In their classic book, “The Leadership Challenge,” James Kouzes and Barry Posner set forth the five fundamental practices of exemplary leaders.
When they are at their best, successful leaders:
- Challenge the process.
- Inspire a shared vision.
- Enable others to act.
- Model the way.
- Encourage the heart.
Our next Leadership Letters will briefly examine each of these five practices.
1. Leaders challenge the process.
Good leaders are pioneers. They continually search for new opportunities to do what has never before been done. They are not content merely to maintain the status quo. Peter Drucker said, “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. All one can hope to get by solving problems is to restore normalcy.” Neither do they wait for circumstances to lead them in change, but they are initiators of change.
Furthermore, they desire significant change. They want to turn around a failing business or dying church, or start up some new radical entrepreneurial venture, or develop an original product line or service, or revolutionize an existing process. They want to mobilize others in the face of strong inertia or resistance. They may not change the world, but they passionately pursue making a significant difference. Leaders want to transform; they are not content merely to maintain.
This is one of the primary differences between leaders and managers. Leaders lead. They go first. They begin the quest for a new order. They plunge into new, sometimes dangerous, and always unpredictable territory. They take us to places we’ve never been before, and probably could never find on our own. Managers, on the other hand, maintain the existing order. They organize, and establish necessary processes and controls.
As agents of change, leaders will:
a. Treat every job as an adventure in an unexplored wilderness. If leaders want to inspire the best in others, they must find or create opportunities for people to outdo themselves in exploring new ground and reaching difficult goals. Furthermore, they must make work responsibilities enjoyable and exciting. Researchers have found that “appropriate” humor can lead to cohesion and bonding between team members.
b. Treat every new assignment as a start-over, even if it isn’t. There is always some new way to improve any organization. Moreover, the talent and resources for excellence are already present; they need merely to be unlocked. Leaders see opportunity everywhere – especially in their own people.
c. Question the status quo, and kill the sacred cows. Obviously, some standard practices and policies are critical to the organization’s success. But many are simply traditions. Leaders ruthlessly examine everything in their organizations. “The way we’ve always done it” is insufficient. Is there a better way to do it? Is there even a better thing to do in the first place?
d. Harvest new ideas – both inside and outside their organization. Many times the people who have been doing something for years have conceived of new and better processes. But no one has ever asked them for their opinion! Moreover, there is a great harvest-field of innovative ideas outside the doors of every organization. Leaders continually explore – even in unrelated and entirely dissimilar fields.
e. Find something that needs fixing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” often doesn’t cut it for a true leader. It may work well, but can it work better? Naivete can be a leader’s best friend in a new assignment. His dumb questions are tolerated as he uncovers needed improvements; and his fresh, uninstitutionalized approach can yield the conceptual breakthrough necessary for quantum leaps in organizational effectiveness.
f. Assign their people wisely. Organizations frequently commit the error of assigning their best people to deal with problems. Leaders, on the other hand, assign their people to opportunities. Naturally, problems must be dealt with, but opportunities are the life-blood of our organizations. Solving a problem contains and prevents damage, but seizing an opportunity produces growth and new life.
g. Renew their teams. Even the best teams get stale and need to be revived. Bringing new people on board adds fresh perspective and energy. Leaders also force their people to interact with others and to listen for new ideas.
h. Lead their people in continual learning. We all need to keep adding to our resource and skill bases – through reading a book, taking a course, attending a seminar, subscribing to a journal. Good leaders, and those who follow them, are lifetime learners.
i. Look for opportunities to glorify God. Christian leaders, above all, should seek opportunities to glorify God and accomplish His purposes with excellence.
Next Letter: Leaders Challenge the Process – Part 2