The Leadership Challenge

Reviewed by: 
James Kouzes and Barry Posner
Gill McKay, Associate Director, Extensor Limited

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Now in its third edition, The Leadership Challenge has proven that it can stand the test of time in what is often seen as a somewhat 'soft' subject.

In my opinion, the reason for its phenomenal success is that it addresses the subject of leadership, not by looking at examples of famous leaders, but by looking at the traits of leadership through the eyes of ordinary people.

The original research for the book was carried out in the 1980's when Kouzes and Posner were looking at how individuals mobilise others within their organisations to 'want to get extraordinary things done'. What they found was that all of the high achievers they met, no matter what level or grade they were employed at within their organisation, exhibited common traits which, through their extensive research, they categorised the five practices.

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

These may sound like simple headings but they get to the very essence of what distinguishes exemplary leaders from everyone else. Indeed, at Extensor we believe that these behavioural attributes are so well researched and defined, that we use them as the basis for all our leadership training as well as for leadership 360° assessment and feedback for individuals, teams and even whole organisations.

Although the economic and commercial environments have changed radically between the first edition in the late 1980's and this edition in 2002, when Kouzes and Posner asked people 'what's new, and what's different?', all the responses were identical. Everyone said that wilt the content of leadership had not changed but the context had.

The significant changes people pointed to regarded the growth of computing and communications technology, the globalisation of markets, the speed of change and the significant increase in uncertainty, particularly following the tragic events of 9/11. For these reasons the book has been significantly updated such that I would even recommend it to people who possess an older copy.

So who should read the book?

The simple answer is that everyone should read this book. It is unfortunate that the term 'leader' has tended to become synonymous with seniority, whereas, as this book brilliantly illustrates, people can lead from any position and at any level in an organisation. Moreover, to have an energised, creative and entrepreneurial workforce, organisations need leaders at every level.

The following are some example sentences taken from the book that illustrate the content and flavour of the book:

  • Leadership is not a place it is a process
  • If you don't believe in the messenger, you won't believe the message
  • Leaders create a climate in which it is possible for others to do their best
  • Leaders enable others to be in control of their own lives
  • Leaders build commitment through a process of incremental change and small wins
  • Leaders inspire a shared vision, but vision needs management, electricity and concrete
  • Leadership is the art of getting others to want to do something you are convinced should be done
  • Most innovations do not come from leaders. They come from customers and people who do the work.
  • Leaders listen to the advice and counsel of others: good ideas enter the mind through the ears, not the mouth
  • Leaders look for change - they love it and get others to love it
  • Leadership is about changing from `Business as usual'
  • Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail
  • It's amazing: once they get started, people always achieve more than they originally thought they could
  • I believe the overall quality of work improves when you give people a chance to fail
Success does not breed success. It breeds failure. It is failure which breeds success. (The very phrase `trial and error' supports this.)

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