JULY 21, 2014

Interview with Leadership Author James Kouzes

Interview with Leadership Author James Kouzes

Written by Dr. Arron Grow

Anyone who has ever had a leadership-related class from me has likely heard me discuss James Kouzes and Berry Posner’s Five Practices Model which they discuss in their book, The Leadership Challenge.  Now in its 5th edition, this work and its authors have played an important role in Leadership education for over three decades.

In the past I have had opportunities to hear these gentlemen speak. At the Association of Leadership Educators 2014 conference, held this week in San Antonio, I had the opportunity to speak personally with Mr. Kouzes.  At one point in our conversation I was about to ask a leadership-related question. My timing wasn’t so good because it was at this moment, that our conversation had to come to an end – or so I thought. ‘Jim” (his insistence) was scheduled to do a conference session in the room where he and I were conversing.

It was time for this session to start. He greeted everyone and then asked the group this question. “Before we get started with the formal presentation, does anyone have any leadership-related questions, they’d like to ask?” He then looked my way and smiled. At this point, our one on one conversation was to continue as a public one; one which I will share with you too.

Here is a paraphrase of how the first part of the conversation went.

Dr. Arron Grow (AG): With all of the research and teaching you have done about leadership, what leadership trait seems to be the most difficult for people to internalize and carry out?

James Kouzes (JK): In my experience, the one characteristic that is most difficult for people to put into practice is the understanding that they do not need to be in a position of formal authority to be a leader.

AG: Why do you think this is such a difficult trait for people?

JK: For decades, we’ve had many in leadership positions who learned how to lead through their military experience. In the civilian world, those who came up through the ranks under this type of leadership learned mainly to follow; waiting for orders, then do what was asked, and not much else. Even though those who fostered these tendencies have since retired, this habit of leaving initiative to others continues.

Grow and Kouzes CroppedConversation in the room continued on this topic for a time. Here are the essential takeaways.

Being a leader despite a lack of formal authority can be looked at from two perspectives – from the perspective of those in leadership positions, and from the perspective of those who are not. For those in leadership positions, it’s important to foster a safe work environment – one where it is okay for team members to have new ideas and to have the freedom to implement them.

When leaders allow team members to move ahead on ideas even if those they didn’t think of themselves, they will find higher moral among team members and greater productivity too. For those who are not in positions of formal leadership, they need to see themselves as leaders despite the lack of a traditional leadership title.

Those who see a need and fill it, regardless of situation, are leaders. Those who see a need in a social, civic, or service organization and martial people together to feel this need are being a leader.

Those who see a need in any of these same situations and again, bring people together to fill this need are being leaders. This is the very definition of leadership – bringing people together to get things done.Title, or no title, this is leadership.

So there you have it – the most challenging trait for leaders to internalize and ideas for overcoming this challenge.   I wish you all the best in your efforts to be successful in this important area. Dr. Arron Grow is an associate program director and associate faculty member at City University of Seattle’s School of Applied Leadership.


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