Uncovering your inner leader

Jim Kouzes, the author of best-selling The Leadership Challenge, says anyone can be a leader, they just need to believe they can be.
Jim Kouzes was inspired when John Kennedy said: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Antonie Robertson / The National
Jim Kouzes was inspired when John Kennedy said: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Antonie Robertson / The National

Can a person learn to become an inspirational leader, or is it an innate trait that they’re born with?

According to the American author and executive educator Jim Kouzes, 69, leadership can be learnt, and he has spent the past 44 years helping others to unleash their leader within.

Mr Kouzes is the co-author, along with Barry Posner, of the influential book The Leadership Challenge, which uses case studies to examine the five practices they say you need to follow to be an exemplary leader. Now in its fifth edition, the book has sold more than 2 million copies and is available in 22 languages.

Mr Kouzes was in Dubai this month to deliver a seminar, sponsored by Right Selection and John Wiley & Sons, to a group of local executives on how to be exemplary leaders.

“People have much more potential than they think they have, but many individuals hold on to a belief that they can’t because they’ve accepted the argument that, ‘well, I’m not a natural-born leader, so I can’t learn this stuff’,” says Mr Kouzes. “The evidence-based research we’ve done proves that you can. But you need to have the belief.”

Mr Kouzes and Mr Posner came up with the five practices by interviewing a variety of leaders across a range of organisations to find out when they feel they are at their personal best.

Despite differences in culture, gender, age and other variables, the “personal best” stories revealed similar patterns of behaviour.

“We discovered five core practices common to all: they model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart.”

From that grew an assessment tool Mr Kouzes refers to as “the Leadership Practices Inventory” (LPI), a questionnaire used to conduct research involving more than five million respondents. It contains 30 behavioural statements – six for each of the five practices. Leaders rate themselves on the frequency with which they believe they engage in each of the 30 behaviours, and up to ten other people rate them too.

Mr Kouzes says, ideally, leadership training should happen at a young age. “98 per cent of employers said they would like to see leadership development on a candidate’s CV, and 95 per cent of employers would like it to start by age 21 or earlier,” he explains. “But the majority of employees don’t enrol in their first leadership training until they’re in their early forties, when they’ve often already been in supervisory positions for around 10 years. How can we expect them to perform at a high level if they’ve started their training so late in their careers? Would you accept that from a doctor or an airline pilot?”

Mr Kouzes was himself inspired to think about leadership at the age of 15 when he was chosen to be one of a dozen Eagle Scouts to serve in the honour guard at the US president John F Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

Mr Kouzes went on to serve two years in the Peace Corps, teaching at a school in Turkey. He then worked for the United States war on poverty programme, helping provide services to the poor. An administrational job at the executive development centre of Santa Clara University in California brought him into contact with Mr Posner in 1981.

Since they wrote their defining book in 1987, Mr Kouzes says their LPI assessment tool has been used in more than 72 countries by more than 5 million people. He cites Apple, Oracle and the global defence company Northrop Grumman among the companies that have adopted The Leadership Challenge’s model in their training. And he says the Ajman Tourism Department is a client.

“Their general manager of tourism did something really fascinating,” says Mr Kouzes. “He created a vision wall on which he put pictures of all the employees in his organisation, and they each wrote their own vision. So that was a way for them to see how their visions and aspirations could also be fulfilled, by enlisting them in a common vision.”

Mr Kouzes says a common misconception is that because someone occupies a managerial position, it makes them a leader.

“Giving orders and leading are two very different things,” he says. “Anders Ericsson, the leading expert on expertise, has said that, ‘living in a cave won’t make you a geologist’.”


Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Published: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read