Best Leaders are the Best Learners: Jim Kouzes

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Jim in blue sweater hi resJim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership at Santa Clara University and has co-authored over 30 extensively-researched books, including the award-winning The Leadership Challenge (published by Wiley).

An experienced executive, he lectures on leadership around the world to corporations, governments and non-profits. He will be providing a keynote at the HR Summit and Expo in Dubai on Wednesday 18th November. His talk will discuss Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces.

We at Arabian Gazette had a chance to interview Jim and get his insights on leadership.

Who is the ideal leader? What are the traits of an ideal leader? 

JK: In the work that Barry Posner and I began over 30 years ago, one of the research questions we asked was: What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow? The key word in this question is “willingly.” We found that four qualities emerged, around the world, as most important for a leader that people wanted to willingly follow.  Far and away, the vast majority of people—over 80 percent, want a leader who is honest. People want a leader they consider trustworthy and truthful—someone they can believe in. The second quality the majority of people want in a leader is forward-looking. People want to know that a leader has a vision of the future, a sense of direction, and a clear idea of where the organization is going. The third characteristic is competent. People want to know that a leader is capable, able to get things done, and effective. And the fourth quality that the majority of people want to see in their leaders is inspiring. They want a leader who is enthusiastic, energetic, uplifting and positive about the future.

Three of these four qualities—honest, competent and inspiring—comprise what researchers call “source credibility.” Credibility is the foundation of leadership. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message.  Being forward-looking is the quality that differentiates leaders from individual contributors. It’s the differentiating characteristic. If we had to answer in two words the question of what people would ideally like to see in their leaders those two words would be credibility and vision.

Can you name a few leaders that you admire, both from our times and in the past – what do you admire in them? Do they have anything in common?

JK: At the top of my list was my father, Tom Kouzes. He was the oldest of ten kids, grew up poor, and had to get all of his education at night after work. After serving in World War II he became a civil servant and started as a file clerk. When he retired from the Civil Service he had risen to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the United States government. He was a very, very hard worker, and yet he always had time for his family. I learned from him the values of hard work, patience, family, trust, learning, treating others with dignity and respect, duty, honor, and patience. He was a very patient man.

My mother, Thelma, was also a strong influence on me. She mother was a volunteer in the United Nations Association, and because of her interest in international affairs, beginning in 1961, we had foreign students live at our home year-round. More than 50 young people from countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Finland, Peru, and others lived with us over the years. My mom was also very active in the civil rights movement, and she took part with Dr. Martin Luther King, the Great March on Washington. She was deeply devoted to global understanding, world peace, equal rights, diversity, and human rights. She’s 98 now and still as strong-willed as ever!

When Barry and I were researching leader role models we discovered that the most important role models for leadership are those closest to home. Family members comprise over 45 percent of leader role models, followed by, for young people, teachers and coaches, and then community leaders. These three groups account for over 75 percent of a young person’s leader role models. For those over 30, family members are still first, followed by a supervisor at work and then teachers and coaches. What’s important for all of us to understand about this list is that these individuals are people we know and who know us. Famous people are much less influential day-to-day than the individuals who are closest to us.

My favorite leadership examples are not about famous leaders. Rather they are stories of what everyday leaders do when faced with a challenge. There’s Arlene Blum who was the first woman to lead an all-female team to ascend Annapurna, the 11th highest mountain in the world. And, Jacqueline Maartense who was given one year to turn around the unprofitable U.K. division of a large company. And, Alex Anwar who was hired as a director of a new business unit at a technology company and faced resentment because people felt he was too young and inexperienced. And, Jade Liu who was responsible for business development in East Asia for a publishing firm and “was stupefied” to find bare shelves and a rigid team. And, Steve Skarke who had the vision that the plant he managed would become a “World Class Plant.” These are just a few of the thousands of people whose cases we’ve studied. None of them are household names, but all of them are exemplary leaders who faced challenging circumstances.

They say one should lead by example. Who do you think is a bad example in today’s world.  

JK: I said earlier that credibility is the foundation of leadership. When we asked people to tell us what credibility is behaviorally, the answer was some version of “do what you say you will do,” or DWYSYWD for short. When leaders put their values into action and set a positive example they build and sustain their credibility.  So, any time any one of us does not follow through on a promise or does not live up to the values we espouse, we are, in effect, setting a bad example and losing our credibility. This applies to friends, parents, teachers, coaches, first line supervisors, as well as to senior executives in corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, and NGOs. We all need to be mindful of being consistent in our words and deeds.

One very recent bad example in today’s world is the leadership at Volkswagen. They told the world that their diesel cars were meeting certain emission standards when in fact they were not. In other words, they were not honest, which we found to be the number one quality people look for and admire in a leader and the most important ingredient of credibility. 

Can leadership be cultivated in an individual? 

JK: Exemplary leadership can definitely be learned. It is an observable pattern of practices and behaviors, and a definable set of skills and abilities. Skills can be learned, and when we track the progress of people who participate in leadership development programs we observe that they improve over time. They learn to be better leaders as long as they engage in activities that help them learn it.

