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The Leadership Challenge - critical summary review

The Leadership Challenge Critical summary review
Management & Leadership

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (6th edition)

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1119278961

Publisher: Jossey-Bass

Also available in audiobook, download now:


Critical summary review

Advertised as “the gold-standard manual for effective leadership,” “The Leadership Challenge” by academics James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner was first published in 1987 and has gone through six revised editions in the three decades since. Based on the premise that leaders are not born, but created, the book was born out of a simple question Kouzes and Posner asked a few leaders back in 1982: “What did you do when you were at your personal best as a leader?” 

Since then, the two have done thousands of interviews and millions of surveys, and analyzed hundreds of case studies, representing “just about every type of organization there is, at all levels, in all functions, from many different places around the world.” These stories – and the behaviors and actions they described – resulted in the creation of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, which, in their current, sixth iteration, embed in them no less than Ten Commitments, two for each practice. Get ready to discover them all and prepare to move beyond the realm of ordinary leadership!

Practice No. 1: Model the way

When all is said and done, it’s not really your title, but your behavior that earns you respect among your subordinates. Take, for example, Terry Callahan, vice president for real estate solution provider Miller Valentine Group. When his company needed to organize an important community grand opening event in record time, he didn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves and join his employees for a mulching workday. It’s a tale as old as time: strong leaders have always led their troops by strong example, not merely by strong words. Or, in the words of Kouzes and Posner, “Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others.”

To effectively model the way, you must make and fulfill the following two commitments:

1.Clarify values by finding your voice and affirming shared values. To become a credible leader, you must first find your authentic voice, “the most genuine expression of who you are.” All great leaders have integrity, which is best demonstrated in the congruence between what they say and what they do. However, if the words you speak are someone else’s, you will never be able to be consistent in word and deed. Be aware that leadership is never merely about you, but also about the values of your constituents. So, in addition to articulating the principles for which you personally stand in a clear and authentic voice, be sure to build consensus among your group members on a common cause. Give them reasons to care. However, don’t ever force unity, for it will backfire. Forge it instead.

2.Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. Integrity, as we already noted, is all about the consistency between words and deeds. The latter, say, Kouzes and Posner are far more important when constituents want to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say. Meaning, if you don’t follow through on your promises, you will never earn the respect necessary to be followed. So, keep your commitments. Make sure your calendar reflects your principles and priorities. Broadcast examples of exemplary behavior through memorable stories. Finally, publicly ask for feedback from others about how your actions affect them and make the necessary adjustments afterward.

Practice No. 2: Inspire a shared vision

“What is now proved was once only imagined,” wrote English Romantic poet William Blake in 1793. Indeed, imagination is where everything starts. Every single Silicon Valley giant, every generation-defining social movement, and every revolution ever started began with a vision in the mind of a single person. Vision, say Kouzes and Posner, is “the force that creates the future.” That’s why the second of their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership is inspiring a shared vision. To do so, you need to be able to envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities, and enlist others in this common vision by appealing to their shared aspirations. Here’s how.

3.Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. All great leaders are dreamers and idealists. Moreover, they are “possibility thinkers.” Rather than seeing things as they are, they see them as they could be. Hence, they begin with the end in mind, with a clear image of what the final result of their efforts should look like even before making the first one. They don’t call them architects of the future for nothing – great leaders work with blueprints and models too. 

4.Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations. If you want to make your vision a reality, you will need to get other people on board and enlist them in your dream. To do so, you must sharpen and refine your vision until it can serve as the common ground on which every member of your organization can stand and as the unified direction everyone would be willing to follow. Enlisting others, write Kouzes and Posner, is “all about igniting passion for a purpose and moving people to persist against great odds.” To achieve this, you must be inspiring, positive, and upbeat whenever you talk about the future of your organization, liberally using “metaphors, symbols, examples, and stories.” You must validate the emotions of others as important and acknowledge them as part of your vision. Finally, you must go beyond reason, engaging the hearts of your constitutions by letting your passion glow in a manner genuinely expressive of who you are.

Practice No. 3: Challenge the process

“Challenge is the crucible for greatness,” Kouzes and Posner remark memorably. “Every single personal-best leadership case involved a change from the status quo. Not one person achieved a personal best by keeping things the same. Regardless of the specifics, they all involved overcoming adversity and embracing opportunities to grow, innovate, and improve.” There are not many things that exemplary leaders hate more than the existing state of affairs. That’s why they actively seek to disturb it and, in doing so, awaken their constituents to new possibilities. For Kouzes and Posner, change, innovation, challenge and leadership are nearly synonymous. “Humdrum situations simply aren't associated with award-winning performances,” they conclude.

Great leaders challenge the process by making and fulfilling the following two commitments:

5.Search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve. Leaders make things happen. They are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve – themselves, their ideas, their organizations – and never stop bringing new ideas, methods and solutions into use. Moreover, they are inspirational enough to encourage initiative in others. Change rarely comes without setbacks and struggles so, knowing this, good leaders challenge with passion and purpose. Not only do they want their constituents and other people to live better lives, but they also know how to communicate the “whys” behind their efforts and actions. When great leaders challenge the status quo, they always challenge it with a fervent belief in a better future and they always do it for others, for the sake of meaning itself.

