Monday, January 10, 2011

The Leadership Challenge

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership: what makes a good leader, how are leaders trained, and so on. And in considering this, I have come across what appears to be one of the leading, if you will, texts on this subject, The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner (1). Their text has been a best seller and it proposes 10 commitments to leadership that good leaders follow. These comprise the main part of the book, and they discuss each commitment and offer tactics to help you learn and assignments to help you understand them. But these 10 commitments are built around 5 practices which Kouzes and Posner feel are essential for good leadership. I thought I would briefly note each one.

Model the Way: We can easily translate into vernacular: walk the walk and talk the talk. It is your behavior which earns you respect. We need to act in a way we would like to see others act. The authors note that to effectively model behavior, you have to be clear about guiding principles, and you must clarify values. Leaders do not speak for themselves; they speak for their organization and for its values. But words only go so far; deeds matter even more. What you do is important; I can’t ask you to write papers, for example, if I do not do so myself.

Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders have a vision of what can be, not just what is, and they believe in what they see and what they think can happen. They are confident they help people get there, and they see opportunity and possibility. Some of us do this every day; we see where we want our students to be, and we help them get there; we see their future. We need to enlist others in common vision, speaking in a common language, and have others’ interests at heart. We excite others, and they then will follow us as we go forward.

Challenge the Process: we all face challenges. Perhaps it is declining enrollment; perhaps it is challenges from a competitor, or something else. We cannot keep everything the same forever; we need to change, and we need to look at what we do in order to change. Leaders venture out, says Kouzes and Posner. They do not wait for fate to smile on them, but they actively work to address challenge; they search for opportunity to innovate and grow. Our students, for example, come to this college with excellent skills in using technology; we need to answer that new challenge by learning how we can yoke the technology to better educate them. No longer can we simply stand still. Leaders create ac climate where we can feel free to try innovation, and where we can even feel safe if we fail. Leaders understand risk but accept it.

Enable Others to Act: In order to get things done, we have to act, and our leaders allow us to do so. No, they encourage us to do so. And to do so, leaders foster collaboration and help build trust. Teamwork results and we all engage. We are empowered. You will hear leaders not use “I” very much, but you will hear them use “we.”

Encourage the Heart: We are all in this together and we have all been at this a long time. I have spent, for example, 31 years in academic chiropractic, and it is always possible we can become exhausted or disenchanted (I have not, let me be clear!). Leaders encourage the heart, they care about those who work with them, and they help draw people forward. A simple note of thanks can do wonders to the person thanked. Recognizing the contributions people make is important, and celebrating them collectively is critical.

In the end, leadership is a relationship that can be developed. We are leaders in the classroom, in our professional lives, and in many other ways. There are skills we can use to become better at this, if we but take the time to do so.

1. Kouzes JM, Posner BZ. The leadership challenge, 4th edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 2007

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