2005 Volume 8 Issue 2

Conversation with author and leadership scholar James M. Kouzes

Conversation with author and leadership scholar James M. Kouzes

The Practical Nuances of Leadership

James (Jim) Kouzes is a highly regarded leadership scholar and an experienced executive. The Wall Street Journal has cited Kouzes as one of the twelve most requested “non-university executive-education providers” to U.S. companies.

Kouzes is co-author with Barry Posner of the award winning book, The Leadership Challenge (over one million copies sold) and is an executive fellow in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Kouzes and Posner have coauthored over a dozen other books and instruments on leadership, including Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It; Encouraging the Heart; The Leadership Challenge Workbook, and The Leadership Practices Inventory.

Dr. Ariff Kachra spoke with Jim Kouzes on GBR’s behalf about the nuances of the leadership challenge faced by most executives and middle managers. Kouzes shares his insights on aspects of leadership that were once considered unconventional, but today are hot topics in the field, such as faith-based leadership, leadership in a diverse and multi-ethnic environment, global leadership, the leadership deficit in corporate America, and ethics.

James Kouzes

What do senior managers look for in their mid-career people? What are the qualities they are looking for as they consider who to promote into leadership positions?

Managers want to promote those individuals who can get results. We hear a lot about “execution” these days, and successful execution requires looking for people who have the capacity to get results through others. That means the people who are most likely to be successful after they get promoted to managerial roles are people who work well with others. Whatever label we put on it—emotional intelligence or human relations—the ability to work well with others and to inspire others to do their best work are critical for success.

A critical part of working well with others, especially in today’s very diverse workforce and diverse market place, is the ability to work with people who are different from us. My sense of diversity is not limited to traditional definitions rooted in race or gender. Instead, I see a more multicultural form of diversity.

Today’s managers have increasingly pluralistic backgrounds. It is not odd to find managers who say, “I’m an Indonesian with a German passport working for a Mexican company in the Czech Republic.” Just imagine what skills that person needs in order to be able to function effectively in her environment. She needs to understand culture. She needs to be able to deal with prejudices that people might have. She needs to have a strong handle on the challenges associated with working in a multi-ethnic environment.

Finally, she also needs to be an expert in global relations. Think about all the challenges and demands for a Mexican owner of a plant in the Czech Republic. This mosaic of cultures is a realistic description of the world in which we are raising our young people, and it comes with a multiplicity of opinions and perspectives. These trends will shape the future global economy, and we need to ensure that our future executives are prepared.

Mid-career managers also need to be competent. They need to be well versed in terms of functional knowledge, technical knowledge and project management skills. However, if I’m going to promote you into a more senior management position than you currently hold, your competence is necessary, but insufficient. I want to make sure that other people will be willing to follow you. Unfortunately, management education doesn’t place enough emphasis on leadership skills.

The third essential leadership skill is being forward-looking. In our research for our book, The Leadership Challenge, we found that being forward-looking was the quality that differentiated leaders from other credible people. After having surveyed thousands of executives at the senior level, we have found that being forward-looking is rated among the top four qualities executives look for in a leader. Over 80 percent of senior executives say this is a necessary ability for people to be willing to follow someone.

As one reads The Leadership Challenge, it becomes clear that an important part of leadership is the ability to bring yourself to the job. This requires taking some time for introspection. After all, if you are going to get people to follow you, you have to be comfortable with who you are. I was born in Tanzania and although I have lived most of my life in Canada, I am Indian. I currently live in the U.S., and I am a Muslim who works at a Christian university. I practice my multi-ethnicity in a variety of ways, and my faith underpins all aspects of my life. I bring this palette to my job. How does a manager leverage all of these things to be a good leader?

This is an interesting challenge on which I gained a great deal of insight when Barry Posner and I wrote our book called Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge. I grew up a Christian, but lived for two years in a Muslim country while serving in the Peace Corps. My co-author Barry Posner is Jewish. When we started to write Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, I asked Barry how he felt about being Jewish and writing this book on Christian Reflections? He said, “You know Jim, my wife is the daughter of a former Christian minister, and I am the dean of a business school in a Jesuit (Catholic) university [Barry Posner is dean, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University], so I guess if I had problems with this, I should divorce my wife and quit my job.” We had a good laugh about it; he was obviously comfortable. I, too, was comfortable to be able to write something that would be for a particular audience knowing that one of us was not from that particular background. We learned that the process individuals go through to integrate diversity strengthens our social fabric.

