After listening to the State of the Union address last month about what it will take for us to “Win the Future,” it made me think about how we’re going to need great leaders and more of them to make that happen. Seems to me we should be teaching leadership fundamentals, (e.g., The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner) to more people at an earlier age. Similar to learning a foreign language, the earlier we start, the more likely we are to be fluent.
With that in mind, I reached out to Jim Kouzes who, along with Barry Posner, authored The Leadership Challenge, and more recently, The Truth About Leadership and posed five questions to him on the subject of investing in leadership and a program/book called The Student Leadership Challenge. Jim demonstrated that his expertise on the subject of leadership is exceeded only by his generosity. He enthusiastically agreed to share his thoughts with us, which I will present in two parts. Part 2 will run next Sunday.
LB: President Obama talks of “winning the future” through innovation and reinvesting in our infrastructure. Seems we should also, even more fundamentally, be investing in developing the next generation of leaders. What role do you see leadership development playing in our nation’s quest to win the future?
JK: We know from our research into personal best leadership behaviors that those leaders who engage more frequently in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are significantly more effective than leaders who engage less frequently in these practices. It’s also a fact that leadership accounts for more of an organization’s effectiveness than talent or any other demographic variable. You can have the most talented team in the world, but if you have poor leaders you’ll get poor performance.
Our research makes it clear that investing in leadership development will absolutely improve the performance of organizations and the engagement of employees in their work. And these findings are true not only in the United States, but around the world in all types of organizations. Leadership development is a very powerful means of increasing our competitiveness and our sense of well being at work.
There’s another vitally important outcome from investing in leadership development. Research indicates that not only are skills greater in organizations where people feel someone cares about their development, but their confidence in the economy is greater. That’s a very significant and profound discovery. Paying attention to the development of people inside the organization can actually influence their attitudes about the larger economy. Now that’s the kind of stimulus program we could all use.
LB: In 1960, about 20% of jobs in the U.S. required skilled labor. Today, it’s 65%. Many employers are finding it hard to find qualified talent. Do you have evidence that there’s a shortage of leaders who can meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world as well?
JK: Actually people today are more likely to have participated in leadership development programs and been active in leadership roles than people were when the Boomer generation joined the workforce. In fact, most college campuses have very active youth leadership development and service leadership programs. Because of this, young people today are better prepared than their parents were to assume leadership roles in organizations. They are also more skilled in the use of the new social media technologies that are changing the nature of organizations. These tools have the potential to make organizations more open, more collaborative, more innovative, and more adaptable than ever before.
What does concern me is that the current economic crisis has postponed the inevitable transition from older to younger leaders. By necessity, older managers are staying in their jobs longer, and not necessarily investing in their own learning. It’s discouraging for the emerging leaders, who tend to be more impatient anyway, to see their progress slowed.
LB: What steps can we as a society take to develop the quality and quantity of leaders required to help us win the future?
JK: The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners. Exemplary leaders are constant improvement fanatics, and learning is the master skill of leadership. Those leaders who engage more in learning, regardless of their style of learning, are more effective at leading regardless of their years of experience.
But here’s the rub. While leadership can be learned, not everyone learns it, and not all those who learn leadership master it. Why? Because to master leadership you have to have a strong desire to excel, you have to believe strongly that you can learn new skills and abilities, and you have to be willing to devote yourself to continuous learning and deliberate practice. No matter how good you are you can always get better.
What we tell leaders at all levels is the leadership development is self-development. And while it’s vital that we have national and organizational policies and programs that encourage and facilitate learning to lead, in the end each individual leader must take personal responsibility for their own development. You have to be personally willing to invest the time and the effort that it takes to be great. And that’s a personal decision.
Just to give you a sense of how to calibrate this, listen to what Glenn Michibata, head coach of Men’s Tennis at Princeton University, said when I asked him how much time his players practiced every day. “I tell them they need to practice two hours every day if they want to stay the same,” he responded, “more if they want to get better.” On another occasion I had the opportunity to pose that question to Lang Lang, the young Chinese piano virtuoso and music world phenomenon. He told me that for the first 15 years — he started playing the piano at age two-and-a-half years old — he practiced for eight hours a day. Now, as a professional, he practices three hours a day, every day.
Lang’s and Glenn’s responses illustrate what researchers’ document. You won’t find a fast track to excellence. There’s no such thing as instant expertise. There’s no shortcut to greatness in leadership or anything else. Those who are the very best got to be that way because they spent more time learning and practicing, not less time learning.
In Part 2, Jim Kouzes will tell us about The Student Leadership Challenge. For now, please share your thoughts and pose questions you may want to ask!