Every organization wants extraordinary results. That’s what The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations promises. Built on decades of research, the book lays out a framework for what James Kouzes and Barry Posner found.
The Need for Challenge
It’s hard to explain how to do something if you aren’t able to articulate what that thing is. While they don’t go to the detail and rigor of either Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century or Burns in Leadership, they provide a working definition and elevate the need for challenge. Leadership is shown during challenge.
In Antifragile, Taleb makes the point clear. It’s challenge that allows us to grow stronger. We exercise muscles to break them down only to be rebuilt stronger. Leadership has a similar quality in that leaders are led through a set of challenges that increases their capacity – without breaking them.
Of course, challenge itself isn’t a single dimension; it is often an environment of challenge that surfaces from our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more on VUCA.)
Much like The Leadership Machine, Kouzes and Posner believe that leadership is a quantifiable set of skills that can be taught. However, the model that they propose is substantially simpler, consisting of five principles, each with two skills. The principles and the associated skills are:
- Model the Way
- Inspire a Shared Vision (See John Kotter’s Leading Change and The Heart of Change for more about shared vision.)
- Challenge the Process
- Enable Others to Act
- Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships. (See Trust & Betrayal and Building Trust for trust. For collaboration, see Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence and Hansen’s Collaboration.)
- Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence. (See Why We Do What We Do and Healing Developmental Trauma.)
- Encourage the Heart
- Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence. (See 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money, and 42 Rules of Employee Engagement for more.)
- Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community. (See Digital Habitats and The Art of Community for more.)
Similarly the authors believe there are a set of characteristics that cause people to recognize people as leaders. They are:
In addition, the authors believe in two laws:
- If you don’t believe the messenger, you won’t believe the message.
- Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD)
The Power of Story
It’s true that there’s power in stories. The stories that you identify with can motivate and inspire. (See Story Genius, Wired for Story, and Building a StoryBrand for examples.) There’s an immense amount of power in making the people inside the organization the heroes of the stories that you tell, as Joseph Campbell discovered. (See The Power of Myth.)
Despite the power of story, The Leadership Challenge failed to land on compelling stories for me. They seemed dated, obscure, or glib. While they propose that leaders should lead with stories, theirs, for me at least, fell flat.
As a big-picture framework for thinking about leadership, The Leadership Challenge is valuable. It paints with big, broad strokes that allow someone to get an overall sense of what they might want to see in the leaders in their organization. However, the challenge is there’s not enough in the book to really implement any kind of real change without drawing from other sources. You may have noticed numerous references while laying out the frameworks used by the book – they’re there because the concepts are solid, but the coverage in the book isn’t sufficient to understand or implement them. Ultimately, it’s a good start if you’re looking to join The Leadership Challenge.