Nevertheless, this is not readily apparent to everyone. A few weeks ago, I received a call from a prospective business client about doing some work with their managers on leadership. After doing some background research on my publication history, they realized that I was the co-author of Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge. They became very concerned and asked me if the message I was preparing for their managers was going to be a “Christian message”? It was understandable to me that in a diverse work population they did not want someone to preach. I relayed the story about Barry’s background and my own background, and I said, “You know what? We did not write this book to proselytize a particular religious doctrine. This book is written in a much more inclusive style for a group of readers who want to examine how the messages of The Leadership Challenge may apply to them.

I learned even more about this issue on a recent trip to China. I was in Beijing having dinner with two of my friends, one Japanese and the other Chinese. My Japanese friend, who was in China doing some teaching on quality, turned to my Chinese friend and said, “One of the things I find curious is how so many Chinese people can espouse communist ideals and yet live amidst the growing capitalism going on around them. You are a successful entrepreneur, you look outside your window and every day you see new buildings, new global companies entering China. You see and experience capitalism firsthand. You also recall what China was like under the Red Guard, so how do you reconcile the conflicts of these divergent ideals?” My young Chinese entrepreneur friend simply responded, “I’m just very practical.”

These three stories carry a few powerful messages: (1) diversity is a reality; (2) integration and inclusion don’t come easy; (3) practicality and pragmatism go a long way in creating the organization that can support diversity and leverage its strengths. In today’s global economy, organizations have to realize that 80 percent of their people have strong spiritual, faith-based values, often grounded in different faith traditions. When an organization sends a message to its employees that “We don’t value certain kinds of people—we don’t value people who are Muslim, or Jewish or Christian, or we don’t value spirituality and/or the practice of faith in our workplace, or that employees should keep their faith out of the workplace”—employees begin to feel uncomfortable and leave the organization.

All of our data tell us that whether managers or individual contributors, we will be more committed if we see that there is a fit between the organization and “me.” As a result, managers must create an organizational context that respects all forms of diversity—allowing people to be themselves while identifying unifying principles and unifying goals that can be shared by everyone in pursuit of results.

Given all this talk of diversity, do you think leadership transcends national cultures?

Our data suggest that some leadership practices are universal. When we compared results of the Leadership Practices Inventory from respondents from Singapore, China, Malaysia, India, Australia, England, Germany, Sweden, and many other countries, there was not a statistically significant difference between their scores and the scores in America. When I asked people to select seven of the twenty characteristics of an admired leader on a checklist we use, the top four characteristics identified by managers in Singapore were the top four identified by managers in America. Their rank ordering was different, but they were the same top four. There are a few qualities that individuals across the world look for in their leaders, honesty being the most important, followed by being forward-looking—these two are universal. The other two that make the top of the list are competent and inspiring. What this adds up to, from a research perspective, is credibility plus vision. If you want to be a leader, at a minimum you must be credible, and you must be able to enlist others in a shared vision of the future.

Some of my most valuable learning opportunities as a manager have come from time I have spent in other countries. Occasionally this learning has occurred by interacting with managers from different companies abroad. However, to my great surprise, much of this learning has come from experience completely unrelated to business. Do you think that diversity in experience contributes to strengthening leadership skills?

I was reading an article about Fred Smith from FedEx, who was selected by CEO Magazine as CEO of the Year in 2004. Fred Smith says that his best ideas come from different places. He looks to retail stores, technology, and even just plain reading. I think the best executives are eclectic in their interests. They are not narrowly focused. They look beyond what is occurring in their own industries.

In The Leadership Challenge® Workshop when we explore the practice of “Challenging the Process,” we give a short quiz asking individuals to guess the origins of some everyday inventions. For example, we ask them where the inspiration for Velcro came from. George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who returned from a walk one day in 1948, found some cockleburs clinging to his cloth jacket. He got curious about why the cocklebur was caught on his clothes, and he looked at it under a microscope. Thus began a multi-year journey to develop Velcro. Innovation can come from anywhere, and it is often an accident. As a leader, you have to be open to all kinds of things going on around you. You have to be eclectic as ideas often come from very strange places.

