Leadership According to Jim Kouzes

The best about participating in a teleseminar with Jim Kouzes (co-author of the best-selling Leadership Challenge) is hearing the stories and quotes he’s collected over the past twenty-five years dedicated to studying leadership.  But they’re his stories and his quotes, so I’ll share with you the third best part…the lessons about leadership that Kouzes believes have endured for twenty-five years — through previous economic downturns and holding true in our current recession.  

Jim Kouzes was the guest speaker of a Leading News teleseminar, hosted by Patricia Wheeler.  (These programs are often terrific and always free which makes them an unbelievable bargain as we all look to continually nurture our thought-leadership.  Go to www.leadingnews.org.)   His session, “Enduring Truths About Leadership in Tough Times” kicked off with the premise that leadership is personal.  When asked to name the leader they most considered a role model, most people did not cite a prominent business person, politician or celebrity.  Instead, most people over thirty named a family member, community leader or someone in their office.   Kouzes reminded us that an employee’s direct manager is the most influential person, still viewed today as in years past, as the leader mostly likely to motivate and instill loyalty.

And if leadership is personal, the people you lead want to know two things about you: 1) Who are you?  What do you stand for, where do you come from and what do you care about?   2) Where are you going?  Where are you leading us to?   Being forward-thinking differentiates leaders form everyone else.  

Employees need to feel a connection with their leader’s values.   This is even more important in tough times because when values are clarified, there’s more resilience; people will be motivated and inspired to bounce back.   In fact, people often cite periods of extreme challenge as when they did their personal best.  Kouzes advised us to “stare down reality,” but not give in to it and give up.  “Do not deny the diagnosis, defy the verdict.”   Brilliant!

Kouzes identified four attributes of leadership that were important 25 years ago and remain critical today.  These are the four attributes that have remained at the top of the list for 25 years and are consistent world-wide: 

1) honest (considered more important in the U.S. than competence by more than a 20% gap)

2) forward-looking

3) inspiring

4) competent

#1 on the list is honest.  Credible.  Trustworthy.  Do as you say!  “Credibility is the foundation of leadership…People need to believe the messenger to believe the message.”  The single worst mistake a leader can make is not telling the truth.  In fact, hubris — an inflated sense of self-importance is the beginning of a leader’s — or company’s — decline!  

Kouzes referred to Stephen Covey’s “Emotional Bank Account” and reminded leaders to make sure that they lave “credit in the bank.” Continue to invest, continue to replenish your credibility.  Kouzes suggested getting into the habit of developing a “monthly statement” — asking for candid feedback on a regular basis (and cautioned leaders to watch for those individuals who will just tell you the good, complimentary stuff).    He described a cartoon of a conference room table, around which are seated a group of businessmen in suits.   A quote bubble above one of the gentleman’s heads reads, “Let’s change ‘brink of chaos’ to ‘everything is wonderful.'”

Finally, we need to consciously assuage the high levels of anxiety that can overcome us in tough times.  Anxiety becomes a distraction and an obstacle.  Kouzes reminded everyone to breathe, to pause and take a step back from the chaos or crisis surrounding us in turbulent times.

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