Most Important Leadership Lesson: A Conversation with James Kouzes, Co-author of The Leadership Challenge

Just so everyone knows, I don’t typically sport a mustache. I suspect I feel like leading with this because the pictures attached with my posts this week and next show me this way. But this is not my normal look, so don’t get used to it. When this picture was taken I was playing in a local theater production. Something I’ll share more about next week. It was fun. Even though the play is done, the memories of that summer are not gone. Here is another experience I had during that season that I’d like to share with you.

I was attending a conference for leadership educators. James Kouzes was the keynote speaker at the conference, and for good reason. James is a co-author of The Leadership Challenge, a research-based, highly-respected work about being an effective leader. The topics he covers in his book regarding managerial excellence and quality leadership are many times his topics, so, I will confess, when it comes to Jim and his colleague Barry, I’m a bit of a fanboy.

Since I had enjoyed the opportunity of speaking with him before his presentation, I felt perhaps a bit more at license to ask him additional questions during the Q and A part of his presentation. Here is a paraphrase of how the first part of that conversation went.

Dr. Arron Grow (AG): With all of the research and teaching you have done about leadership, what leadership trait seems to be the most difficult for people to internalize and carry out?

James Kouzes (JK): In my experience, the one characteristic that is most difficult for people to put into practice is the understanding that they do not need to be in a position of formal authority to be a leader.

AG: Why do you think this is such a difficult trait for people?

JK: For decades, we’ve had many in leadership positions who learned how to lead through their military experience. In the civilian world, those who came up through the ranks under this type of leadership learned mainly to follow; waiting for orders, then do what was asked, and not much else. Even though those who fostered these tendencies have since retired, this habit of leaving initiative to others continues.

Conversation in the room continued on this same topic for a time. Here are the essential takeaways.

  • Being a leader despite a lack of formal authority can be looked at from two perspectives – from the perspective of those in leadership positions, and from the perspective of those who are not.
  • For those in leadership positions, it’s important to foster a safe work environment – one where it is okay for team members to have different perspectives and to have the freedom and safety to share them. When leaders allow this, they will find higher morale among team members and greater productivity too.
  • For those who are not in positions of formal leadership, they need to see themselves as leaders anyway. How is this done? Those who see a need in a social, civic, or service organization and martial people together to fill this need are leaders. Indeed, this is the very definition of leadership – bringing people together to get things done. Title, or no title, this is leadership.

So there you have it – the most challenging trait for leaders to internalize and ideas for overcoming this challenge. I wish you all the best in your efforts to be successful in this important area.