Leadership is not some mystical quality that only a few people have and everyone else doesn’t. The best leaders are the best learners. Leadership is not preordained. Neither is it the private reserve of special class of charismatic men and women. Leadership is not a gene. Neither is it a trait. There is just no hard evidence to suggest that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of some people and not others. We’ve collected assessment data from millions of people around the world. And we can tell you without a doubt that there are leaders in every profession, every type of organization, every religion, every country, from young to old, male and female. It’s just a myth that leadership can’t be learned—that you either have it or you don’t. There is leadership potential everywhere we look.

While leadership can be learned, not everyone learns it, and not all those who learn leadership master it. Why? Because those who become the very best possible leaders have a strong desire to excel, believe strongly that they can learn new skills and abilities, and are willing to devote themselves to continuous learning and deliberate practice. No matter how good they are, they always want to be better. The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.  

You wrote a book “The Leadership Challenge – How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations”. In this publication, you refer to The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership – can you share those five practices in brief? 

JK: When Barry Posner and I began our leadership research over thirty years ago, we wanted to know the answer to this question: What do leaders do when they are operating at their personal best? We asked people to recall a time when they set an individual leadership standard of excellence, present or past, and then we asked them to tell us what they did during those peak performances.

After analyzing thousands of these leadership experiences, we discovered then, and we continue to find now, that when making extraordinary things happen in organizations, leaders engaged in what we came to call The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. When performing at their best leaders:

  • Model the Way—Exemplary leaders clarify values and set an example based on a set of shared values.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision— Exemplary leaders envision an uplifting future and enlist others in a common vision.
  • Challenge the Process— Exemplary leaders search for opportunities and experiment and take risks, learning from the accompanying mistakes.
  • Enable Others to Act— Exemplary leaders foster collaboration and strengthen others.
  • Encourage the Heart— Exemplary leaders recognize contributions and celebrate the values and the victories.

Who would be a star for business in today’s globally competitive environment? A Leader with good Managerial skills or a Manager with good leadership skills? 

JK: There is an important distinction between “manage” and “lead” based on their word origins and the way the functions are typically described. When you look up the word “manage” in the etymological dictionary you see that its origin is from the Latin word, “manus,” meaning hand. The word “lead” comes from Old English and German and means “go, travel, guide.”

Based on these original meanings, managing is about handling things and leading is about going places. That is why managing is typically described as planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling. Again, those practices have to do with keeping things in order, making sure everything is well run and efficient. Leading is more often  about movement and going places and doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything being well organized. Often it may seem chaotic and disorganized because you are trying something new or going in a new direction. Things are unknown, and the process is often messy. It’s not as neat and tidy as management is often described.

That said, while there is a distinction between the two, we don’t find it necessarily very useful to make a big deal out of it. In today’s organizations a manager also has to be a leader. In today’s environment people expect both, not just one or the other. Managers must manage, and they also must lead.

The same is not necessarily true for leaders. Leaders don’t always have to be managers. Again take the example of some of the most famous historical leaders of movements; they were not necessarily people with formal titles, and they didn’t have the expectation that they’d do all the things that managers do, like make a budget or do a plan. But they were expected to provide some sense of direction, and some sense that we can all do this together, the things we expect from leaders.

Ideally, I want both, and I think that is what we should all strive for.

You are one of the speakers at the HR Summit 2015 in Dubai? What are you going to speak on?

JK: My session is titled “Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces”, and I’ll be discussing the role HR plays in developing leaders who can make extraordinary things happen in organizations. We know from our research that the key to making extraordinary things happen in organizations is great leadership. It contributes more to positive outcomes than any other single factor. Great products, great strategy, great people are absolutely critical, but with poor leadership they produce only a third to a half of their potential. It takes great leadership to create great workplaces that create great results. If you want better results in your marketplace, you have to ensure that you are fostering great leadership within your organization. I’ll be going into some depth on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® and also explore the fundamentals of cultivating a culture of leadership in every organization.

Any other information/tips on leadership in general and anything specific to the region that you want to share with our readers?

JK: According to recent studies by Deloitte, Bersin, and others the biggest human resource challenges facing organizations in the Middle East are learning and development, reinventing HR, culture and engagement and leadership. In fact, these same challenges are at the top of the list for organizations in all regions of the world. Organizations in the Middle East are challenged to keep up with the demand for a skilled workforce. As engagement of the workforce increases in importance, organizations need to reexamine their internal cultures in order to increase employee retention and commitment.

That’s why it’s so important to focus on developing exemplary leaders. Engagement scores are 25 to 50 percent higher among organizations with exemplary leaders. These workplaces also have higher performance than those with leaders who engage less frequently in exemplary leadership practices. And leadership has more of an impact on engagement than any other single variable. Therefore, the most significant contribution HR can make to improving and developing organizations in the Middle East, at least when it comes to increased engagement and employee performance, is to increase the frequency with which leaders demonstrate exemplary leadership practices.

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