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Kouzes & Posner on Leadership

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner is extremely popular but it originated in the 1980s when everyone was trashing management. Is their concept of leadership still valid for the 21st century? Is there no constructive role for management?

As there is no mention of management in their account, it is ALL about leadership. But increasing specialization and complexity demand both functions not just one.

Leadership gurus who started writing in the early 1980s got caught up in the backlash against management that was driven by an emotional reaction to the success of Japan in North America. This led some to eliminate management and focus exclusively on leaders.

Not only did this move create an overly bloated concept of leadership, but our desperate need for faster innovation led us to glorify leadership excessively. Thus leaders who could deliver were put on a pedestal and leadership became a celebrity cult that was off limits for everyday leaders who lacked their superstar charisma.

If we reinstate management to its rightful place in organizations, it becomes evident that Kouzes & Posner are really talking about a confused mixture of leadership and management.

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. Each of the following statements, central to the Kouzes and Posner model of leadership, are followed by objections.

  • 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. For more on leadership and the journey metaphor, see my article: Leading by Example? How Odd!
  • 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. See my article: Essential Leadership Traits.
  • Leadership is a relationship – Managers work closely with people to get things done. Because they have power over people there has to be a relationship of trust between them. But it is possible to lead at a distance where there are no 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. See my article: Is Leadership a Relationship? for more on this topic.
  • 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.

There are several domains in which leadership can be shown, as in green, financial, technical, product, thought, market and other content specific contexts. There is no such thing as green leadership per se. There is just leadership shown with respect to green issues.

Country presidents, CEOs and public sector heads may exhibit leadership within the context of values, such as when they promote socially responsible actions, but we simply get confused if we infer that all leadership must be based on human values.

Many technical contexts simply require “evidence based” decision-making where hard facts can have a leadership impact on others with no reference to values.

Kouzes and Posner outline 5 “ways” or core leadership practices, some of which relate to leadership, others to management, suitably upgraded.

Model the Way

According to Kouzes and Posner "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 modeling 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.

A good 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. See my article: Vision and Leadership where I argue that it is possible to show leadership on a small scale without a vision.

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, of their “5 ways”, this is the one that is closest to real 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.’’

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.

Thus, for Kouzes and Posner, leaders occupy managerial roles. They see recognizing the good ideas of front line employees as leadership because that is what people in charge do. But if we define leadership as showing the way for others, either by example or by promoting a better way, then encouraging others must be management.

This means that, when front line employees promote a new product successfully, this is bottom-up leadership. That is, ALL leadership provides direction. Everything else is management. See my article Leadership and Management Reinvented for more on this theme.

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. See my articles: Leadership vs Management and 21st Century Management for more on these themes.

So What?

The Leadership Challenge is a popular book which no doubt inspires executives to improve their performance, but as an account of leadership it is outdated. There are two main problems with it. Kouzes and Posner 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.

Moreover, as with most contemporary models of leadership, Kouzes and Posner focus on the glamorous end of the spectrum, not front-line or everyday acts of leadership. This is why they put so much emphasis on values. Yes, heads of states and CEOs must have clear values but why should they be the paradigm cases for all our thinking about leadership? See my article The Ideal Leader for a discussion of our fixation on heroic leadership types.

If we reinstate management to its rightful place and say that it is this function that gets work done through people, then what does leadership to do? If we want one model of leadership, one that accounts for leading by example, market leadership and green leadership – which is leading from a distance – we need to limit leadership to selling the tickets for the journey.

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