives…people who say “Yes!” amidst negativity, who say “Yes we can!” amidst doubt and despair. To me, the single most compelling point that Kouzes and Posner reaffirm in this book is their belief that literally anyone can embrace and serve the same truths in all areas of their lives.

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