James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner are hardly the first to challenge the notion that leaders are born not made.
As the business world has become more fixated on the importance of leadership – especially the inspirational and authentic kinds – so academics, consultants and other experts have been apparently queuing up to argue that the people able to do this leading are more numerous and available than thought. Nevertheless, the born-versus-made argument persists, with many continuing to believe that, while managers can be trained, leaders are special folks who are in such short supply that they need to be handsomely rewarded and nurtured.
Kouzes and Posner, who have been studying the field for decades, do not hold with this at all. Arguing that the vast majority of people have the capacity to lead, they suggest that “prevailing myths and misconceptions” about what it takes to become a leader holds them back – and contributes to the great shortage of leaders that is seen by many as amounting to a crisis. In their new book, Learning Leadership (Wiley), they write: “Our research shows that a universal set of leadership practices is associated with exemplary leadership, and these practices are within the capacity of everyone to follow.” In other words, leadership is a skill that can be honed and developed. It is not true to say it is like any other because, unlike many others, it is central to how others behave. As Kouzes and Posner say, “Leadership is essential because it makes a significant difference in people’s levels of engagement, commitment, and performance. Developing your leadership capabilities will help you improve the way people around you feel about their workplace and promote more productive organizations.”
This looks sensible enough. But if leadership really is this important (and all the surveys suggest that everybody agrees it is) why have organizations apparently done so little to develop it? The answer to that probably involves several factors, including strength of commitment, being distracted by other issues – and probably a nagging belief that real leaders emerge of their own accord.
According to Kouzes and Posner, concerning as this situation is, it does represent a “a huge opportunity for those organizations and individuals who choose to take the initiative”. And it is this opportunity that spurred the writing of the book. They want to help narrow the growing divide between demand for leaders and their supply.
At the heart of their approach is a set of principles – the five fundamentals. These are:
Believe In Yourself. Kouzes and Posner stress the importance of having a strong belief in your capabilities and a mindset that leadership can be learned. This is not to be confused with arrogance or being convinced they know it all. Indeed, Kouzes and Posner are adamant that “the best leaders are the best learners.” These leaders believe that they are capable of learning and developing throughout their lives and so continuous learning becomes a way of life for them.
Aspire To Be Great. This is related to the first fundamental in that the authors assert that leaders need to know who they are and what is important to them. “You can’t lead others if you don’t know yourself,” they say. Aspiring to be great also – obviously – requires being concerned about the future and realizing that “who you are today is not who you will be in the future, and the same is true for your constituents.” At the same time, leaders need to acknowledge that this is not just about the leader’s personal aspirations. “Leadership requires you to know and appreciate your constituents,” say Kouzes and Posner.
Challenge Yourself To Grow. Would-be leaders need to take the initiative in their own development. Although there will inevitably by setbacks and failures, “grit, courage, and resilience” will enable individuals to overcome them and persist in learning and becoming the best they can be.
Engage The Support Of Others. Everybody who achieves excellence receives support and coaching along the way. And leaders are no different. They need the advice, care and support of others. For this reason, a key part of learning leadership is making connections in a network of resources. Leaders also need honest feedback on how they are progressing or growing and on what still needs to be done.
Practice Deliberately. Kouzes and Posner’s final fundamental stresses that it is not enough just to be a leader. “You have to spend time practicing the skills.” This involves setting goals, participating in activities designed to enhance performance, seeking feedback and receiving feedback. “You also have to put in the time every day and make learning leadership a daily habit,” write Kouzes and Posner.
This is perhaps the key part – and the one that is so often apparently missing. There are some executives who seem to think that leadership is all about “set pieces” – announcing mergers and news strategies or responding to crises. That is clearly part of it. But more important is what is done constantly on a daily basis to ensure that the correct messages are communicated, the appropriate behaviors encouraged and the right priorities followed. Adhering to such a regime is almost bound to produce better, more confident – and more believable – leaders.
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