I keep referring back to a great book as I discuss leadership with the many people who I work with to develop excellent leadership skills. The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner is the book, one of the finest ever written on the idea that anyone can learn to be a leader.
Many of us subscribe to the notion that leaders are born and not made. The reality is that truly anyone can become a great leader. The premise of this fantastic book is that virtually anyone can develop leadership skills and that there are a handful of very learnable skills that just about anyone can master to allow themselves to become an effective leader of teams and companies. Over the years, I have seen many good people who didn’t feel like “Born Leaders” work at learning these critical behaviors and actions and become strong and effective leaders.
So, what are these five practices that represent the fundamentals of leadership, according to Messieurs Kouzes and Posner? Listen up, and we’ll share them with you. When you have read through this article, you will have learned the five fundamentals that, when mastered, will ensure that you have earned the right to lead. Here they are:
- Model the Way:Great leaders learn that they cannot simply talk the talk if they want to gain credibility with their followers. They must also practice what they preach if they are to earn the right to lead the team. Leaders become leaders by being the one who is unwavering in their willingness to GO FIRST! The best leaders don’t hog the spotlight or take all the credit. They bring out the best in others, by giving their power to others, determining which tasks are critical, and who should be assigned to accomplish them. Perhaps most important is providing support to your team so that others on the team can become heroes and bask in the spotlight. It all starts up front, of course, with the leader demonstrating that they are willing to do the difficult work first. When leaders show the way to live and to behave in driving business results, in ways that are consistent with the team’s shared values, it provides a roadmap to ambitious results.
- Inspire a Shared Vision:The second imperative for a leader is to engage in a dialogue with their followers to understand where they want to go, where they need to go, where they dare not go on their own. Armed with the knowledge of what the team is capable of with the benefit of their leadership, the leader inspires the team to see their vision for what is possible in the future. The leader must inspire the vision and spark the passion in the team to pursue a future that may appear impractical or impossible to them at that moment. The leader understands that the vision of the future IS possible, but only with risk and devotion to the effort to make it happen. Great leaders recognize that immediately after the vision of the future is seen, the followers will occasionally attempt to justify all the reasons why the current status quo is preferred. Great leaders extinguish the flames of resistance and refocus the organization on that vibrant future that will empower the team in a noble effort to make it a reality. Exemplary leaders enlist others to join in the journey by appealing to shared aspirations!
- Challenge the Process:If you want to lead, you will have to get comfortable with the notion that standing still is inherently bad for teams, departments, and organizations. When we’re not moving forward, there is always someone or something gaining on us. Life is about forward motion, and growth, is it not? Therefore, leaders must challenge the current state and the processes that are entrenched and beginning to constrain the growth and forward progress of their teams and organizations. Unless we are challenging our cohorts to innovate, influence and improve, we cannot change for the better. Unless we are moving forward and risking our current situation, we cannot arrive at a better circumstance. Great leaders are always looking for new and improved, faster, better, simpler and more valuable. Great leaders challenge their followers to become uncomfortable with the familiar and to boldly go in the direction of an exciting new future. Embrace the adventure and lead the team on a journey.
- Enable Others to Act:The best leaders understand intuitively that they cannot do it all on their own. They become a leader who possesses influence. You must have followers, enthusiastic followers! The path to engaged followers is for the leader to realize that they must encourage, challenge, and inspire their teammates so that they embrace the shared vision in a way that makes the vision palpable. It’s only by working together that we get the most significant accomplishments done, and the great leader understands that each member of the team must contribute. The team must join together and challenge one another to raise the level of their game by collaboration and mutual addition, where the best ideas are developed further together. In doing this, the leader helps the team to attain a level of performance beyond what could be imagined separately by enabling the team to stack the best ideas on top of one another and build a stairway to the vision.
- Encourage the Heart: Ambitious results are neither easy nor are they immediate. Along the way, the team will occasionally become exhausted, distracted, or frustrated with their toil. Great leaders anticipate the need to bolster the team’s confidence and to be the wind in their sails when they need it most. One of the most important aspects of success in business is being able to stay in the fight long enough to prevail, by persevering through any challenge, no matter how difficult, no matter how severe. When a great leader shows her appreciation for the excellent efforts of the team and encourages them to continue the struggle because she can feel that the victory is at hand, the team will rally and renew their vigor in pursuing the goal. By creating a community of teammates who are all committed to the vision, the leader ensures that the team can celebrate victories as a team, whether the victory is a team victory or an individual victory. Leaders have to let the team know that they’re with them, and that what they’re doing matters, and that it WILL lead to victory if they persist to the end.
By engaging in the important work of giving up control and trusting that the team can find a path to the win, leaders start the team along the path to victory. Ambitious results are not delivered easily, or quickly, and the best leaders recognize that the sweetest rewards are those that required the greatest effort and sacrifice. Leaders are made, not born, and as they work at the process of becoming an exemplary leader, they touch many lives and create positive impacts everywhere they go. Any ordinary person can follow the model documented by Kouzes and Posner to become leaders who wield extraordinary influence as they lead their organizations to outsized results.
Since leaders are made, not born, any one of us can become a great leader. Now that you know you can lead, will you answer the call? The world needs better leaders. Will you step forward and enter the fray? Will you answer the call?
Michael is an Executive Business Coach and an award-winning member of the Professional Business Coaches Alliance. He works closely with small and medium-sized businesses and their owners and leadership teams to help them deliver ambitious results.
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