The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Posted on May 4, 2010


The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner is outdated, having originated in the early 1980’s.when everyone was trashing management. Hence why Tom Peters said in the preface to their first edition of 1987 that ”…management as we know it is not dead. But it darned well ought to be!” There is no mention of management in their book. The result is an overloaded concept of leadership. One problem with this account is that it makes it hard to see how lower level employees can lead. Greater specialization, driven by increasing complexity, demands both functions, not just one.

Kouzes and Posner Focus on Executives not Leaders

The fundamentals for Kouzes and Posner can be questioned if leading is viewed as an occasional act instead of as an executive position.

” Leadership is a journey – But a journey has two parts: convincing people to join and getting them to the destination. Only the first stage is leadership. The second phase is a management undertaking. Leaders sell the tickets for the journey; managers drive the bus to the destination. This is true even if further injections of leadership are needed to resell the merits of the journey.

” Credibility is the foundation of leading – But we buy the ideas of eccentrics whom we would not trust to manage anything. Excellent content can sway us even when the promoter (leader) is not personally credible. Character is only required for people in executive positions.

” Leadership is a relationship – Managers work closely with people to get things done. Because they have power over people there needs to be a relationship of trust between them. It is possible to lead at a distance so does not require working relationships. When Martin Luther King led the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on buses, he may not have known the people in this organization or had any relationship, with them.

” To lead you must first look inside yourself and clarify your values. This is only true to lead within the domain of values, if you want people to behave in accordance with accepted values. But if you are promoting a new piece of software to your bosses, your personal values are not involved. The examples cited by Kouzes and Posner involve major culture changes, challenges to values. Perhaps we should call this values leadership. Managers need to be clear about their values, however, because we can’t trust them with so much power over us unless we know where they stand on what is important to us.

” You need to be inspiring to lead – The truth is that leadership style is situational. In scientific and technical organizations, there is a demand for “evidence based” decision making. Here, leaders need to cite hard facts to lead and they may do so either quietly or aggressively, so long as they have the evidence.

Kouzes and Posner outline 5 core practices, but they are a mixture of manager and leader actions.

Model the way

Kouzes and Posner tell us that ”Leaders’ deeds are far more important than their words…Exemplary leaders go first. They go first by setting the example through daily actions that demonstrate they are deeply committed to their beliefs.” This is all very well if you are advocating a change in values, such as how employees or customers are to be treated. But what if you work at Boeing and you advocate a new form of supersonic passenger jet? How do you model that! Clearly, you can lead by example, but modelling the way cannot be a cornerstone of all leading, unless you assume that it is always based on human values. This may be important for political leaders or senior executives but it can’t be a requirement for all leaders.

Inspire a shared vision

If you view leading as a journey, vision is simply the destination you want others to join you in pursuing. Kouzes and Posner are right to claim that leaders cannot expect to be followed if they have no idea where they want to go. But advocating a change to an existing product, an instance of thought leadership, is hardly visionary. We reserve the word vision for ideas at the grander end of the scale. Having a better idea only counts as a vision if it is long term and if it paints a picture of a rather magnificent future. New ideas can range along a continuum from mundane to those that are revolutionary, radical and visionary.

Challenge the process

For Kouzes and Posner being a leader entails initiating ”a change from the status quo.” But they are equivocal on this principle, unfortunately so, because it is the main one of their five that characterizes leadership. They start by telling us that leaders ”search for opportunities to innovate, grow, and improve.” They quickly water down this point by saying ”But leaders aren’t the only creators or originators of new products, services, or processes.” Notice the phrase “aren’t the only”. This implies that Kouzes and Posner see leaders as the occupants of managerial roles. But if all leadership is an informal act, not a position, then championing a new product is always leadership. Kouzes and Posner acknowledge that new ideas come from ”people on the front lines.” But, for them ”the leader’s primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system to get new products…adopted.” This is a pretty lame version of ”challenging the process”. The reason for the equivocation is simply that there is no room in Kouzes and Posner’s world for management. If there was, they could say that leaders really do challenge the status quo, leaving it to managers to do the supporting, developing and facilitating of those who do so.

Enabling others to act and encouraging the heart

There isn’t much difference between Kouzes and Posner’s fourth and fifth principles. They both relate to facilitating teams of people to reach the destination, empowering and motivating them to exert the necessary effort. These two principles most clearly pertain to the implementation phase of the journey and are the easiest ones to classify as managerial.

The bottom line is that The Leadership Challenge is a widely read book which no doubt inspires executives to improve their performance, but as an account of leadership it is badly outdated. There are two main problems with it. They make no place for management and they cannot account for acts of leadership outside of the formal (or even informal) role of managing a team of people.

See for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching. His latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006, challenges conventional thinking on leadership. Warning: you might find it annoying if you are committed to the usual platitudes about leadership.

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