Eclecticism is an important characteristic for a leader, as leadership is an integrative discipline. Leadership draws on philosophy because much of what leaders do has to do with belief systems such as capitalism versus communism. Leadership draws on history, as good leaders take the time to appreciate the successes and failures of those who have gone before them. Leadership draws on anthropology—as leaders are constantly faced with the challenge of maneuvering through cultures, artifacts, norms and traditions. Leadership also draws on individual psychology and social psychology, as good leaders understand group processes and their role in the evolution of the larger society. Leaders are broad thinkers.

From your description of a leader as a broad thinker, it seems to me that these individuals are likely in short supply.

You are right! We are underperforming when it comes to training leaders. Executive Development Associates, Inc., a San Francisco-based training and development company, reported in “Executive Development Trends 2004,” a longitudinal study of the critical issues in executive development that it’s been doing for the past 21 years, that the number one issue in Global 500 companies is “building executive bench strength.” The reality is that we do not have enough people in the pipeline to move into executive leadership positions, especially in large companies. We are seeing the baby boomers move out of the executive suite, and we simply do not have enough people in the pipeline to take over all those positions. There is a pervasive scrambling to prepare people to perform in executive leadership roles. The results are numerous examples of underperformance and a ground swell of opinion that we need to do more to develop good leaders. There is no shortage of leadership challenges—there is, however, a shortage of good leaders.

Think about the problem along two dimensions—skill and challenge. Ideally, leaders will flourish when their skill set supports them in the challenges they face. If you put people with a lot of skill in a marginally challenging position, they are likely to be bored. When you put that same person in a situation where the challenge is significantly greater than their competence, they are likely to feel frustrated and anxious. However, when challenge and skill converge, managers are likely to do their best work. The conundrum we face is that although the practice of leadership is becoming increasingly more challenging, leadership skills are not improving at the same pace. Corporations and individuals need to invest in leadership development.

Many would argue that this weakness in leadership bench strength is not a new problem; it has plagued corporate America for decades. The results of important leadership deficits are now becoming painfully clear in the toxic outcomes of companies such as Enron and WorldCom. As new developments are covered by the media on a daily basis, what seems to be lost is the idea that for some reason the executives involved went bad—they sacrificed their role as leaders. What can we learn from these situations?

Let’s face it. Let’s tell ourselves the truth. It’s not about what corporations espouse. It’s about how they behave. Enron had “honest” on its list of corporate values. Big deal. What did the behavior tell us it stood for? What is it about the culture of Enron or WorldCom that encouraged good people to go bad? We must answer this fundamental question if we are going to learn how to strengthen the bench in leadership for the long term.

The responsibility of compromised ethics absolutely falls on the shoulders of the people in leadership positions. Most senior leaders who look at the ethical scandals of the day would say exactly the same thing. When you treat the company’s funds as your own personal bank account, you violate a sacred trust. This is not your money, and you are to treat it as other people’s money, i.e. with respect and care. You are entrusted; you have a duty, and it is an honorable one. You must make sure that you look at this money as a sacred trust and that other people look at it in the same way.

Behavioral integrity among leaders is the missing link in the present day ethical scandals in business. Therefore, the real question is, “What is happening in organizations making it okay for executives to forgo behavioral integrity?” Fundamentally, it is a cultural issue.

In our society, we make icons out of very rich people; we make wealth, in this culture, an ultimate objective. At least on television, it is acceptable to behave unethically—to be sneaky, to lie, to betray your friends and to be conniving—as long as you are the “apprentice” who gets the great paying job or the “survivor” who wins a million dollars. Now, I truly believe that most people look at these shows as entertainment more than they do as potential models of behavior. However, there is a subtle message being sent that is becoming increasingly pervasive in our society, i.e., it’s okay to compromise ethics if it will make you rich.

As an executive, I may not understand that every time I make a decision, I am sending a strong signal. Nevertheless, I am. It is our responsibility as senior management to be involved and to be accountable.

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Author of the article
Ariff Kachra, PhD
Ariff Kachra, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School. Dr. Kachra is an active researcher in the areas of knowledge management, managerial decision making, improvisation, and ethics in strategic management. He has several years of management consulting and senior management experience in Canada and abroad. Dr. Kachra is also an active consultant, trainer and executive coach working with a number of medium-sized and large companies in California.
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