A former president, then CEO and chairman of the Tom Peters Company, Kouzes is an the Dean’s Executive Professor of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Along with coauthor Barry Posner they have written over a dozen books, including the bestselling and award-winning The Leadership Challenge, now in its fourth edition with over 1.5 millions copies sold, and A Leader’s Legacy. To date nearly 3 million leaders have used their assessment instrument, The Leadership Practices Inventory. They began their joint research over twenty-five years ago, and continue it with surveys, written case studies, and in-depth interviews to obtain evidence of how leaders energize others to produce exceptional results.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of Kouzes. The complete interview is also available.
Morris: During the years in which you and Barry Posner have worked together, what have been the most significant changes in how effective leadership has been defined? Why?
Kouzes: The first change is that there’s no change in what people expect of leaders. In 1982 people wanted leaders who were honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring. In 2007 we find these same four qualities are at the top of the list worldwide.
Second, in spite of the Internet boom and the pervasiveness of virtual connections, relationship skills have proven to be the most critical variable in leadership effectiveness. Third, while the content of leadership has not changed much, the context sure has. The most important shift is to a global economy. With outsourcing, the explosion of the Indian and Chinese economies, and the connectedness of people around the globe, aspiring leaders have to learn to work with people from a variety of countries and cultures.
The other major contributor to contextual change is technology. The Internet has dramatically altered the “ownership” of information. Power is shifting from the organization to the individual.
Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what have been some of the most significant consequences of those changes?
Kouzes: The two most significant changes in context—the global economy and technological connectivity—have resulted in a curious dichotomy. While we are more connected, we are also more distant. That distance is both physical and emotional.
The physical distance is obvious, but the emotional distance is more subtle. It’s just human nature to trust people more like ourselves, so when leaders and constituents are culturally different, the emotional connection is not as strong. Cultural diversity brings with it different perspectives on the same issue. Exemplary global leaders must be more broad-minded, open to others, and keenly interested in others.
Morris: Don Bennett is among those you and Barry Posner interviewed. He was the first amputee to climb Mt. Rainier (elevation 14,410 feet) and got to the top on one leg and two crutches. You asked him how he did it. His reply, “One hop at a time.” That seems like excellent advice for anyone preparing for or already embarked on becoming an exemplary leader for others to follow.
Kouzes: I absolutely love Don’s response. When he told me that, he also added, “I imagined myself on top of that mountain one thousand times a day in my mind, but when I started to climb it, I just said to myself ‘anyone can hop from here to there.’ And I would. And when the going got roughest, and I was really exhausted, that’s when I would look down at the path ahead and say to myself, ‘You just have to take one more step, and anybody can do that.’ And I would.”
Leaders face similar challenges when trying to accomplish the extraordinary—the “mountain” looks too steep and too dangerous to even think about climbing. Getting ourselves and others to change old mindsets and habits and substitute new ones is daunting. Even with the best of intentions, people tend to revert to old and familiar patterns. Working out for a year to get in shape to climb a mountain requires discipline. Staying with it for five days in the freezing cold requires stamina and determination. Getting commitment to new behaviors, like solving big problems, is often overwhelming. So how do leaders do it? How do they get people to want to change the way they are currently operating, to break out of existing behaviors, to tackle big problems, and to attempt extraordinary performance? The answer: One hop at a time!
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