6.Experiment and take risks by consistently generating small wins and learning from experience. Not only do challenges and changes require a lot of effort, but they also bring a lot of uncertainty and fear. By accepting risks but not defeats, exemplary leaders encourage their constituents to experiment themselves. Moreover, by constantly portraying failures as teachable moments and errors as portals of discovery, exemplary leaders add a sense of adventure and exploration to their endeavors, thus making it easier for their constituents to navigate through any kind of change. Another way they achieve this is through constant experimentation with new ideas through small bets. There’s a certain win-win atmosphere that comes with small bets. Because small losses are negligible; but small wins aren’t.

Practice No. 4: Enable others to act

No single person has all the answers – achieving greatness, as Kouzes and Posner write, “requires a team effort.” It also requires “solid trust and enduring relationships, […] group collaboration and individual accountability.” Unsurprisingly, individual accountability begins with empowerment. Only by giving your constituents the permission to make decisions and take actions by themselves, can you give yourself the right to hold them accountable for both. Otherwise, regardless of what you think, their mistakes are actually your mistakes. Most importantly, when your constituents don’t feel heard or comfortable enough to voice their opinions, they will much rather undermine your efforts than support them. In the lack of autonomy, passion isn’t contagious – but poisonous.

Exemplary leaders enable others to act by making and sticking to the following two commitments:

7.Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships. Numerous studies show that there is a strong and positive correlation between trust and outstanding personal, team and organizational performance. Knowing this, exemplary leaders invest a lot in creating a climate of trust. In fact, they are usually the first to trust. As one Google supply chain program manager remarked in an interview with the authors of “The Leadership Challenge,” great leaders know that “to earn someone's trust, you have to be able to give them your own.” Indeed, studies show that good leaders demonstrate empathy and show genuine concern for others – the two hallmarks of trust. They are also transparent, sharing all the necessary knowledge and information with everybody. Thereby, they are an active factor in the facilitation of collaboration and in the creation of “an environment that allows people to contribute freely and to innovate.”

8.Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence. Exemplary leaders aren’t authoritative, but dependable. Rather than being interested to remain in control, they want to find proper ways to give over control to their constituents. They don’t want to command or manage – they want to help and guide. Even in this case, their objective isn’t to maintain the status quo and remain leaders for life, but to challenge the process and turn their constituents into confident and competent leaders themselves. To this end, they rarely give them readymade answers; they ask the right questions instead.

Practice No. 5: Encourage the heart

Most people see the place they work at as “the place where fun goes to die.” The only exceptions are people whose organizations are led by exemplary leaders. That’s because exemplary leaders know that their constituents – as does anyone else, for that matter – want to feel valued above anything else. Hence, they find every opportunity available to acknowledge and celebrate the efforts of their employees. “Visibly and publicly celebrating accomplishments creates community and sustains team spirit,” explain Kouzes and Posner. “By basing celebrations on acting congruently with fundamental values and attaining critical milestones, leaders reinforce and sustain people's focus.” Two commitments make this possible:

9.Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence. Never underestimate the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you, as a leader, expect your employees to fail, you will probably nudge them in that direction. Vice versa, if you expect them to succeed, they probably will. So, expect the best from your constituents. Psych them up by showing them that you believe in their skills and competences. Be clear about the goals and rules, as well as about the expected outcomes. When they are met, recognize the event in a personalized ceremony or through a personalized reward. Be creative about your incentives. Bureaucratic or routine recognition is no better than no recognition at all. 

10.Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community. Aristotle defined human beings as rational animals with social inclinations. He was right: humans are meant to connect with others and meant to do things together. That’s why exemplary leaders don’t consider social gatherings a nuisance, but a necessity. They celebrate accomplishments – both individual and organizational – in public, and provide social support for their constituents. They are, in a word, personally involved. They authentically care about the people they work with and genuinely want the very best for them. They also never pass up a single opportunity to publicly relay true stories about how some of them went above and beyond the call of duty. By doing this, they gain more than temporary approval. They gain loyalty and trust.

Final notes

As it only suits a book dabbling in the extraordinary, “The Leadership Challenge” is an extraordinary book. Backed by decades of research and millions of surveys – and continually updated and revised – it is, for a reason, “one of the most trusted sources of leadership wisdom.” In addition to addressing some of today’s realities, the book’s last, sixth edition also has the benefit of being the best structured of them all. Highly recommended.

12min tip

As Kouzes and Posner say, leadership is not about personality, but about behavior. Meaning, their Five Practices aren’t private purviews of a selected list of extraordinary leaders, but public knowledge available to anyone willing to accept the leadership challenge. Accept it yourself. You’ve got nothing to lose but mediocrity.

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Who wrote the book?

James M. Kouzes is the Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Considered one of the 12 best executive educators by the Wall Street Journal, Kouzes is the recipient of many leadership... (Read more)

Barry Z. Posner is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he has also served as dean in the past. An internationally renowned scholar and educator, he has author... (Read more)