Are You Up to the Leadership Challenge?

Authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner say it best when they say, “What we have discovered, and rediscovered, is that leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It is a process ordinary people use when they are bringing forth the best from themselves and others. What we’ve discovered is that people make extraordinary things happen by liberating the leader within everyone.”

Five practices of exemplary leaders

• Model the way

Find your voice by clarifying your personal values. Max De Pree, former chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, said that finding one’s voice was at the core of becoming a leader. To find your voice you must clarify your values. Kouzes and Posner interviewed thousands of people to list the leaders they most admired.  The most frequently named were Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.; they had a set of values to which they had an unwavering commitment.  If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.

Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. Mary Godwin of Radius, a computer hardware company, stated, “It came to me that if I wanted everyone else to be committed, then I had to be 100 percent, without doubt, committed personally.”

She went on to say, “I had to follow through on commitments and show others by my actions how serious we were about our values and standards. My credibility depended upon this and so I had to set the example for others to follow.” A close friend of mine once said, “I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one.”

• Inspire a shared vision

Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. People need to have a purpose for what they do. A story I was told as a youth says it best. A man came upon three woodworkers constructing a building. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” The worker replied, “I am driving nails,” as he pounded the nails into the building with frightening force and anger. He asked the second, “What are you doing?” The worker grumbled in reply, “I’m sawing lumber,” as he worked his saw. He went to the third worker. The worker was smiling as he lifted a window into a frame, and he asked again, “What are you doing?” The worker replied, “I’m building a cathedral!” They were all working on the same building but only the excited worker had a vision of the end result of their labors.

Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins advises us to “get the right people on the bus.” Who is doing the work is often more important than what work is being done. Jay Lyden of the Westin hotel in Pittsburgh told me that they hire for attitude and then train for skill. He said that they can develop skills, but it is much harder to develop the right attitude.

• Challenge the process

Search for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow and improve. Elaine Fortier, former HR manager of New Focus, Inc., gives this advice: “We all have to ask ourselves, ‘How do I go to work today and do something that will move the enterprise and myself another step in the right direction?’” It is more true today that if you are holding your own, everyone else is passing you by. Every day you need to ask yourself, how can we make it faster, better, or at less cost?

Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from mistakes. The only true project constraint is a lack of imagination. One of the sayings that I live by is that the biggest risk is not taking any risks. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

• Enable others to act

Foster collaboration by promoting cooperative goals and building trust. During their research, Kouzes and Posner asked Bill Flanagan, former director of manufacturing for Amdahl Corporation, to describe his personal best. After a few moments, Bill said he couldn’t do it. He said, “It wasn’t my personal best. It was our personal best. It wasn’t me. It was us.” In their research they say they did not discover a single instance where success was the result of any one person, but the result of many, a team effort.

Strengthen others by sharing power and discretion. When people are feeling powerful, feeling “able,” feel a sense of being in control of their life, they persist in their efforts to achieve. When we share power, we empower those who have chosen to follow us with the authority they need to make decisions and make things happen.

• Encourage the heart

Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence. Joan Nicolo of Computing Resources was afraid if she praised one, others would get jealous. She thought giving praise would take too much time, that it was for the warm and fuzzy types, not her. After one project she made a point of thanking those who had gone the extra mile. “I found that my spirit was lifted. They felt appreciated, and I felt that they had received the credit they deserved.” Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community. David Campbell, senior fellow with the Center for Creative Leadership, says it best, “A leader who ignores or impedes organizational ceremonies and considers them as frivolous or ‘not cost-effective’ ignores the rhythms of history and our collective conditioning. Celebrations are the punctuation marks that make sense of the passage of time; without them, there are no beginnings and endings. Life becomes an endless series of Wednesdays.”

Effective leaders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Try applying the five practices and see the response you get from those who have chosen to follow you.

Robert J. Wangen, the president of Implement Improvement in DeWit and a Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence, is a local consultant who specializes in leadership development, project management, and business improvement. You can learn more by visiting







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